The benefits off-campus study programs can bring to the academic career of a student are well known. Studies show students who study abroad are more likely to have a job within six months of graduating and are also more likely to get into their top choices for graduate school. Beyond that, many students report that studying abroad helped them gain valuable skills for the job market, increased their confidence levels, and made them better prepared to engage diverse workplaces and communities. Many also reported that the experience provided career clarity.
But for administrators and faculty on campuses coordinating these programs, there are all sorts of questions and obstacles that must be addressed: safety concerns, credit transfers, and handling visas and other paperwork. Campus-run programs have to figure out logistics of housing, travel, and more, and both campus-run and third-party programs need to provide the kind of quality academic experience that meets the institution’s standards. And all of that doesn’t even include the additional costs associated with such programs, both for the student and the institution.
For over 40 years, the CCCU has worked to provide faith-based off-campus study opportunities that extend the educational mission of participating CCCU institutions and provide students with culturally immersive, academically invigorating experiences that also equip them to apply their Christian faith to the world. Each year, hundreds of students from more than 80 participating CCCU institutions have the opportunity to visit one of nine program locations, study alongside peers from other CCCU campuses, and explore their vocational calling in a new context.
Some campuses have taken the opportunities these programs provide for students one step further: utilizing the faculty expertise, unique location, and overall experience to supplement the coursework for a major on campus. This in turn provides a unique draw for that major, making it stand out from competing programs on other campuses.
The Benefits of Shared Mission
Northeast Indiana may not seem like the most obvious place for a small Christian university to have a bustling digital media arts program, with degree options in animation, broadcasting, film production, and film studies, but that’s precisely the case for Huntington University in Huntington, Indiana.
That wasn’t the case just over 20 years ago during Lance Clark’s early days in the department of communication. Clark, now the associate dean of the arts and division chair in addition to his role as professor, says that began to change in 1997, when a student approached him about an off-campus study opportunity that would allow her to explore the world of film, since Huntington had no courses on the subject.
That was the first time Clark heard of the CCCU’s L.A. Film Studies Center (LAFSC), but after the student returned from her time in L.A. with high praise for the program, Clark knew it would not be the last.
“Based on her experience, I started recommending it as an alternative for some of our students who wanted to go into film or find out more about the industry,” he says.
And when the time came for Huntington to launch its own degree in film studies in 2000? Clark says he designed the degree so that the LAFSC experience could fit nicely into the major. As the department continued to expand, Clark continued to work with the team from LAFSC to incorporate the experience as an option for students studying animation or film production.
The experience, paired with the award-winning faculty working at Huntington and the state-of-the-art resources Huntington has available for students, means that the film department at Huntington is now one of the most signature on campus, Clark says.
Today, the team at Huntington considers the LAFSC faculty to be an extended part of their program, Clark says. Once or twice a year, a staff member from Huntington will travel to L.A. to visit the students there and connect with the LAFSC community.
But the value for Huntington in partnering with LAFSC through all this wasn’t just in the location or access to internship placements within Hollywood itself: “It is the Christ-centered mission that LAFSC brings to the table that so benefits our relationship,” Clark says. “Unlike other film schools, LAFSC gets the Christian mission of our department and of the CCCU schools in general.”
That kind of missional alignment is vital to a good partnership with third-party providers, as Esther Brimmer, executive director and CEO of NAFSA: Association of International Educators, told attendees at the 2019 Presidents Institute hosted by the Council of Independent Colleges: “What’s important if you are working with third-party providers is really having them understand your core mission so what they’re doing is tailored to what you’re doing and tailored to the specific curriculum outcomes that you want.”
The Power of Experience
That mission alignment also proved vital in the development of the music business major at Southeastern University (SEU) in Lakeland, Florida. Paul Harlan, professor of music at SEU, says that the university first began developing a relationship with the Contemporary Music Center (CMC), located in Nashville, Tennessee, when program director Warren Pettit visited some classes at SEU in the mid-2000s. “I knew immediately that this was a great opportunity for our students, so we stated promoting CMC and encouraged our students to attend,” he says.
When SEU began designing an official music business major a few years later, the experience and expertise of the team at CMC proved valuable for the development of the program itself, Harlan says. “In addition to obtaining great advice for our program [from the team], we also came to the conclusion that partnering with CMC would be advantageous for everyone involved,” he says.
Today, attending a semester at CMC is an integrated part of the music business degree. Harlan says the value comes in CMC’s unique experience, expertise, and location and how it complements the SEU faculty’s experience.
“We have world-class music faculty in our department, coming from the major music institutions in the country … [and] we offer our students an excellent education in the traditional aspects of college music studies and performance, as well as learning and experience in commercial music, music technology, and audio production,” Harlan says. “CMC completes that education with expertise in music industry studies. This way, our students get a solid music education plus a focused semester at CMC in writing, performing, managing, and concert/recording production.”
Both the faculty at Huntington and the faculty at SEU report that students’ engagement in and appreciation for the respective programs has remained high over the years. “Students have a terrific experience,” Clark says. “The time they spend taking classes and interning in L.A. is priceless.”
Harlan says that there have been a few times over the years when students arrived at CMC and soon realized that their goals didn’t exactly match what was being taught at CMC; in those instances, the CMC staff went out of their way to help the students figure out a plan of individualized learning that better fit their aspirations.
The Importance of Trust
Personal care and missional fit is part of what led Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, to embark on a new partnership with the CCCU’s Uganda Studies Program (USP) a few years ago, says Cynthia Toms, professor of global studies and kinesiology and director of Westmont’s Global Health in Uganda program. The program utilizes USP’s own Global Health Emphasis track, which is open to all CCCU students, and takes advantage of USP’s location and the ways it could meet a unique need for Westmont students.
“We had an increasing number of students interested in studying health delivery in the Global South. Partnering with the Uganda Studies Program offered an opportunity for our natural science, kinesiology, and pre-med students to study abroad with a curriculum that closely aligned with our own,” Toms says.
Prior to coming to Westmont, Toms had worked on USP’s staff, so she was well acquainted with both USP’s mission and its leaders. That connection was key in the development of Westmont’s eventual partnership with USP, she says.
“There were substantial relationships in place [with the CCCU] and a willingness to partner in a way that felt trustworthy,” Toms says. “I don’t think we would have done this with a partnership that would have just come off the street to try and provide a checklist of pieces [for the program]. Knowing the CCCU and having relationships with people that were experienced and willing to work with us gave us an added measure of confidence in the quality and delivery of the program.”
Key to the new program’s success at Westmont has been the development of courses students take before and after they go to Uganda, both to facilitate their immersion into life at USP when they arrive and to assist with the reentry process after they return to campus. The reentry class has been especially helpful for students, Toms says, because it helps them process their experiences, examine how they can be worked into their coursework back at Westmont, and continue to explore the deep and often challenging questions that come with studying abroad, especially as it relates to the development of the student’s faith.
In light of her experience with USP in Uganda, Toms has enjoyed helping Westmont faculty and staff appreciate the unique opportunities of such a program. Westmont sponsors many of its own global programs run by its own faculty, but in Uganda, the college can partner with USP staff and African scholars at Uganda Christian University to provide students a rich immersive learning experience. The partnership has also allowed several Westmont faculty to travel to Uganda to teach modular courses for students there, and their experience in Uganda has enriched discourse on campus about global health and African culture.
In essence, Toms says, the partnership with USP has enabled Westmont to create a hybrid off-campus program of sorts, where Westmont faculty remain deeply involved in the educational process but the USP faculty provides the on-the-ground experience and connections that are so vital to the success of an immersive semester abroad.
Though Westmont’s partnership has only been in place for a few years, Toms says they have seen tremendous growth and a new energy on campus from those who have finished the program and are taking what they’ve learned into their continuing education.
“I now have an ongoing [reference] request list from students [who went to USP] who are applying to Master of Public Health programs, and from students who are heading to medical school. … It’s interesting to see – three, four, five years in – how those students are now turning that experience into a vocational calling and a deeper understanding of how they want to go about their vocation,” Toms says. “So it feels more integral [to our campus] than just sending them to a third-party provider somewhere and hoping they have a safe and good experience and then trying to welcome them back into the classroom afterward.”
For Westmont, Huntington, and SEU, the value of working with programs who share their faith-centered approach to education and commit to doing what they can to meet the institution’s needs is immeasurable, despite the fact that it means important tuition dollars going to a program that is off-campus.
“While universities do sacrifice some income to send students to LAFSC and other [CCCU] programs, the sacrifice is almost always worth it,” says Matt Webb, an instructor of film production at Huntington and one of the faculty who regularly visits Huntington students at LAFSC. “What LAFSC and other programs offer are opportunities, experiences, and connections that CCCU students would not otherwise receive at their home institutions. I think that colleges and universities should consider this an investment in their students and an investment in programs that they can’t offer on their own campuses, and therefore get excited about the unique opportunities that BestSemester programs provide.”
Similarly, Harlan says that the partnership with CMC covers gaps and offers opportunities SEU faculty can’t. “For us the financial loss is justified, in part, by not having to hire additional faculty to cover what is offered at CMC,” he says. “Another part of the justification – for the university and the students – is that it is a fabulous and practical experience for our students.”
Toms noted how helpful it was to work with USP and the CCCU in setting up Westmont’s partnership, both because they recognize the financial realities CCCU institutions face and also because they are committed to providing programs that benefit both students and institutions.
“I send students to CCCU programs because I truly believe that they are the best curricular and pedagogical fit for what I’m trying to do with students,” she says. “I have visited many programs; I’ve done lots of external reviews; I’ve been in the field of study abroad for a couple decades. I send students [to a CCCU program] because it is the highest quality program that I know ensures rigorous learning, provides a depth of cultural immersion, and really translates culture for my students.”
Morgan Feddes Satre is the CCCU’s communications specialist and managing editor of Advance. She is an alumna of both Whitworth University and BestSemester’s L.A. Film Studies Center and is currently pursuing her M.Div. at Fuller Seminary.