Like many students at the University of Oklahoma, Shannon English started the fall semester of 2006 with a full course load: linguistics, history, international relations and a foreign language. Unlike her fellow OU students, however, English didn't spend her down time tailgating. Instead, she caught an outdoor concert by Andrea Bocelli in St. Petersburg's Palace Square and saw Giselle at the Mariinsky Theater.
"I have always loved Russian history, so when I came to OU, I decided to study Russian. Once I had a few semesters under my belt, I decided that to really grasp the Russian language that I needed to study there," she said.
English, who is now an OU master's student studying global affairs, spent a semester of her junior year in St. Petersburg, Russia. She is one of a growing number of students who choose to add a summer, semester or full year abroad to their college career.
In the past 10 years, the number of U.S. students studying abroad has increased 150 percent, according to the Institute of International Education. The IIE, a nonprofit founded in 1919, is one of the world's largest international education organizations, and administers the prestigious Fulbright Program.
According to the IIE's annual Open Doors report, 241,791 students studied abroad during the 2006-2007 school year. For that same year, Oklahoma institutions sent 1,047 students abroad, although no Oklahoma college or university cracked the top 40 for number of doctorate, master's or bachelor's degree
Jack Hobson, director of OU Education Abroad, said OU is working to grow that participation rate, especially since the start of David L. Boren's tenure as president of the university.
"It has absolutely mushroomed into a wonderful state of opportunities," Hobson said.
OU Education Abroad administers a range of programs, which Hobson said appeals to a variety of students, whether they're looking for a language-immersion semester or a faculty-led summer program.
"The diversity of models allows the students to self-select: What fits them, their personality types, their academic backgrounds, what makes their families most comfortable," he said. "We've tried to offer the models to fit the students instead of making the students fit the models."
One such program is Journey to China, a multicity tour led by an OU professor for students who are not Chinese majors.
"It provides students who are not Chinese language majors or minors, who are not Asia studies majors, to have an experience in China, a place that is so critically important, but something that they might not be comfortable doing on their own," Hobson said.
That interest in China is gaining traction at universities across the U.S., according to the Open Doors report. Although the United Kingdom remains the top study abroad destination, programs to China had a 25-percent bump in participation from the 2005-2006 school year to the 2006-2007 year.
At OU, Hobson said the largest group of students goes to Italy and France, and Spanish-language destinations comprise the largest linguistic group.
Destiny Poole, now in her final year at OU, chose one of those Spanish-language destinations for her summer abroad in 2007. She studied in Chile at the Universidad de Viña del Mar and took two courses, both in Spanish.
Poole said she knew from the very beginning of her college career that she wanted to study abroad; the question was where to go.
"I knew that I wanted to have a unique experience, and for me, that meant not going to Europe," she said.
So, the summer before her junior year " which, according to the Open Doors report, is the most popular time to complete a study abroad program " Poole left for Chile. She lived with a host family, which she said really improved her time.
"They really were some of my best teachers," she said. "With them, my out-of-the-classroom experience really flourished. They took the time to take me around the country, invited me to spend time with them and their friends, and spoke with me in Spanish, though they actually knew English."
Like Poole, English also stayed with a host family, which she agreed was a great experience.
"My host family was amazing," English said. "Both the mother and daughter were so caring and helpful. My outside-the-classroom experience was incredible. I saw all the beautiful, historical places that I only read about in books or watched on The History Channel."
Experiencing the country and language firsthand led to some unforeseen events, too. English added Russian and Eastern European studies as a second major, and Poole changed her major altogether.
"Before studying abroad, I was a premed student, mostly to please my parents. However, when I returned to the U.S., I ended up changing my major and standing up to my parents. It wasn't easy telling them that I really wasn't interested in med school, but they understood and have supported me to the fullest."
She's now pursuing a dual degree in international and area studies and political studies, and would like to eventually join the foreign service.
The valuable experience of education abroad is something more grad schools and employers are recognizing, said Hobson.
"Not only does international education grow and develop and change the student in the sense that it allows them to see oneself from the outside "¦ it also translates very directly into life skills that equals job skills," he said.
And, he added, when else will there really be the time to devote to weeks, months or even a year abroad?
College, Hobson said, "is the time. Most people can attest that life gets really busy when you graduate. We also become really specialized into our fields, there are very few times in your life that you're exposed to the broad palette and openness for cross-pollination of ideas and experiences that college provides. It provides students this springboard to drop themselves into the petri dish for life."
Last year, the University of Oklahoma sent 654 students on study abroad programs, according to Jack Hobson, director of Education Abroad at OU.
The top five destinations were China, England, France, Spain and Italy. OU Education Abroad administers semester and year programs, in which the student mainstreams into a partner university, or short-term programs, which usually take place over the summer and are led by OU professors. Most participants are juniors and most choose a short-term program, Hobson said.
There are two OU majors that require time abroad: international area studies and international business. Education Abroad also works with different colleges within OU to develop major-specific programs, according to Hobson.
For a semester or year abroad, OU partners with 40 colleges in 24 countries, ranging from Brazil to Norway to Turkey, to offer English-language programs. Foreign language-speaking programs are available in 23 countries, like Jordan, Estonia or Costa Rica, conducted in Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, German, Japanese, Russian, Chinese and Arabic.
Short-term programs include culture-immersion trips to China, South America or Italy, and language-learning programs to study Arabic, French, German, Japanese, Portuguese and Spanish. Short-term at a partner university is also an option at one of nine universities across Europe or Korea."Jenny Coon Peterson