The World Reopens

Author: Linda Spice '89, M.Ed. '19

Published Date: 6/1/2023

Categories: Cross-Cultural Experience F1RST Magazine Students University News

two women in kimonos standing next to each other.

Pioneers Hit the Trails as CCEs Return Post-pandemic

When Mathena Higgins entered Carroll University as a freshman in the fall of 2019, she gave little thought to the university’s travel requirement that all students must fulfill to graduate. That was until the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw virtual instruction replace the in-person adventures that the Cross-Cultural Experience (CCE) program originally offered, jeopardizing her potential travel.

Fortunately, the waning pandemic has lifted most travel restrictions just in time for Higgins’s senior year. The CCE came back online in the summer of 2022, with international, domestic and study-abroad offerings launching post-pandemic journeys. January of 2023 marked Carroll’s first significant round of student travel, including trips for Higgins and others who made their way to Greece with Carroll professors Scott Hendrix and Patricia Rodda.

“This was my first time. Oh, my God, I was so excited,” said Higgins, a biochemistry major who grew up in Oshkosh, and had never traveled internationally. “The thinking behind that (CCE) is really cool. Getting your students experience in a different culture is something that’s so valuable and it resonated with me.”

After researching the issue in 2011, Carroll committed itself to the idea of off-campus travel study. “Employers are looking for people who have some background in working with diverse and intercultural contexts, but often don’t see it in recent college graduates,” said Josie de Hartog, associate dean for the College of Arts and Sciences - General Education.

The pandemic, however, forced many students and instructors to manage the CCE program virtually through much of 2020, 2021 and 2022.

“I’m so happy for our students that they get to go again,” de Hartog said. “I know as we’ve had to keep it on pause and find other ways to fulfill the courses, every semester we had students who were like, ‘But why can’t we go yet?’ and I would feel so bad for them. We didn’t feel like we were in a place to do it before now.”

Carroll offers more than 40 faculty-led trips internationally and within the United States and study abroad opportunities with more than 20 organizations and partner universities. Professors prepare students in advance of their travel through studies in cross-cultural classes.

Scott Hendrix, Ph.D., a professor of history who has led multiple CCE trips to Ireland and, for the first time to Greece this year, said the first post-pandemic trip – while fulfilling – added a layer of concern when students became ill while abroad. Professors carried COVID tests on their CCEs, and students had to be vaccinated before traveling (that requirement has been lifted for future travels unless required by a specific culture or community the students will be visiting).

“Any time a student would get the sniffles, the first thing I would do is get a COVID test. Fortunately, it wasn’t (COVID), but there is a little bit of extra stress,” Hendrix said.

While the relaunch of CCE trips has sparked excitement, it will likely take some time for significant numbers of students to opt for international travel versus enrolling in the local experiences available, Hendrix said. He noted that COVID created a cultural shift that saw more students preferring to study closer to home.

Some students have always opted to fulfill their CCE close to home due to financial, family, work or health concerns. COVID amplified those numbers, administrators said.

Hendrix said, however, that as more students take trips and return with stories and adventures, others will likely appreciate more of what CCE has to offer.

That is already happening for Carroll students like Mady Sloan, a junior majoring in exercise science pre-physical therapy, who traveled to Greece this year. She said she shared her experiences with friends, and one fellow student considering a local CCE is instead looking at Greece.

“The architecture there was phenomenal,” Sloan said. “My really good friend, she wants to travel to Greece. I showed her my pictures. She was like, ‘That’s cool. I’m going to do it.’”

Mark Blegen, Carroll provost and vice-president of academic affairs, said as Carroll rebuilds the strength of the CCE program, it is with an acknowledgment of the pandemic’s toll, not only on students but on faculty. Fewer faculty members are taking on the extra work of CCEs, and Carroll continues outreach to boost the CCE faculty ranks, Blegen said.

“It can be stressful, so we’ve got some work to do to say, ‘Hey, faculty. We support you. We hear you,’” Blegen said. “It goes back to we think this is core to our educational mission. And, what can we do to keep it moving forward?”

The pandemic meant professors had to design virtual experiences to help students learn about other cultures without being there. That continues in at least one CCE program. Dan Becker, associate professor of graphic communication, has traveled with students to Japan six times since 2013, and unfortunately for Becker and his students, the trips to Japan remain on hold. It is the only CCE destination that is still virtual - for now - due to increased COVID cases there, Becker said.

During the years of virtual instruction, Becker has used platforms such as Amazon  Explore to take students via livestream on a rickshaw ride through Asakusa, one of Tokyo’s districts and connected students with the owner of a sake bar during a live video visit in Shinjuku. They also communicated with elementary school students in Japan via their teacher, Marissa Garretto ’17, a former student of Becker’s at Carroll.

“I tried to get them as close as we could get there,” he said. Garretto, who studied graphic communication and photography had traveled with Becker to Japan in 2016. The experience sparked her desire to return to the country as a teacher with the competitive JET Program USA for three years. She returned to America in July 2022. Becker’s deep knowledge of the country and experiences provided to students also impacted former student Tyler Pelon ’16. He said the in-person CCE travel to Japan “kick-started my path to learning the language.” He has since returned three times to the country for more experiences there.

Chris Franco, a real estate agent and business administration major striving for a degree to set an example for his two daughters, said Becker’s virtual option worked well for him. 

As well as Becker and other professors strove to provide the CCE experience in its virtual format, they stress that there is nothing like being there. Becker, too, looks forward to traveling again with his students.

“It’s definitely my goal to bring a group next year, absolutely,” Becker said. “When they come back and share what they experienced there, the events, the activities, the learning opportunities, the personal connections that they made with people out there, and they share these elements. That’s what it’s all about.”

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