Study abroad numbers kick national trend

Study abroad programs across the nation have been hit hard by the current economic situation. St. Thomas has bucked that trend.

“The decline has been minimal,” said Ann Hubbard, the associate director of international education.

In 2008, 339 students studied in semester-long or year-long programs abroad. Hubbard said that number is down only five students this fall with the spring numbers on par with last year.

The national trend is one of steeper decline. The Forum on Education Abroad surveyed colleges and universities throughout the country – a survey in which St. Thomas participated – and found 58 percent of private institutions and 85 percent of public institutions responded that “the global economic crisis had negatively impacted their education abroad programs.”

This does not seem to be the case at St. Thomas.

“Five students is a very natural decline,” Hubbard said. She added that it fits right in the growth trend St. Thomas has experienced during the last 10 years.

But that doesn’t mean economics haven’t left their mark.

“Students who have canceled often cited financial reasons,” Hubbard said. “But that may be just because we’re more sensitive to them.”

J-Term deadline extension not a reflection on applications

Even though the numbers are up in student applications for J-Term study abroad, this year’s deadline to apply has still been extended from Oct. 2 to Oct. 13.

“We actually do this every year. We assess annually depending on which courses may have spaces to either informally extend the deadline to apply or formally like we did this time around until this Tuesday,” said Sarah Spencer, director of the international education’s short-term off-campus programs.

Despite the state of the economy, the total number of applicants rose from 540 to 555 out of a possible 639 spots available this J-Term.

“We weren’t sure what was going to happen,” Spencer said. “We definitely cited that a lot of our colleagues reported a decrease in numbers of study abroad so we weren’t sure. We were just really hoping to hold to where we were this past year knowing that if we were to decreased even by 10 percent, that would be the reality given the economy.”

With an increase in numbers, the International Education Center still looks to provide study abroad opportunities for students.

“We know that school started really late,” Spencer said. “We know that it’s hard for students to get rolling with the semester and make final decisions on what they are doing over J-Term, so we just want to be really supportive of the students and the faculty who are directing these programs.”

This growth is due, in part, to the J-Term program offered at St. Thomas.

“We have a really healthy program in that students often study abroad more than once,” Spencer said. “Many go for J-Term and then decide to go for a semester later.”

In the past 10 years, J-Term participation numbers have been more than double those in the semester or year-long programs, perhaps due to the perceived cost of the longer-term programs.

Junior Amber Bickel, who will be studying abroad for both J-Term and spring semesters of 2010, said studying abroad is a fleeting opportunity.

“I feel this is one of the only times that we have the opportunity to take a whole semester of our lives and go study somewhere other than the United States,” Bickel said. “As an only child I’m a special case. My parents want me to have these experiences, so they are making it happen.”

Plans for the future

Because of the growth of international studies at St. Thomas in the past few years and the introduction of the largest freshman class in school history, this year’s slight decline in fall participation is almost welcome, Hubbard said.

But that doesn’t mean the International Education Office isn’t wary.

“Who knows what a year from now will be like,” Hubbard said.

Pauleen Le contributed to this report.

Matt Wolfgram can be reached at