As ACU said goodbye to its study abroad students Wednesday morning, Montevideo, Uruguay was getting ready to welcome its smallest group of students yet.
Only three students, all of them women, committed to study abroad at the Montevideo site this spring.
“Things like this are kind of cyclical, and it’s hard to explain,” said Stephen Shewmaker, executive director for international education, said about the smaller group. “You look for explanations, but it’s hard to know if the things you come up with are reliable.”
Shewmaker said closing the program for the semester crossed a few minds but was never a viable option because of the program’s fixed prices for the facility and staff living down there, including the cooks.
“It’s not as cost efficient, and we couldn’t over the long-term operate a program on three people, but it’s better for us in this instance to have the three go than to close the program.”
While the numbers may be smaller, expectations for the semester are still high. Shewmaker said travel included with the program will go as scheduled, and very little will change other than class size, and whether the women will have to share rooms.
He added that the smaller group has the opportunity to craft its experience more than past groups, especially those with larger numbers, were able to.
“I think it will give these three students the opportunity to hopefully pursue and connect with things they are really interested in, and the culture,” he said.
He said Tracy Shilcutt, professor of history and global studies, and faculty in residence for the semester have planned to limit time learning in Casa ACU, opting to educate her three students outside of the classroom.
Many different reasons factor into students dropping out of study abroad programs, with expenses being a central issue.
“Certainly one of the issues with students is the cost, and one of the things that they voice is cost,” he said. “We have also found that discounting programs, unless its done significantly, doesn’t really have that great of an impact on enrollment or participation.”
However, the groups going to Oxford usually recruit more than 15 each semester, challenging the argument of cost.
Instead, the unfamiliarity of the country can be blamed for the program’s low numbers.
“A huge portion of our student body and their parents doesn’t have any sense of Latin America or South America outside of Mexico,” Shewmaker said. “I don’t think it has to do with Uruguay specifically, because I don’t think most of our students know anything about Chile, Argentina or Peru. So, I don’t think it would take any less effort to communicate with students about those places than it does for Uruguay.”
He also said students are more familiar with European culture than Latin American, based off pop culture things like the Harry Potter series, One Direction and James Bond movies that originated there.
“There’s some comfort about Europe in general,” Shewmaker said. “There’s a higher level of comfort, but for the student who is looking for a little more of a stretching experience, Montevideo is a great place for that.”
Gorgi Hannah, sophomore business major from The Woodlands, is one of three students making the stretch this semester.
Hannah said the Montevideo program was most interesting to her because of its cultural aspect.
“I’ve wanted to learn Spanish for a while now, and I feel like God has been calling me to learn Spanish for missionary purposes, so that’s my passion for it,” she said.
When she realized only two other students were attending, though, she began to falter in her decision.
“I didn’t know until like right before we were leaving that there were only three,” she said. “I thought about it, because I am having to pay for the trip myself. It’s very expensive and there’s all this other stuff going on. I started thinking about all the reasons on why I shouldn’t go, but then I realized God has been telling me to do this so I need to do it. It’ll be what I make it.”
Similar to her professors and the study abroad office, Hannah remained optimistic and boarded the plane Wednesday afternoon to embark on her journey in Montevideo.
“I’ve been realizing the opportunities with just us three going, I’ll basically be getting tutoring for an entire semester in Spanish, so that’s actually kind of a blessing in itself,” she said. “And I’ll have deep relationships with just these two girls at the end of this trip.”
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