Alumni Alex Holzman’s mother insisted he study abroad at Webster’s Thailand campus when she discovered it would cost the same amount as attending the Webster Groves campus.
“She said, ‘you’re going.’ Of my four year experience at Webster, [studying abroad] was the one thing that was most worthwhile,” Holzman said. “Not a day goes by that I don’t wish I could go back to Thailand.”
Webster hopes many more of its students follow in Holzman’s footsteps. By 2020, Webster plans to double student participation in the university’s study abroad program as part of a new partnership with the Institute of International Education’s (IIE) Generation Study Abroad Initiative.
The initiative aims to look at what does and does not motivate students to study abroad and to increase the number of U.S. study abroad students to 600,000.
In a Webster press release, Provost Julian Schuster said the strategic plan will aim for the university to build on its international foundations. He said bold steps would need to be taken to take advantage of the university’s position in the landscape of higher education.
Twenty percent of each undergraduate class at Webster will have studied abroad by their graduation time, according to Webster’s website. The university was recently listed in a Top 11 Colleges in America list by Lifehack, where the university was recognized for its study abroad program. Webster was also featured in a New York Times article on “Extreme Study Abroad.”
“For us, it’s not about: You go somewhere, you study for a bit and you come back to St. Louis,” President Elizabeth Stroble said in a New York Times article on study abroad programs. “It’s much more about: How can you make the world your home?”
The IIE reported 295,000 American college students studied abroad in 2011 and 2012, and 289,408 in 2012 and 2013 through its Open Doors Report on International and Educational Exchange.
The percent of students who graduated with study abroad experience dropped from 14.9 percent in 2009, to 11.2 percent in 2010. In the past five years the percentage has recovered and increased to 16.6 percent.
“We believe this increase has been due to the efforts made by leadership, faculty and staff during the past six years to enhance Webster’s already existing reputation as a global institution,” Director of Public Relations Patrick Giblin said.
Giblin said the efforts included making significant improvements to existing international campuses, incorporating global themes in all areas of study, entering into new study abroad agreements with institutions around the globe, opening new locations and finding ways to make it easier and more affordable for students to take advantage of Webster’s international programs.
The amount continued to rise up until 2014 when the number of university students dipped to 15 percent. The amount of St. Louis-based students who graduated with study abroad experience dipped from 23.6 percent in 2013 to 16.4 percent in 2014.
Webster was not the only institution who saw a stutter in study abroad numbers. In 2014 the Open Doors Report revealed national growth in students studying abroad slowed to two percent. The IIE website states, as it stands, it would now take 35 years to double the number of U.S. students studying abroad if growth continues at the current rate.
However, on a long-term scale from 2005 to 2014, Webster undergraduates who graduated with study abroad experience rose by 5.8 percent for all Webster students, and 2.9 percent for Webster St. Louis-based students.
Studying abroad is easier said than done for some students like alumnus Kevin Chau. Chau said as a biology student, studying abroad was never a viable option for him. He said during his undergraduate career at Webster, there were never any biology courses offered at study abroad campuses.
“The biggest disappointment in my undergraduate career was there not being a practical way to study abroad as a biology student,” Chau said. “A lot of it felt as if the university’s departments weren’t working together.”
Chau said he attempted to find a biology program his sophomore and junior year, but gave up when it seemed graduation would be impossible while studying abroad.
Like Chau, alumna Tara Graves never got the chance to study abroad. Graves said, financially, studying abroad was impossible. She said she did not see how her two campus jobs could transfer to a study abroad campus.
“I just couldn’t not work for a semester. I didn’t have family supporting me through college. If I wanted to eat and pay bills, I had to keep two jobs on campus,” Graves said. “I didn’t have the money to save, I was living pretty much paycheck to paycheck.”
According to Webster’s website, in order to work while studying abroad a student would have to have a work visa instead of a student visa. The university also encourages students to focus on their studies while abroad.
Webster student Alex Bonney said study abroad is not a viable option for most students. He said from both a financial and academic standpoint, study abroad was never a realistic option for him.
“[Webster] really drives this point home that no matter what your reason for being at Webster may be, we’re going to find a study abroad that works for you, and that just isn’t the case,” Bonney said.
Webster’s study abroad program ranks in the top two percent of 1,600 colleges and universities surveyed in U.S. News & World Report’s 2015 report on “America’s Best Colleges.” The IIE’s 2014 Open Doors Report ranked Webster sixteenth among U.S. master’s degree-granting institutions for study abroad and third among private universities in Missouri.
Vice Provost Nancy Hellerud said through Webster’s international network, colleges and universities may send their study abroad students to Webster’s international campuses.
“Webster has the infrastructure in place to help other colleges and universities meet their study abroad goals, too,” Hellerud said in a Webster University press release. “Our international campuses’ faculty, staff and students welcome study abroad students throughout the year and make them feel at home. It makes for a dynamic and personal study abroad experience.”
Schuster said the university’s diverse campuses, strategic partnerships and global-minded faculty and staff will support and encourage an international educational experience for Webster’s students.
“We are pleased and proud to join our colleagues at IIE to make this a national effort in higher education,” Schuster said.