“Going abroad is a great opportunity — not only to just travel, learn, and grow as a person — but it can also give you a leg up in your field,” says Hannah Mae Gigstad, Western’s new coordinator for study away programs, and a graduate student in Western’s High Altitude Exercise Physiology (HAEP) program.
Gigstad notes that many students who were intending to study abroad these last two and a half years were sadly unable to do so — and some even were forced to evacuate mid-semester back in 2020.
“We didn’t even host study abroad fairs for quite a while — the last time we had one was in 2019,” says Gigstad. “This year there has been a massive ramp-up [in study away program interest]. Everyone is very excited to be able to travel again.”
Gigstad is particularly high on study abroad options for students who are interested in learning —or solidifying — their knowledge of a foreign language, though she notes that knowing a foreign language is not a barrier to entry for many programs.
“Living and immersing yourself in [a given] culture is what really makes you fluent,” says Gigstad, who is proficient in Spanish, which she minored in at Western. With travel opportunities opening up, she’s eyeing the chance to live abroad and enhance her own language skills.
Exploring the available study away options
Most of Western’s study away options are facilitated through affiliate provider organizations, which handle the bulk of the logistics and programming.
“They are the companies in charge of shaping the experience for students,” says Gigstad, who notes that providers are once again offering a full slate of programs.
She adds that different provider organizations can vary widely with regards to scheduling, cost, course offerings, the flexibility of student itineraries, and a slew of other factors. It’s her job to help students sort through the array of programs and ultimately, to make the best decision for themselves.
Westerns’ wide variety of academic travel options contributed to its listing in a March 2021 blog post on lendedu, where the Mountaineers came in ranked at #27.
Jeff Gitlen writes in that post: “What makes WSCU (now just WCU) unique is its link with numerous affiliate study abroad providers, which allows students to access academic opportunities all over the world.”
Regarding that success, Gigstad credits her predecessor, Mikay Elliot, with putting in the work —and the passion — to advance Western’s study away offerings.
For students looking to get out into the field and conduct research, the School for Field Studies, or SFS, has a slew of options on offer. With programs in countries like Chile, Panama, and the Turks and Caicos Islands, students are afforded the opportunity to engage in research projects in a variety of exciting locales.
“SFS is one of our research-based companies, and they are highly location-based, which means that all of the locations you would go with them are [places] that no other company really travels to, because they are more small and remote places — like Cambodia for example, or Bhutan,” notes Gigstad. “It’s a great opportunity for undergraduate students who are interested in research.”
For students looking for shorter length opportunities to fit into their tight schedules — as brief as a handful of intensive weeks — SFS is one of the providers that may fit the bill.
Another option for shorter term programs is the Center for International Studies (CIS) abroad, which provides cheap, quality options for students on a budget. Options abound for students to study away in the early or latter portions of summer, as well as over winter break.
KEI (the Knowledge Exchange Institute), Gigstad notes, is a bit smaller, with offerings in countries like Kenya, Thailand, Peru, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — again including winter and summer break options.
Before the pandemic, Gigstad had planned to do a physical therapy internship in Spain through KEI. She explains that KEI is a good fit for experienced travelers who are looking for a more flexible option in their study away experience — without skimping on the added security and resources that accompany traveling with a study abroad provider.
On the other end of the spectrum is the American Institute for Foreign Study (AIFS), which Gigstad classifies as “high support,” ideal for students who may have some anxiety about going abroad, and thus may be looking for some additional assistance with their travel,
Another option available to Western students is Harlaxton College, located in Grantham, England, roughly an hour from London by train. Gigstad adds that the program, offered through the University of Evansville’s study abroad center, is steeped in the liberal arts tradition and thus an excellent choice for a wide variety of Western majors.
“It’s kind of like Harry Potter-style living —a giant mansion with dorms and several floors,” says Gigstad. “It’s definitely one of our more popular programs.”
For students seeking out nautical adventure, the Semester at Sea program may be just the thing.
“You take your courses on the ship…but then anytime you show up at a different location — say you’re passing through the Mediterranean — you can go explore different cities,” says Gigstad, who recommends the program for curious travelers looking to experience as much of the world as possible in a condensed timeframe.
For those students open to remaining a bit closer to home, the National Student Exchange (NSE) is a highly affordable program that links together participating schools in the U.S. (including our beloved Western), several American territories, and Canada — nearly 200 colleges and universities in all.
Schools pay to become part of the NSE program, and students select their top options for semester- or year-long exchanges at different schools (roughly 90 percent of students receive their top choice).
Participating students often have the option to pay their home school’s tuition, and receive Western credit in the process. In some cases, it may be cheaper to pay the visiting school’s tuition, which is also an option in many cases.
NSE is a great way for students to expand their prospective course offerings and to broaden their educational horizons without the additional hassle, and often expense, of heading overseas.
“Studying at another U.S. university or within the territories is definitely going to be a lot simpler to take the credits that you want,” adds Gigstad.
Western also has a handful of study abroad ventures that are coordinated through specific departments and academic programs — including Western’s Clark Family School of Environment and Sustainability, which periodically makes trips to Gunnison’s recently established sister city of Majkhali, India, and has forged a relationship with Nepal in the past.
Gigstad notes that prior to the pandemic, Western’s growing Honors Program had an annual “Maymester” program, a three-week intensive course abroad. The last time that course took place was in 2019, when students ventured to Budapest, Hungary to study Western art, culture, and civilization.
Navigating costs and logistics
For students looking to study away, programmatic cost and the need to fit their experiences into their individualized academic timeline are typically top of mind.
For starters, students interested in studying abroad must cross the 24-credit threshold (sophomore standing), with an accompanying 2.5 or higher GPA. Those 24 credits must come from Western coursework.
“We want [students] to establish connections and relationships here before we send them abroad,” says Gigstad of the credit requirement.
She adds that many students elect to study abroad their sophomore or junior years, although some work out their schedule to open up windows to travel during their senior year.
“It’s never too early to start planning,” elaborates Gigstad, who has already met with a number of freshmen students this year. “The earlier you plan, the easier it is to work with your academic advisor to build out your schedule.”
When thinking about study away options, she encourages students to consider their personal identifiers — values and aspects of their life they hold near and dear, such as their religion or spirituality, or their sexual orientation.
Gigstsd is also curious about individual student’s “why” when considering the prospect of study away — whether it’s a burning passion for travel, an eye towards personal growth, or a pursuit of a specific academic endeavor (or maybe all the above).
“Studying abroad — it’s not an easy thing,” says Gigstad, who notes the stresses of being in a foreign place, which can be offset by a student’s ensuing passion and intentionality around their experience.
And then, of course, there is everyone’s least favorite topic: Cost.
“A lot of times students don’t want to think about the financial side…and then they start finding these programs and realize they can’t afford them,” says Gigstad, who encourages many students to broaden their searches to specifically include cheaper options.
She always begins that financial conversation with students with one simple question: “Do you have financial support from family members?”
While the answer to that question guides Gigstad in her following advice for students, she notes that there is an incredible variety in cost across programs — from a few thousand dollars up to $40,000 or more. With that in mind, there is a study away option that makes sense, and is financially workable, for a large share of the student body.
Gigstad adds that when students do opt to study away, they don’t pay any Western tuition — just the tuition and fees charged by the study away provider, which Gigstad notes is often comparable to Western’s baseline cost.
For students looking to minimize their accompanying study away costs, there are a number of options on the table.
Participating in NSE — as well as opting for shorter term programs —are always options, but there are also other resources intended to help students alleviate cost concerns, including the Gilman Scholarship.
From Western’s website: “The U.S. Department of State’s Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship is a grant program that enables students of limited financial means to study or intern abroad, thereby gaining skills critical to our national security and economic prosperity.”
Gilman Scholarships are available to students who are U.S. citizens and who are currently in good standing, and already receiving Pell Grants. The scholarships can total up to $5,000 with an additional $3000 for critical language needs.
Western also has several scholarships available to help offset costs. Additional information concerning these specific scholarships can be located on Western’s study away Canvas page, with Gigstad noting that most of the available scholarship money is need-based.
She adds that for students who are seeking out semester- or year-long programs, their existing scholarships will continue to apply for these studies.
Additionally, Gigstad says that affiliate providers are often flexible in working with students receiving various forms of aid regarding the timeline of making payments.
One last monetary option available for students is to take out loans to study abroad, although Gigstad is personally cautious to recommend that option for certain students.
“A lot of students already have loans from Western, so that’s not [always] an ideal thing,” she says.
With questions about Western’s study abroad options, students can reach out to Gigstad at firstname.lastname@example.org.