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PVAMU, Terra Dotta Work to Expand Study Abroad Participation

Since partnering with the technology-based higher education travel platform Terra Dotta last year, Prairie View A&M University (PVAMU) has streamlined its study abroad application and enrollment process in order to expose more students to international travel.

Garrett ChristianGarrett Christian

The effort is part of the historically Black university’s (HBCU) strategy to increase its study abroad program and prepare students to become global citizens, leaders said.

Last year, more than 100 PVAMU students studied abroad and the institution is expected to grow its international engagement through student events, workshops and panels, course content and more travel experiences.

“Adding Terra Dotta to help manage the application process and catalogue our programs has been a critical growth factor for our Study Abroad office,” said Evie Myers, senior international officer at PVAMU. “Our study abroad program was nascent but the number of applicants has quadrupled over the past three years. To support that type of growth we needed a technology solution to manage the comprehensive enrollment process.”

Prior to Terra Dotta, students completed paper applications and had to secure physical signatures and letters from faculty recommenders, making it tedious not only for students, but also administrators who needed to document and track the application process, said Marcus King, international student advisor in PVAMU’s Office of International Programs.

Terra Dotta’s study abroad management solution enabled the HBCU to facilitate the marketing of its programs and receive applications online using a web- and mobile-friendly platform.

“Our system is all about providing efficiency,” said Garrett Christian, chief strategy officer for Terra Dotta, noting that PVAMU is one of the company’s first HBCU clients.

PVAMU’s entire study abroad office website is on the Terra Dotta system. Students can search for a particular study abroad program based on their interests, their major and the location they would like to study.

“All of that is very much at their fingertips,” Christian said. “A big way that the software facilitates growth is through retention.”

Terra Dotta additionally facilitates “instantaneous and ongoing” communication in the form of automatic reminders. These reminders let a student know when study abroad applications are due, among other notices.

The system “isn’t going to leave you alone” and it is designed to reduce “friction along the path,” Christian said. “It’s all about removing barriers to enrollment.”

PVAMU’s internal efforts to build cultural competence and remove barriers for students include increasing recruitment of international students, establishing a “Passport Fair,” promoting study abroad scholarships and familiarizing students with opportunities to study abroad as soon as they first arrive on campus for New Student Orientation.

Study abroad opportunities at Prairie View currently include 14 faculty-led, short-term trips. Students have travelled to China, Ghana, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Dubai, Cairo, Egypt, and Cape Town, South Africa. Students in the business program will venture to Sydney, Australia this year.

“We have pre-departure sessions where we try to prepare all who are traveling,” King said. The Office of International Programs covers embassies, emergency contacts, country-specific customs or traditions and educates students on what to expect generally.

Because study abroad affordability is a key barrier for underrepresented students, observers note, PVAMU promotes its Panthers Abroad scholarship, the government-funded Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship and encourages students to self-fundraise through their church, family, GoFundme or work experiences.

Students can also look to external organizations such as the Institute for the International Education of Students (IES Abroad) or the Council On International Educational Exchange (CIEE) that additionally offer scholarships to students enrolled at an HBCU.

Over the last few years, Prairie View’s passport fairs have sponsored nearly 800 students’ passport. Further, leaders invested in a camera and printer for students’ passport photos because they found that many applications were getting rejected due to lack of U.S. Department of State photo compliance, King said.

King said that his office will be looking into ways to bring students who have studied abroad, international students and students interested in study abroad together for “enlightening” cultural discussions through student organizations, campus events, open dialogues and other panels that address cultural engagement.

Meanwhile, Fisk University’s Office of Global Initiatives operates from the standpoint that students have the greatest impact when promoting study abroad and cultural engagement on campus.

Duwon ClarkDuwon Clark

“Students are more receptive when they hear those real accounts” of study abroad, said Duwon S. Clark, dean of global initiatives at Fisk. “My goal is to have study abroad ambassadors who serve as that voice box to empower other students.”

Student ambassadorship is a priority because “the littlest thing we tend to overlook as advisors” – skincare products, hair products and more – “that is important to our students,” Clark said. “Those are some of the things we’re trying to tackle.”

Another goal for Clark – who studied abroad at the University of Ghana in his undergraduate experience at an HBCU – is to expose students early on to what study abroad is about. He works to engage students in conversations about what it means to be Black and abroad, a Black American abroad, and what it means to have various identities and navigate spaces without feeling that they do not belong, he said.

Such conversations with students “help me to also assess their growth and where there are challenges and how I can serve those students” who are going abroad in the future, Clark said.

Like PVAMU, Fisk has implemented a “roadmap” passport program for students to start planning a study abroad experience beginning in their first year, Clark added.

“At our HBCUs, we have a lot of growth opportunities,” he continued. “For one, our students just don’t have the tools to involve themselves in global education. We [empower] that through passports.”

Students can then choose an alternative spring break study experience, participate in short-term trips that range from four to six weeks, or embark on the more traditional semester-length trips.

Beyond this, cultivating cultural competence in the classroom and on campus remains an urgent priority for HBCU leaders who note that not all students can participate in study abroad.

“You’re going to come into contact with people of all backgrounds from all over the world. It helps to have some type of cultural awareness,” which encourages open-mindedness, removes stereotypes and fosters respect for others, King said.

“We’ve primarily been informing the campus about the importance of global citizenship,” Clark added. When students do participate in study abroad or cross-cultural experiences, “they become well-rounded individuals, they come back with new study habits, they come back with new critical thinking skills … just a new way of thinking about life.”

Tiffany Pennamon can be reached at [email protected]. You can follow her on Twitter @tiffanypennamon.

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