When Study Away Assistant Director Evelyn Lueker joined the University of Redlands in January 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic had not yet taken hold. While the global public health crisis delayed many students’ plans to study abroad, it has also provided a silver lining—time to advance the First-Generation Study Abroad Ambassador Program, an initiative funded last year by the University’s Inclusive Community and Justice Fund.
Proposed by Lueker, Study Away Director Andrea Muilenberg, Program Coordinator Melissa Modesitt, the mentorship program supports the expansion of opportunities for first-generation students to benefit from study abroad. With the funds from the grant, the office hired and offered stipends to three College of Arts and Sciences students who have facilitated programming, audited and designed promotional materials, and recruited other students to learn more about study abroad.
Tapping student talent and insight
“We wanted to create a student-driven group in order to increase student participation and improve our offerings for our first-generation community,” says Lueker, who has organized other ambassador programs at other institutions throughout her career. “When we saw the call for grant proposals, we thought it would be a great way to align our office’s mission with a structured way for students to get involved.”
The group’s goal is to improve every aspect of the study away experience for first-generation students—from the first moment they hear about U of R study away program offerings to support while they’re abroad. Once the proposal was submitted, Lueker and her colleagues were surprised and delighted at the number of people across campus who reached out to offer support and opportunities to collaborate.
After Lueker selected three student ambassadors, they launched a survey directed at first-generation students and received feedback from 230 participants. Based on that feedback and inspired by their own experiences, the students picked the projects that aligned with their own personal and professional goals and got to work.
Ricky Gonzalez ’21 has dedicated his time to analyzing the office’s marketing tools and websites. He says the financial support he received from a study away grant allowed him to be the first in his family to visit another continent, and he wants to help other first-generation students take advantage of the opportunities available to them.
Melina Estrada ’23—who values authentic representation and wanted to help the Study Away Office ensure equitable and inclusive practices are in place—is creating a series of educational programs to address the gaps identified in the survey.
Kevin Reyes ’21 is working on a video series to help educate students and their families on the value and feasibility of studying away. While he was studying abroad, Reyes noticed a lack of first-generation students of color and is happy to be raising awareness of the fact that study abroad opportunities are available to everyone.
All three noted that the process of launching the survey and speaking with other first-generation students was highly rewarding. “It was amazing to receive feedback from the first-generation student population, as many expressed they were happy to have their voices heard,” said Reyes. Gonzalez agreed, noting real changes are being made to meet the needs of first-generation students.
Estrada, who completed additional informational interviews with some of the participants, said the process allowed her to form a stronger connection with other first-generation students: “I felt I could relate to them on a deeper level with the struggles we face as first-generation students, having to go through the university system and processes that no one else in our families had ever had experience with before.”
Lueker, who studied inclusivity in international education in graduate school, says one of the biggest obstacles for first-generation students when it comes to studying abroad is the way the experience is advertised. Trips are often illustrated or understood to be a luxury or a vacation, not a valuable educational and professional development experience, and that has serious implications for first-generation students and their families—the most notable being they don't see a probable return on their very high investment.
In addition to benefitting students in their professional careers—alumni who study abroad during their time as students make 25 percent more money on average than those who don’t—study away equips students with important interpersonal skills.
“The main advantage of study away is self-awareness and intercultural competency: learning how to appreciate other cultures and folks who are different than you,” says Lueker. “For our first-gen students, there are incredibly empowering lessons to be learned abroad. The same multi-cultural backgrounds and navigational skills that are often dismissed or overlooked on home campuses are extremely valuable assets while studying away. These assets often allow our first-gen students to thrive abroad and even assist their peers as they try to navigate new cultures. The shift in how a student views themself—that is something invaluable.”
The office also runs a Salzburg ambassador program that works to spread awareness of the University’s international campus in Austria. This fall, the office is launching an ambassador program for all students, ultimately encouraging them to drill down into their interests and identities and how they might be expressed through study abroad. Ambassadors can plan and host their own events, and serve as peer advisors for interested students.
“COVID-19 has definitely presented hurdles for international education,” says Lueker. “But we’re treating it as a break to examine current practices and figure out how to be more inclusive. This time has been a great opportunity for us to pause and reflect, and it will allow us to be a better resource for first-generation students in the future.”