In-Depth Reporting-International Study

Four Decades of Study Abroad

After four decades, PLU study abroad program flourishes

Megan Wochnick


The study abroad program at PLU has seen its share of students and faculty all over the world during the past four decades. What started as an idea from a faculty member to take students to learn first hand about the government in British Columbia has turned PLU into an established national leader in international education.

“There aren’t many comprehensive or liberal arts universities that have achieved the level of curriculum programs and study abroad participation than PLU,” said Dr. Ann Kelleher, chair of the Political Science department and former director of the Center of International Programs. “Of all the comprehensive universities, we are one of the leaders in the country.”

According to Kelleher, the first PLU faculty-lead trip was in the mid- to late-1960s. The political science professor thought that taking a group of students somewhere to learn first hand would be good for them. The group traveled to British Columbia and studied government.

In 1978, Judy Carr was hired as a full-time administrator, known for her work in specialized academic programs.  She was in charge of organizing short-term and semester-long study abroad programs. Before Carr’s arrival, study abroad at PLU was non-existent.

“That emphasis institution-wise is relatively recent,” Kelleher said. “Back in the 1980s, there weren’t many who thought having study abroad was an emphasis, but we worked on it.”

The start of 1980 was the start of short-term programs during the month of January to more traditional countries. Before being known as J-Term, it was entitled Interim, with only one or two courses taken each January. Calvin Knapp of the music department, who took students to study theater in Paris and London, taught one of the first Interim courses. 

“There were significant study away programs that started in the early 1980s,” said Janet Rasmussen, former director of the Wang Center. “That’s when it began to blossom.”

As the Interim courses started up, so did the destinations for semester-long programs. PLU was one of the originators for the experiential off-campus programs in Ecuador, Jamaica and London, Kelleher said.

“Those (programs) became known nationally,” Kelleher said. “The institution that runs those now is the Partnership for Service Learning.”

In the mid-1990s, there was a spike in J-term student participation, after the pricing structure changed for J-term courses. The pricing structure had been tuition plus the program cost, which boosted the overall costs by hundreds of dollars, Kelleher said

“I got a committee around me and we tackled that one head on,” said Kelleher, recalling her days as the director of Center for International Programs. “We convinced the vice president of Finance and Operations that charging full tuition plus programs costs was not the way to go.”

With the costs so high, fewer students participated in J-term abroad courses. After a year, the decision was to charge only half tuition plus programs costs, because students abroad during J-term would not utilize campus services.

“Once that went in, we saw a great increase of students going overseas during J-term,” Kelleher said. “We went from two to six and up to twelve programs the next year.”

While there had been significant progress of study abroad, there was also talk of doing something to further the university’s international programs. Peter Wang, a 1960 PLU graduate, and his wife, Grace, had been in contact with President Loren Anderson about supporting PLU and its international programs.

“They were interested in doing something that would further the knowledge and understanding of other cultures and other countries in order to further support world peace,” said Susan Mann, director of Study Away.

However, shortly after the terrorist attacks that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001, the talk turned into something greater.

In December 2001, Peter and Grace Wang donated $4 million to establish The Wang Center for International Programs, which opened its doors June 1, 2002.

“The idea of creating The Wang Center was to have a focal point that would weave the threads of global education together for the university at large and would begin some new effort that had not been underway previously,” Mann said.

In just four year of existence, the Wang Center has seen the number students going abroad during J-term increase. In January 2006, students abroad hit an all-time high of 370, compared to 249 students in 2005. This past J-term was the first time ever a university has had students studying on all seven continents at the same time, in 25 different countries.

Mann said there has been a push for more students to go abroad and it’s not just faculty of the Wang Center trying to make it all happen.

“One thing that is unique about PLU and its commitment to global education is that there’s a broad support for international programs here,” Mann said. “There are a lot of people who feel having students study off campus is an important part of their educational experience.”

Not only has there been an increase of J-term programs, but PLU has also added more semester-long programs. Recently, Norway and Mexico has been added to the list of PLU-directed semester study abroad programs. Before that, PLU ran two semester-long abroad programs: China and Trinidad & Tobago.

“The partnerships with overseas universities and partnerships on campus make it work,” Rasmussen said. “It has been a success story and there’s been an increasing array of study abroad programs that PLU has been able to mount.”

In the United States, 1 percent of American college and university students study abroad, according to the Institute of International Education. At PLU alone, the number of students studying abroad is 39 percent, which ranks PLU 81st in the nation. Covenant College in Georgia and Lee University in Tennessee, both rank first in the nation with 100 percent of students studying abroad.

Mann said PLU and the Wang Center want the number of PLU students going abroad to be at 50 percent by 2010. She said it’s important for students to take what they learn at PLU and apply it into the real world.

“What happens on campus in the classroom here is really important,” Mann said. “Finding ways to take what students are learning in the classroom here and take it out into the world is in some ways just as important.”