SYE Abroad: Sophomores Go International

Inside USD -- Graduation day is a few years away for Rita Kuckertz, but the University of San Diego sophomore Spanish major is about to embark something she can do now that’ll be equally beneficial and just as memorable and significant.

“This is my first trip abroad ever,” Kuckertz said enthusiastically when asked about her participation in USD’s Second-Year Experience (SYE) Study Abroad Jan. 3-24, 2013. “I’m so excited to explore new places and meet new people in Seville. I’m definitely looking forward to experiencing the culture of Spain. The lifestyle is completely different from the U.S. and it will be so interesting to experience the cultural differences firsthand.”

The connections that Kuckertz anticipates making — academically and personally — are what USD officials sought when they created an international experience among a host of initiatives that were exclusive to sophomore, or second-year, students.

“We wanted one featured component, one knock-your-socks-off, this-is-USD idea we could rally around,” said Merrick Marino, assistant dean in USD’s Center for Student Success and an administrative leader for the First-Year and Second-Year Experience programs.

Kuckertz is one of 44 students going to Seville, one of three destinations for 2013 SYE Abroad. Another 93 classmates will be in Florence, Italy and 32 are heading to Hong Kong. Courses at each location differ, but USD SYE Abroad has earned national recognition and invitations from college education conferences to speak about it as an innovative tool for student retention. At USD, it has fortified a collaborative relationship between the Academic Affairs and Student Affairs offices.

That’s because when students aren’t in class, a supportive cross-section of USD staff members lead cultural activities — visits to important city landmarks and museums, take a cooking class and attend a live soccer game — and host reflection meetings to gauge students’ retention of their international experience.

There are pre-trip seminars to engage and prepare students for their destination. Students get to know each other and develop relationships with staff and faculty members. This year, students have been developing a cultural education-learning plan for a capstone project paper they’ll turn in at the end of January. There’s also a post-trip debriefing to help students reconnect to USD.

The SYE Abroad experiential learning aspect in the Student/Academic Affairs relationship is a key piece, said Kira Espiritu, director of USD’s undergraduate study abroad programs in the International Center.

“Having the backing of both sides makes this program a little bit different. It’s more comprehensive when you have them working together,” Espiritu said. “We were excited by the opportunity to create a new program and we’ve learned a lot along the way. This program addresses a specific student population, exposes them to staff and faculty they might otherwise not connect with on campus and to internationalize staff.”

Dayanne Izmirian, assistant dean in USD’s Residential Life, was a staff member on the first SYE Abroad trip in Intersession 2011. Izmirian reflected on seeing USD professors from art history and ethics in a combined class use artwork by famous artist Pablo Picasso to educate students during their lectures.

“Dr. (Lauren) Buscemi lectured on Picasso’s work, “Guernica,” which depicts a town being bombed and the loss of civilian life in that battle. The artwork was then connected to the principles of just war theory in Dr. (Larry) Hinman’s lecture,” she said. “It was a great example of liberal arts education in general, but the integrated learning component of the SYE program was highlighted, too, since we then discussed it in the reflection group that I led. The students really learned a lot about art’s ability to illuminate social issues and, as one student put it, ‘get under your skin.”

Developing a program with the capability to educate and inspire — from scratch — was equally exciting, Marino said.

“We didn’t know if anyone else was doing anything like this in the country,” he said about students who went to Florence, London/Oxford, and Barcelona the first year. Florence and Barcelona were the January 2012 destinations. Seville and Hong Kong are new this year and, along with Florence, will be the three cities for the 2014 trip, too.

Utilizing the efforts of Espiritu and her staff’s program, ranked No. 1 by the Institute of International Education’s Open Doors Report in 2011 and 2012 for undergraduate student participation, has been essential. It has well-structured partnerships in student-desired cities to serve as introductory international experiences and need-based scholarship support is available to make the $4,500 trip cost more affordable for eligible students.

The impact of SYE Abroad is one of many contributing to USD’s 90 percent student retention. Espiritu said 492 students have participated in SYE Abroad and it has accounted for 12-15 percent of the freshman cohort. Furthermore, nearly half of all SYE Abroad students have done a second international experience.

Still though, Marino and Espiritu agree SYE Abroad is a work in progress. Destination changes, refinements to the pre-trip preparation program and new USD staff participants have emerged from a growing applicant pool.

All changes are welcomed, Marino said, especially if it means producing the best possible experience for sophomore students. “We want it to be a large-scale experience and take as many students as we can. Looking forward, everything is possible.”

Kuckertz said this trip will intensify her decision to major in Spanish.

“Once I saw Seville was an option, I knew I wanted to go. I’ve been looking for an opportunity to spend time in a Spanish-speaking country to improve my speaking skills. I just took a Spanish Phonetics class this semester in which we explored the regional differences in accents and dialects in Spain and we focused on Seville’s region for a while. I’m really excited to observe what I learned in class and add to my knowledge of the speech and culture.”

— Ryan T. Blystone