For the 13th episode of Wider Worldview on Fireside, Color & Curiosity founder & CCO Megan Zink interviewed Dr. Laura De Veau – education industry professional, principal & founder of workplace optimization company Fortify Associates, part time adjunct professor at Boston University, strategist, podcaster and comedian. Read on for her expertise on higher ed, travel and its place in the education system and its effects on growing brains.

Wider Worldview is a new live podcast hosted by Color & Curiosity founder Megan Zink that explores the power of travel – how it can change the world: spark new ideas, foster different perspectives, catalyst curiosity and lifelong learning. Join her for interviews with entrepreneurs, educators and explorers and get inspired to tap into travel as an experiential learning and empathy building tool.

Head over to this link to catch the full audio recording with Dr. Laura De Veau – but in the meantime, here’s a snippet of the conversation. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Dr. Laura De Veau - Fortify Associates - on Fireside app with Megan Zink and Wider Worldview Podcast

Personally, I had the privilege of studying abroad when I was in college; there was actually a recent article published two years ago by Forbes, citing signals that increased, openness, agreeableness, emotional stability (relative to a control group) were found in students in Germany in a study that was conducted in 2013. Dr. De Veau, you’ve interfaced with a LOT of students – what are your thoughts on the effects of travel and growing brains? Have you observed any pros or cons firsthand?

Yep, absolutely. I am a huge proponent of study abroad. I also know that study abroad is a privilege and I’ll talk about that in a second. But study abroad, really, is an opportunity for people to not only find their way around the world, but also to find their way in terms of who they are and what matters to them.

The institutions I’ve worked at – two of them in particular, Boston University and Babson College – had very, very, very, strong study abroad programs. I’ve had experiences with other institutions, as I said earlier; I’ve worked at five different places. But those two in particular had had heightened effectiveness in terms of study abroad. And one of the things that they both had in common was that they took the study abroad program and they gave students an option. But it wasn’t the only option. It was almost more of an internship in an abroad situation.

So you would go to Australia, and you’re a journalism major. And you’d work at a newspaper or a television station in Germany or in Australia. You went to Italy; you’re a fine arts major. You worked in a museum or something of that nature. So you actually got to take what you were there for and put it into practice in terms of what you’re going to do in the long term. It gave folks an opportunity to see how they did and navigate, in some of the cases, a foreign language. You’re studying abroad in Italy, people speak Italian in Italy. So you’re immersing yourself in the language as well as navigating your own competency in the profession that you’re choosing. That’s a huge opportunity for students to really expand themselves.

You hear time and time again from students when they go abroad – going to your point about emotional expansion and kind of being more open-minded to people in terms of different cultures and that sort of thing. They made it a priority to take advantage of every single opportunity to travel, especially students who ended up in Europe. You would always hear they were never on campus or in their host home on the weekends; they would make sure that they took full advantage of the travel, and so that way they could really, really broaden their horizons. Even if they were in countries like China or Australia or whatever, they would take that time traveling within countries as well as they could.

Study abroad is an opportunity for people to not only find their way around the world, but also find their way in terms of who they are and what matters to them.

I have a huge, huge love of that experience and institutions that actually bake it in, and are very intentional about it, and there’s many of them out there where they say we actually build in time for students to go study abroad, so that, regardless of your major, you can go. Those are our exemplars out there as far as being able to take advantage of that.

Studying Abroad as a Privilege

I do want to make a point though, as I said earlier, studying abroad is a privilege. Some students can’t go because of their academic program for instance, it’s very hard to, to jam in a study abroad program. If you are an engineering major or some of those other hard sciences (because they have certain laboratory responsibilities are requirements), it’s constrained by your major. Other times it’s constrained by finances. So, for some students, it’s just out of bounds in terms of what they can afford. And then, especially first-generation students. When I worked at Mount Ida College, we had first generation students who had never been on a plane, who had never been on a plane domestically – forget going abroad. And that idea of actually leaving the country for a period of time was a bit more than they could handle emotionally or even their family could handle emotionally. But what we did there was work with a bank based out of Spain and sponsored students on these one week-long study experiences, during spring break, or the week following the end of the spring semester so you spent a whole semester in a kind of a symposium-style class, and then went abroad for a week.

I know this is a long answer to your question, but what I really want to stress here is that study abroad doesn’t have to look the same. It doesn’t have to be a whole semester or a whole year, it could be a taste over a week, that then expands the mind of the student who has not had the opportunity to get out of the country and actually immerse themselves in some way.

As I said, I was highly privileged to be able to study abroad; I just did it for an eight-week period because I have FOMO and I didn’t want to take a whole semester. I feel a little embarrassed saying this – because it was a privilege – but I didn’t like it when I was there. I think in hindsight, it was just uncomfortableness, I was growing, and I didn’t know what to call it. But looking back it was one of the most formidable experiences of my career.

We talked about organizations that are doing a really good job integrating – and this may have just been my own personal experience, but despite there being a study abroad office and scholarship programs, I just did not feel like there was a lot of support and community. I felt like it was totally separate. It was really hard to find the information and I got frustrated, even during my appointments I felt like I was getting nowhere. Why do you think this happens?

So, that’s a really good question. I think it’s important that if, if someone’s listening to this and they want to do study abroad, say they’re in high school, or say you have a child and they’re exploring [the school’s] culture – start having conversations with yourself and your child about what it is that they want to achieve in their 4 years. And if study abroad is one of them, I would highly recommend seeing what kind of support [the schools] have for programs.

[In some] institutions there are offices that specifically focus on the service of students who were looking to go study abroad. [You may ask] ‘look I’m a journalism major, I’m thinking of going study abroad. What are the things that I should be thinking about in terms of my course progression?’  So there’s those kinds of opportunities, those kinds of conversations happening. If you’re looking at a school and they don’t have a formal office, sometimes they come into one of the other two options, they either partner with an international organization that provides them their study abroad service, so they’re not doing it in-house, they are actually have a partner. The other thing that schools will do is they will partner with universities that have larger programs.

Dr. Laura De Veau on Fireside Chats and Fortify Associates - On Color & Curiosity with Megan Zink
Image courtesy of Dr. Laura De Veau.

Getting to your point earlier, it is also about integration; you need to be able to provide excellent service to students, regardless of their origin campus. So if I’m the BU liaison for the program, and let’s say, you know, Ireland, and we have students from a bunch of schools, I need to know, okay, these are students from these programs, There’s going to be not only a culture shock of being in Ireland, but there’s going to be a culture shock of being a Boston University student in Ireland. So you need to be able to provide the proper services on that and the origin university also needs to play a role here.

I want to go back to what you’d said before – there are lots of different factors as it relates to the ability to study abroad, financial situation, time, credits and workload. I came across an Open Doors report – an organization that aims to create more accessibility and resources for those studying abroad and also international students. The study said that basically for the 2018-19 academic year, there were a total of 347,099 students who studied abroad, which was an increase of 1.6% over the previous year (and not diverse at all, which is something you know that open doors, aims to combat).

And then according to there were 16 million full and part-time students in higher ed at the same time – that’s only 2% of students studying abroad. And I found an article that had around the same state in 2012. There are obviously a lot of factors – but can we make study abroad more integrated?

Some of this is also about the capacity the institution has to send people abroad – it’s expensive. And if you don’t run your program, you may be losing money sending students abroad. There’s also a piece of this where not only is it not financially accessible, but [also not accessible] for students who have physical disabilities. Studying abroad is absolutely not accessible. And we don’t do enough for them to be able to make their way around.

And when you’re talking about ‘study abroad’ – rather than ‘study abroad’ we could say ‘study away’. One-week programs are programs where you could actually find people in corporations who are willing to give scholarships for this, it’s short term, it’s a lot cheaper to run. So when you look at this and you say ‘what is an experience, what is a study abroad experience?’ – it doesn’t have to be, as I said earlier, this idea of the one month or the one semester or the whole summer or the year. You can make it into something shorter and the value is still there for the student. One week is different than three months, right? And there’s less risk, and it’s a more manageable amount of money. And its sexy from the standpoint of the fundraising office because you say, ‘look at what our students are doing, they’re going abroad and learning something and taking those skills and infusing them back into our community in some way.’

When you look at this and say ‘what is a study abroad experience?’ – it doesn’t have to be this idea of one month or one semester or the whole summer or the year. You can make it something shorter and the value is still there for the student.

I think you’re right – and also I think that phrase, ‘study abroad’ is very general and it can be very intimidating.

It really can. The other thing that those short-term programs can do is actually open up opportunities in places where the country itself doesn’t have the capacity to hold a semester-long program.

I think that’s brilliant. I mean, it’s a lot more curated it seems and there’s a lot more tangible benefit.

So, we went through a lot, and it’s no secret that it’s a very complex answer – there are a lot of different nooks and crannies of the study about space in higher education. Could you take a step back and make a broader generalization – if there was one biggest roadblock to allowing more students to study abroad, what would it be? Accessibility, time? Is it champions at the institutions that need to create more short-term options? Lack of resources, funding, mitigation of risk? And on the other side, is there one we can easily overcome?

I’m going to start with the one we can overcome. I think we could be creative and think differently about what the program could be. You could say, ‘let’s look at our own culture, our own campus, our student makeup, and come up with a program that actually fits that but doesn’t necessarily have to be the stereotypical study abroad. That’s your lower-hanging fruit.

I think the hardest thing is the cost, and the other is the structure of the academic programs and required course progression.

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Do you think that’s a conversation within departments, or is it the school, saying ‘hey we want to normalize this as part of our curriculum and onboarding conversation”?

If you look at the strategic plan of some schools, a lot of universities say ‘we are an international university that embraces international business and a worldview’ – if you talk about international worldview, diversity, any of that (which all schools do), you need to have a person or persons with the political capital on your campus to say ‘how do we heighten the success of these programs?’ Who are they aligned with on their campus? The provost, the vice president for academic affairs, the vice president for student affairs, the president?

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