Study abroad program offers Webster education in Europe, Africa and Asia


By Lara Hamdan

Property at the Webster University Geneva campus in the 1980's.
Property at the Webster University Geneva campus in the 1980’s.

Webster University’s first study-abroad campus opened in the fall of 1978 in Geneva, Switzerland. But its original purpose was not as a study abroad location, instead it began as just an extended international campus site for Webster.

Former European Director Robert Spencer became directly involved in the Geneva campus October 1995. He served as the director there for 18 years.

“It’s almost as if a light bulb went off for Webster to realize that these (foreign) campuses were perfectly suitable locations for study abroad programs for our students here in St. Louis,” Spencer said.

Before 1978, Webster had already established campuses at U.S. military bases and local communities. These campuses provided education for soldiers, veterans and other working adults.

Geneva was Webster’s first international campus. Its main purpose was to provide an American-style education to English speaking students in the country.

“The aim was to serve in those local communities populations of English-speaking people who wanted access to American higher education,” Spencer said.


Finding a place to start

When Webster first looked into starting the Geneva campus, Spencer was a junior administrator at the Webster Groves campus. He was not directly involved in the opening of the Geneva campus, but he observed the process.

He said the senior administration vetted the potential international campus locations. The Board of Trustees at Webster had to agree to the business plan before the university could move forward with a campus overseas.

Robert Spencer was the director of Webster University's Geneva campus.
Robert Spencer was the director of Webster University’s Geneva campus.

Before they decided on Geneva, Webster considered a location in Athens, Greece. But due to the lack of political stability, Webster did not pursue a campus there. A military junta (a government whose power resides with the military) ruled Greece at the time. The administration and Board of Trustees were wary of setting up a campus in a country that was controlled by a military stratocracy.

Spencer said former Media Communications Adjunct Professor John Rider spent 1976  in and out of Geneva. He got to know the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (UN) William Scranton in Geneva.

In a casual conversation, Rider told Scranton how Webster provided graduate education to working adults at military bases and communities at times and places that were not normally available for higher education.

Scranton recommended Webster open a campus in Geneva because of the UN site, the multinational corporations and banks. He also mentioned how the 40,000 English-speaking people there lacked higher education because the University of Geneva only taught in French and during the daytime.

Rider came back and told then Webster University President Leigh Gerdine and Provost Joseph Kelly about the conversation. The desire for a global presence motivated the establishment of abroad campuses.

“We were definitely not campus bound at Webster Groves by ’78,” Spencer said. “We were strictly North American, but this was an opportunity that the senior administration and the Board decided to jump on, and was an almost instant success.”


Webster expands after first campus opens

The campus opened in 1978. The success of opening a foreign campus led to the consideration of other European campus opportunities. The Vienna, Austria campus opened in 1981, the Leiden, Holland campus opened in 1983 and the London, England campus opened in 1986.

More than 95 percent of Webster’s revenue comes from tuition. The tuition revenue generated by local students who attend those campuses also funded the European campuses. As the parent organization, the Webster Groves campus put in initial capitol to fund them.

There were a handful of students studying abroad. But Spencer said by the early and mid-‘80s, it became clear that study abroad was a feature Webster had to expand upon.

Alumna Lisa Grimm studied abroad at the Vienna campus in ’88. She graduated and left Vienna in ’93. She now serves on Webster’s Alumni Board of Directors. She chose to study at Webster because of the study abroad program and its location in Vienna. Grimm spent only one semester at the Webster Groves home campus. She graduated and left Vienna in ’93.

“The whole reason that I chose Webster was to go to Vienna,” Grimm said. “I was actually a little disappointed that I had to stay here (at the Webster Groves campus) a whole semester because that’s just not what I wanted to do.”


Expanding beyond Europe

Webster University Director of Study Abroad Guillermo Rodriguez estimates currently one out of four Webster students study abroad.

“One of Webster’s goals is to expand and to provide high quality, English-speaking higher education in countries in need,” Rodriguez said.

The European campuses’ success led to campuses outside of Europe.

In the late ‘90s, a few Thai citizens asked Webster to consider bringing an American-style education to Thailand.

“They approached Webster, and Webster decided to go about it,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez said the Sisters of Loretto motto, “Providing education to those in need,” helped motivate Webster to open a campus in Ghana. Rodriguez said there were talks about opening a campus in South Africa, but they fell through.

Rodriguez said developers in Ghana were interested in bringing an international higher education to Ghana and worked with Webster to make it happen. An Egyptian company, Wadi Degla Holding Company, developed the campus infrastructure. The campus opened in the fall semester of the 2013 academic school year.

Today, Webster has seven global campus sites, including the Webster Groves home campus. Students studying at Webster’s foreign campuses also get the opportunity to study abroad in the U.S. The study abroad program offers incentives to students, such as a free round trip ticket and easy transfers between the campuses, to help encourage study abroad participation.


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