A Note from the Chair

CATEGORIES: December 2013

Dear WLC Friends and Family,

As the fall semester winds down, we look back upon a productive semester and are thankful for both the old and new relationships we have cultivated.  Since last month, several of you have written to let us know how you are doing and a few have even dropped by the department!  As always, we are thrilled to have contact with our current students and alumni, so I encourage all of you to keep sending your questions and comments.

Over the past few weeks, I have had the opportunity to meet with graduating seniors in French, German, and Spanish to inquire about their language study and career plans.  I ask them questions about their coursework and professors, study abroad and internships, and their long-term plans.  As a general rule, students report that they feel appreciated in World Languages and Cultures, that they have enjoyed their classes tremendously and, perhaps most importantly, they generally say they have acquired valuable skills and enjoyed memorable times while studying in WLC.  We could not be more thrilled.

One of the more interesting questions we ask our graduating seniors is “What advice would you give to an incoming freshman?”  Hands down, students recommend a study abroad experience.  Or, as one student put it, “No ifs, ands, or buts, they need to study abroad…I don’t think anyone should go through school without [studying abroad].”

These days, trade magazines and news reports everywhere proclaim the need for international experience. Last month’s newsletter highlighted a few of these, and in future publications we will continue to inform you about the significance and prominence of international study.

Within an increasingly competitive global economy there is—and will naturally continue to be—an increasing need to attain proficiency in languages other than English and to gain competence in intercultural issues related to commerce, politics, and society. Study abroad programs, especially those with substantive language and cross-cultural training components, can be excellent tools to address these concerns. In general, the main objective of language proficiency-based programs is the immersion in a foreign culture that yields enhanced language skills and greater cultural understanding.  Language proficiency is improved through coursework, planned activities and excursions, and, perhaps most significantly, interactions with native speakers (through living with a host family, exchanges with students at a foreign university, and daily experiences in a foreign culture).

WLC collaborates on study abroad programs across the globe in countries such as Argentina, Canada, China, Costa Rica, France, Germany, Morocco, Peru, Russia, Spain, and Switzerland, just to name a few.  We do this because there exists a growing body of evidence that supports the intuitive view that students make more significant gains in their foreign language proficiency and cultural knowledge when studying in a country where the target language is spoken. Research also demonstrates that students who study abroad are more culturally aware, have better interpersonal and critical thinking skills, and are more likely to use their language in a career if they have studied abroad as an undergraduate.  As global cultural literacy becomes increasingly more important, programs like those offered by WLC can vastly improve students’ understanding of world affairs while also helping them acquire greater self-confidence and a willingness to work abroad later.

It is in this context that I would like to tell you about a very popular department program, the ISU on the Mediterranean-Summer in Valencia, Spain program, which has become a model of sorts for other study abroad programs. ISU on the Mediterranean, founded in 2003, is a unique interdisciplinary study abroad experience that provides beginning through advanced Spanish coursework as well as courses in English in engineering, business, agriculture, history, psychology, and the biological sciences. For six-weeks students live with host families, participate in two weekend excursions to major historical and cultural sites, take classes, partake in experiential learning opportunities such as biological lab work or field work, or internships with local businesses or agencies. This distinctive approach yields what is arguably the largest language-based (and language department-sponsored) study abroad program in the United States. As many as 103 students participated in the program in 2011 and enrollment has averaged over 80 students each summer since the program’s inception.

But, does the ISU on the Mediterranean experience meet our objectives of making students better global citizens and more employable?  Data collected each summer from this unique program suggests it is indeed meeting the needs of students and their prospective employers. At the end of the program, we conduct an extensive online evaluation designed to provide an assessment of program quality and management, pre-departure orientations, homestays, excursions, academic coursework, and instructors.  Perhaps more importantly, the surveys also provide interesting information on students’ language proficiency, their abilities to overcome the challenges of living abroad, as well as improvement of their cross-cultural skills.

As the charts below indicate, as a result of studying abroad, students’ interest in and receptiveness to issues related to global cultural awareness increased and they believe that their own openness and adaptability clearly improved. (Of the 565 students participating in the program since 2007, 405 [or 71.68%] completed the survey):


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One of the more interesting effects of study abroad involves language proficiency.  17.6% of the respondents rated their language proficiency as either “good” or “excellent” at the beginning of the program. That number increased to 64.68% at end of the program:


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Although this proficiency level is self-assessed and is probably not accurate by today’s OPI or ACTFL testing standards, it still represents an amazing transformation: students plainly view their abilities in Spanish with a greater degree of confidence.  Such self-assuredness in speaking a second language will ultimately lead students to perform better in class, return on another study abroad program, be confident in discussing their connection to the host culture, or pursue work abroad later in their careers.

So, what are the “take-aways”? Well, statistics suggest that study abroad helps us meet many of the objectives we have set out for our students. Regarding their of time spent studying in a second culture, students state that:

  •  their knowledge of global issues and affairs has improved, thus indicating improvement in their overall global cultural literacy;
  • their confidence and perception of themselves has improved;
  • they perceive a positive change in their language proficiency—even those who study on the program with little or no Spanish as well as those who enrolled with no prior interest in Spanish.

I tell you about this program not only because the success of this particular international experience is notable but also because I believe that you would find similar results on other WLC study abroad programs. The power of study abroad, in our opinion, is matchless.

In news report after news report, employers claim to be seeking employees with these above-mentioned characteristics. Through study abroad and language and culture training, WLC is clearly making language students more competitive in the global workforce.


***Material presented here will appear in a different form in “Best Practices for Planning, Developing, and Sustaining Interdisciplinary Language-Based Study Abroad Programs.” Study Abroad: Traditions, Directions, and Innovations.  New York: Modern Language Association, 2014.