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Unique Class Preps Students for Study Abroad and Beyond

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Lorne Fultonberg

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Lorne Fultonberg

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Austin Ritzel
Austin Ritzel during his study abroad term in Spain. (Photo provided)

There was only one reason Austin Ritzel was enrolled in INTZ 2501, the class known as “Exploring Global Citizenship.” As an international relations student at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, Ritzel had to study abroad.

And if he was going to study abroad at the University of Denver, he was required to take the two-credit course. Never mind that he had been to Spain many times before or that his romantic partner was Spanish.

“I went into the class thinking that this was basically something I had to get out of the way,” says Ritzel, now a senior. “I knew not to be the stereotypical ugly American; I knew all that. But it turned out that I actually learned a lot about myself in that class. It made me look at intercultural interactions in a different light, which is helpful not just for going abroad, but it's helpful in life generally.  Many of the things I learned, I still refer to and remind myself of.”

Some universities offer workshops or weekend excursions to prepare their students for the transformational, months-long study abroad experience. Few, however, are bona fide, full-length courses. And even fewer are requirements.

But a school like DU, which, with more than 70% participation, is routinely ranked among the country’s top study abroad institutions, has both the resources and the motivation to educate students differently.

“We wanted to redefine the way we look at study abroad,” says Casey Dinger, the interim vice provost for internationalization. “Your daily interactions with people from other places in the world are part of your education.”

The team in DU’s Office of Internationalization, which piloted the course in 2013, saw an increasing need for a holistic study abroad experience. While students spend some of their time abroad in classes, at internships or working in the field, a majority of time is spent simply experiencing and interacting.

Just sending students out to have contact with people who are different from them does not always necessarily create positive outcomes for either person,” Dinger says. “We know from research and students’ experiences, that facilitated conversations around intercultural interactions is crucial for the sort of learning that is a key part of the study abroad experience. So the course itself was really thought out as an interdisciplinary program to help students reflect on who they are and what that means in a new cultural environment. It draws from fields like philosophy, communication, international education, linguistics, anthropology and identity theory.”

What the course doesn’t have is advice on tourist attractions or how to pack. Nor is it a crash course for “How to Interact with German Culture,” for example. In fact, the 850 students who took the class last quarter weren’t even grouped by the destination to which they would travel.

Instead, the curriculum is experiential. Lesson plans center on communication, problem solving, active listening and cultural sensitivity.

“It’s kind of those adulting skills that people talk about,” says Michelle Rembolt, one of the instructors. “Being able to problem solve on their own without having to email or pick up the phone to call someone but really struggling through that challenge on their own.”

Rembolt likes to describe the class as “awareness-raising.” Those who succeed, she says, are willing to be self-advocates, comfortable with ambiguity and able to ask questions.

During his quarter in Spain, Ritzel noticed it was easier to have open, productive conversations with locals about political, social and historical issues, which contributed to research projects for future classes. And Ritzel found it easier to cope with “cultural exhaustion” and burnout after going through INTZ 2501.

Once he returned to campus, Ritzel says, the skills he learned in his prep course were still applicable.

“It’s stuff that will have genuine positive consequences in your day-to-day interactions,” he says. “[You] become more accepting, open and thoughtful and improve your critical thinking skills. [You] learn a lot more about yourself and how you engage with your own culture here in the United States.”

The Office of Internationalization wants students to keep their momentum going after their study abroad experiences. Dinger has been working on another course that will be available to all returning students.

“These skills apply beyond study abroad,” he says. “[These courses] prepare them to meet culturally diverse people wherever they go.”

Rembolt agrees.

“It’s one thing to have a level of [study abroad] participation,” she says. “But really, what are students getting out of it? I think this class is an attempt to focus that. The hope is that not only are students traveling a lot, they are gaining those intercultural skills and competencies.”