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Pura Vida: Reflections from an Education Abroad Faculty Experience*

Career and Workforce Development
September 18, 2018 Dr. Sherry Early Chris Messenger

Studying abroad as part of the curriculum allows students to escape the confines of a classroom and move into the real world, with opportunities for hands-on learning.  It empowers students to put theories learned in the classroom into practice within a different culture and lets students gain a new perspective by looking at themselves and their studies from a different point of view. Western Kentucky University (WKU) offers many opportunities to study abroad via the Kentucky Institute for International Studies (KIIS), a faculty-led study abroad program.

During the summer of 2018, study abroad opportunities were available in Costa Rica, with Community-Based Learning (CBL) and Socially Responsible Leadership (SRL) courses taught by Dr. Sherry Early. Ten women experienced Costa Rica through study abroad taking these two courses.

            Education abroad allows one to learn new skills such as additional languages. Instead of learning in a traditional classroom, students are ordering a meal or negotiating a purchase in an international environment. It not only allows them to fulfill academic goals, but also encourages discovery and growth by getting students out of their comfort zones. When reflecting on their experience, one student noted, “I had really enjoyed class because it helped me discover a bit more about myself and about my goals. I thought that looking deeper into my own personal and professional goals really helped me learn more about my true passions and dreams.”

CBL and SRL were the only education courses taught summer 2018 and were Dr. Early’s intellectual property; this required her to develop all course materials and on-site assignments. The foundation for each course is the Social Change Model (SCM) of Leadership Development, which promotes individual, group, and societal values. On an individual level, SCM asks one to look at who they are as a person and examines consciousness of self, congruence, and collaboration. Leadership is considered a process, not a position. Both group and course-based excursions were utilized to encourage students to see the country and provide opportunities to experience another culture.

 The CBL course tied theory to practice as it related to community-based learning within Costa Rica.  CBL examined servant leadership and the difference between servant leadership and being a servant leader. Students worked to understand themselves by determining their core values and examining how the tenets of servant leadership fit within those core values, to exact change, however small, in the community. Course-based excursions included interviews which were conducted in each major location the students stayed—La Fortuna, La Paz, Drake Bay, and San Marcos. Students were instructed to explore the community and talk with locals; they chatted over coffee or a meal to facilitate genuine conversations. Students asked questions about the Costa Rican community—What do folks value? Who are leaders in the community? What do they appreciate about being a member of the community? Students asked the same questions in all environments to maintain consistency.  One student expressed, “Each one of these places were extremely unique and I absolutely loved getting to know all of the people.  I also noticed how they agreed on one concept that a community should do: Help each other.  Not only have I gained education and leadership knowledge through this class, but also life lessons that I am very thankful for.”

The purpose of the SRL course was to learn SCM values and how they influenced their leadership behaviors. Students completed environmental scans where they observed the environments and shared with their peers through a brief presentation in class and reflective entry in their learning journals. They could choose to interact with people in the area during the scan, but it was not required.  “An overall similarity I observed in all three locations is their genuine love and concern for nature and concern and love for people in their community,” concluded one student. Another student wanted to gain a Costa Rican perspective from the people who live there. Because of the importance of mothers in Costa Rican culture, a panel of mothers—the “Madre Panel” was assembled. This was a more personalized experience as the students lived with these women and were instantly considered family. The Madre Panel, however, was an opportunity to learn from them outside the household. Students asked questions in Spanish but did have a moderator as a safeguard. They valued that the Mothers were so invested in their communities and dedicated to their families. As one student observed, “As a connection to the coursework, I saw servant leadership and didn’t realize it until now.  Through the Mothers in La Paz…”

Additionally, the excursions were cultural, physical, and emotional, and students found that people share commonalities, regardless of where they are. One student reveals, “There have been an innumerable amount of lessons learned on this trip.  However, I think the largest and most important one for me is the universality of human nature and ways of life…I’m constantly reminded that people are generally the same wherever you go.  They desire to help their community improve and they lead while putting other’s first—which they might not even realize.”

Education abroad offers learning experiences not only for the students but also for the professors. As a woman of color faculty member, my participation in this program was essential. I experienced what it is like to be a triple minoritized person (Black, Woman, Non-Spanish Speaker) abroad. I had not previously traveled abroad as an instructor in a country where I am not fluent in the language. Though I was not the coordinator of the program, I was the first point of contact when a student was not feeling well or needed something. Students reached out to me, wanted to be mentored by me, and wanted care from me. The experience taught me a lot about gender norms and patience. In the classroom, I learned students did not know about Eastern/Collaborative culture. They were not aware of the theories I presented them with in class. When they conducted the interviews or environmental scans, the theories came to life! The homestays and excursions also had a profound impact on their learning. As the instructor, I tried to be intentional about every assignment and excursion.

As evidenced by this experience, education abroad embodies NASPA’s 2019 conference themes of “Belonging & Student Success, Community & Democratic Engagement, and Leaning into the next 100 Years.” As outlined in the Professional Competency Areas for Student Affairs Practitioners (2015), higher education is changing like never before. With increased demands for higher education, we also see greater diversity and a rise in global educational experiences for students. As higher education becomes more universal, education abroad just makes sense. Student Learning and Development is described as a professional competency for student affairs practitioners. According to the ACPA (2015) this area “involves a critical understanding of learning and development theories and their use in constructing learning outcomes” (p. 14). Experiential-based study abroad programs support the professional competencies for student affairs practitioners by encouraging learning about the environment and the community and tying theory to practice. Education abroad urges students to become active participants in their education while gaining a deeper understanding of theories and course content.

*Due to positionality, I asked Chris to choose student quotes from a list I typed up from final assignments to maintain a level of objectivity.


American College Personnel Association & National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (2015). Professional competency areas for student affairs practitioners. Retrieved from https://www.naspa.org{filedir_3}Professional_Competencies.pdf

Kentucky Institute for International Studies (2018). Costa Rica. Retrieved from https://www.kiis.org/programs/costa-rica/