When Rebecca Houedjissi ’18 decided to take a semester away from Amherst College, international study was an option—but not the only one.
After considering a range of choices, Houedjissi decided to try a semester at Howard University, a historically black college that she had once considered attending full time. Howard offered a distinct contrast to Amherst: It was in a metropolitan area, attracted a much more southern state-based student body and, with a total enrollment of 10,000, was also much larger.
“It was important for me to know what it was like to go to a different school, in general,” Houedjissi said recently as she reflected on her experience. “I don’t know if I would have liked going to Howard for four years, but it was a really good experience for a semester.”
Houedjissi’s decision to enroll in an exchange program at Howard, to study domestically rather than internationally, reflects a broader movement away from what have traditionally been known as “study abroad programs”—a change that Amherst is embracing.
Earlier this year, the former study abroad office quietly began transitioning to a new name and identity as the Global Education Office (GEO). The change reflects both a broadening and a deepening focus as the office works to expand into domestic programs, cultivate new relationships with international universities and provide further opportunities for students and faculty to reflect when they return to Amherst.
“We have been promoting more domestic study as a real avenue to have a different educational experience,” says Janna Behrens, director of the GEO. “It led us to think about how ‘study abroad’ doesn’t accurately describe what we do.”
The new focus means “we are a little more intentional about how we articulate cultural experience,” she notes.
Having an openness to something that is different is what I think is a good experience to have as a young person because it changes the framework for how you then have other experiences later in life. -- Janna Behrens, director of the GEO
With the rise of programs that cater to more focused student experiences—such as research at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution—there are more avenues for students to consider when they talk to Behrens and her colleagues about studying away from Amherst. International students at the College, who are already studying abroad, are also drawn to opportunities to study at other colleges and universities, says Behrens.
“Our idea of cultural immersion and difference is that you don’t have to be abroad to have that,” she says. “You could go to Columbia University in New York City and have an extremely different experience.”
As the focus of the GEO expands, Behrens notes that the international piece is also getting stronger. The office, which already had long-standing exchanges with the University of Göttingen (Germany) and Doshisha University (Japan), is exploring other strategic partnerships with international universities. Amherst started a bilateral undergraduate semester exchange last year with Yale-NUS College (Singapore), which is expanding into an academic-year faculty exchange in 2019–2020. A new undergraduate exchange program with The American University of Beirut (Lebanon) is planned for next year, and an exchange program with Boğaziçi University (Turkey)—as well as a yet-to-be-named university in India—are also in the works.
The expansion of both domestic and international programs has led to yet another change for the GEO: a concerted effort to help students process and reflect on their experiences once they return to Amherst—even if that means articulating the discomfort they felt about encountering a new culture or learning new skills.
“It’s not just this one neatly packaged experience that happens and then you come back and it’s over,” says Amanda Wright, GEO assistant director. “We find that students continue to process and reflect once they come back to campus. So how do we integrate that into their experience here and take some of those traits and skills that they’ve learned abroad and use that moving forward?”
It’s about embracing even the difficult aspects of change, adds Behrens, who notes that, ideally, students should use the experience in a fourfold way: to change their perspectives, reinforce their empathy and compassion, develop good listening skills and learn more about themselves.
“Having an openness to something that is different is what I think is a good experience to have as a young person,” she says, “because it changes the framework for how you then have other experiences later in life.”
For Houedjissi, the experience of studying domestically at another university was enlightening. She found that, while Howard’s administration was less engaged in the day-to-day minutia of student life, a number of high profile alumni visited regularly—mogul Sean “P. Diddy” Combs and author T’Nahasi Coates were among the ones when she was there—and there was a much wider range of events for students.
“There’s a way that Amherst can become your world. People call it the Amherst bubble,” Houedjissi said. “Going to a different school, with completely different people, popped the bubble for me.”