One afternoon this past spring, Professor of German Eberhard Geyer sat down to coffee and cake at Saarland University in Saarbrücken, Germany with two of his Hillsdale students, seniors Lillian Martin and Rachel Smith.
“It was so interesting to have that different cultural experience with the same professor that I have in Michigan, where we probably wouldn’t have engaged in that sort of activity, but it was just natural for us to do so in Germany,” Martin said.
Martin and Smith spent the spring semester abroad through Hillsdale’s Saarland University Exchange Program. The program is one of eight study abroad progrms that the college offers in six countries: England, France, Germany, Spain, Argentina, and Scotland.
While Hillsdale’s campus cannot boast a presence overseas, individual departments coordinate with schools abroad, providing students with immersive experiences and a greater sense of independence. Since each program is organized and headed by a faculty director, students benefit from a personalized approach to their goals and needs. However, this decentralization has some downsides: Because the programs vary widely, the courses don’t always transfer neatly, and the merit-based financial aid students enjoy on campus might not follow them abroad.
The exchange program in Saarland immerses students in a large university setting: “They’re coming from a cushioned Hillsdale to a baby-swim situation,” said Geyer, who is the director of Hillsdale’s German study abroad programs.
If a semester of swimming isn’t appealing, German students can travel and take classes with a Hillsdale professor for a month through the Würzburg program, through which students earn five academic credit hours while traveling in southern Germany.
“It is an intermediate to advanced language course,” Geyer said. “I think it gives students who have passed the language requirements the feeling that they could actually, after this intense program, continue living in Germany, that they could actually converse in the language. It is a very bright light at the end of the tunnel.”
Like the Saarland program, the popular Oxford affiliation throws students into the Oxford University pond and lets them swim, according to Academy Headmaster Kenneth Calvert, who advises those involved in the Oxford Study Abroad Program.
“It is not a Hillsdale-in-Oxford kind of thing, where we are sending our professors,” Calvert said. “The students are there to work with genuine Oxford University faculty.”
Students who go to Oxford don’t live in a house owned and operated by the school, the model for Stanford University and the University of Notre Dame, for example. Nor will they learn under Hillsdale professors accompanying them. Instead, students experience the typical Oxford tutorial, where they work one-on-one or two-on-one with an Oxford professor.
“Our insistence on making this exclusively a tutorial between the student and the professor is something that is somewhat unusual for Hillsdale College,” Calvert said.
Each year, seven to eight Hillsdale students go to Oxford for a summer session or a semester. The Oxford Study Abroad Program accepts students from over 650 colleges and universities worldwide, placing the students into one of Oxford University’s 39 different colleges.
The Spanish department partners with Spanish Studies Abroad, a center for cross-cultural study with affiliations in Spain, Argentina, and other Spanish speaking countries. The company provides international students with opportunities to gain a deeper understanding of the language and the culture.
“We have worked with them for a long time because we have confidence in the quality of their academic instruction,” Professor of Spanish Kevin Teegarden said. “They use the some of the same books that we do, their courses match our requirements, and that sort of thing. We are very comfortable with them.”
Since 2003, 144 Hillsdale Spanish students have studied abroad in a variety of different programs, most heading to Seville, Spain, where students take classes with other Americans at the Spanish Studies Abroad center.
“Most of our students have opted to go to the Seville program, I think mainly because students come back, and they’ve had a great experience, so they recommend it to their friends,” Teegarden said. “That is the largest Spanish program Hillsdale students go on.”
According to Registrar Douglas McArthur, credits earned through Hillsdale’s official study abroad programs do transfer and are considered institutional credit that counts toward a student’s Hillsdale GPA. There is no guarantee that those same credits will also count toward a student’s programs of study, majors or minors, he said in an email.
“How credits might apply toward a specific program is a decision made by the appropriate department chair,” McArthur said. “Each official program has a faculty director, and interested students should see the director to learn how the particular program works and what is necessary to participate.”
Some Hillsdale students, however, opt to study abroad through other colleges.
Junior Suzie Peyrebrune spent six weeks this summer studying at the University of Dallas’s Rome campus, where she took classes in both Literary Traditions and the Art and Architecture of Rome, participating in excursions with her group of about 60 students.
“I think the classes that I took were very much in line with Hillsdale’s education, and the places that I visited were also very important to what I have learned at Hillsdale,” Peyrebrune said.
Peyrebrune found the program through a high school friend, and she said her literature class will transfer as elective credit, and her art class will count for her fine arts core credit.
For Peyrebrune, the program was attractive because of the location (Hillsdale does not have a Rome affiliation) and the inexpensive price.
Several of Hillsdale’s study abroad faculty directors said the programs’ costs, which institutional financial aid often cannot cover, can present a difficulty for students interested in study abroad.
Geyer said the Würzburg summer program can end up being a “very expensive month.” The Würzburg program costs $2,600 for Hillsdale College’s summer school tuition of five credit hours, as well as program services estimated around $1,700, in addition to flight and other costs abroad.
“The Oxford program is very expensive, and it is prohibitive for students who want to go,” Calvert said. “I will have in a given year, have 25 to 30 students inquire after the program, and only 10 of them will go. It always, always has to do with money.”
According to Teegarden, financial aid does not follow students off-campus.
Rich Moeggenberg, director of financial aid, confirmed that financial aid packages assume full-time status for both the fall and spring semesters.
“Generally speaking, merit scholarships can’t be applied to summer school and they can’t be applied to study abroad,” Moeggenberg said.
There is, however, a variety of scholarships dedicated for study abroad within each department and program. Moeggenberg said there are scholarships for the modern languages of Spanish, French, and German, in addition to a long-time endowed scholarship specifically used for study abroad.
One school of similar size and approach, Grove City College in Pennsylvania, which also boasts institutional independence from the government, has dedicated offices to study abroad programs, making it easier for students to find programs. Grove City’s Office of International Education aims to maintain their affiliate program costs around the same price as the typical semester on campus, plus additional airfare and housing costs, according to their website. At Hillsdale College, each program is run by its respective director and department as well as the business office, the registrar’s office, and the financial aid office, making it difficult to keep costs consistent across the board.
“Only one time in all my years here, people from all departments sat down and talked about study abroad,” Teegarden said. “Our big concern then, and it’s still a big concern today, is cost. As far as I know, there has never been a concerted effort to raise money just for study abroad, and I think that’s really something our college ought to consider.”
Despite the heavy cost, students say studying abroad enhanced their Hillsdale education.
“Studying abroad showed me the importance of communication and how language can open up doors,” Martin said. “It was such a beautiful thing that the best friend that I made there is from the Canary Islands, and I had no idea that place even existed before. We communicated in German, even though her native language was Spanish, and her English was basically fluent so we could have resorted to English, but we were there for the purpose of challenging ourselves, and that’s what I gained from studying abroad, just challenging myself and putting myself out there.”
Professors say that studying abroad is worth it, as the benefits to the college experience far exceed the costs.
“It’s an important part of a young person’s education, especially if you’re a language major, but even if you’re in business or other fields,” Teegarden said. “That experience of going abroad and learning about other cultures, which forces you to reflect on your own culture, is an invaluable experience, and I think it should be part of a liberal arts education.”