The Ohio State University Alumni Association

A growing number of Ohio State students are studying abroad, learning the ways of the world and more than a little about themselves and their fields.

After fewer than three weeks in Japan, Brianna VanNoy could put flesh on the numbers. And in her view, that’s one of the most important aspects of her field.

Brianna VanNoy

Senior Brianna VanNoy visiting Minamata Bay in Japan as a part of her study abroad trip.

“Public health is about people. It’s easy to get bogged down in the numbers, but ultimately it’s about people,” said VanNoy, an Ohio State senior majoring in environmental public health.

Her study abroad trip last May crystallized that point like no other experience she’s had.

From Hiroshima to Minamata and Toyama to Ishinomaki, VanNoy and about 20 fellow students met with survivors or relatives affected by Japan’s worst environmental health disasters of the past century. The three-credit program immersed students in a study of public health issues in Japan.

VanNoy is far from alone in her assessment of the value of getting away for a learning experience. The university ranks seventh nationally in the number of students who study abroad, according to the Institute of International Education, up from 25th just two years ago. Ohio State students can choose from more than 200 options and currently represent about 35 majors.

Key to the steady increase in study abroad in recent years was the university’s switch to semesters in 2012, resulting in creation of a May session. Thirty percent more students studied abroad that academic year than the year before, and the numbers have continued to grow.

That’s one reason the institute ranks Ohio State second in the country for short-term programs, which attract 94 percent of Buckeyes who study abroad. The national average is 62 percent.

“I thought the May program was perfect,” said Anna Tatakis, a junior majoring in biology who traveled to India last year for a global public health program. “I didn’t have to take any time off from my regular classes.” That allowed her to stay on track in her pre-med program, a value of the May session expressed by many students.

Cutting the cost

Two factors that make study abroad more affordable for students are feeding the growth.

The 3-year-old STEP initiative is designed to improve student retention and graduation rates along with other measures of success. Short for Second-year Transformational Experience Program, STEP helps students succeed by increasing interaction with faculty and peers, involvement in campus events and on-campus residency. It was piloted in 2013–14 and, beginning this fall, is open to all sophomores, who for the first time will be required to live in university housing. As part of the program, students can apply for a $2,000 grant to fund educational pursuits, including study abroad.

In addition, since the switch to semesters, the university has offered a tuition credit for up to three hours of course work undertaken in the May session. That credit, which students have largely used to defray the cost of study abroad, was to expire this year. But the university announced it would continue at least through this year’s first four-week summer session.

Expanding the learning

In contrast to the growing popularity of short-term programs, only about 6 percent of students went abroad for one or both semesters last year.

That illustrates the changing nature of the study abroad program: What once was a grand tour of Europe spanning months or even a year is now a much shorter, focused excursion. While the countries of the United Kingdom are still students’ leading destinations, the second-most popular locales last year were Costa Rica and Australia.

“The students are getting more adventurous and are following content more than continents,” said Kelly Newlon, who coordinates study abroad programs for the College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. When Newlon started her job in 2007, she managed six programs a year. That has ballooned to 18.


Andrew Min exploring the Great Barrier Reef off Australia.


Min learning about snakes on Magnetic Island off Queensland.

Connecting the dots

Students might pick coffee beans for a day in Brazil and then experience their buying power in the marketplace. Or work in a prosthetics factory in India to design a foot affordable to locals. Or comb through commerce records in the National Archive of Argentina.

Clearly, today’s programs are designed to immerse students in their surroundings, sometimes literally, as was the case with Andrew Min’s snorkeling excursion in the Great Barrier Reef.

This senior who has lived his whole life in Hilliard, Ohio, always thought he’d study abroad, but he expected it to be in Asia to explore his ancestry. Instead, he chose a May session program that looked at the relationship between people and their natural environment in Australia as a balance to his industrial engineering studies.

Still, he said, there were connections: In both engineering and sustainability, Min has learned the importance of reducing defects and waste in processes.

The experience also opened his eyes to the world’s interconnectedness. Since he returned, a General Motors rep told him a port explosion in China meant his company couldn’t get the tires it needed.

“It can have an effect all the way across the world,” Min said. “You think more globally after a study abroad experience.”

The adventurous options students have today certainly weren’t available when Ohio State’s vice provost for global strategies and international affairs was an undergraduate in the late 1960s. As a student at the University of Connecticut, William Brustein found the only study abroad program was to France, and it was primarily for language and literature majors.

“There were no choices in terms of duration. One year or nothing,” he said. “When I went, I was sitting in a classroom. The variety of programs now is strong.”

Study abroad group

Andrew Min poses with his study abroad classmates in Australia.

Brandenburg Gate

Ohio State study abroad students show their pride at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany.

Funding the journey

Although the cost of study abroad varies widely depending on the destination, the Office of International Affairs encourages students to investigate three funding sources: university-wide scholarships, scholarships linked to a particular college or major and sources beyond Ohio State, such as the Rotary Club and other groups.

In addition, a student’s financial aid can be taken abroad, said Education Abroad Director Grace Johnson, noting she’s even heard of students hosting bake sales to help finance their travel and academic dreams.

“We’ve always had the philosophy at Ohio State that study abroad not be exclusive,” she said.

Newlon theorized that the growth in study abroad programs is in part generational. “This group of students we are still calling millennials, they have an expectation. The world is much smaller to them. They have a desire to have an effect on the world.”

Studying abroad, she said, is a step toward learning what their role could be.

Professor Margaret Newell, vice chair of the Department of History, last year led a new May program to Buenos Aires, examining it as the hub of an international trading network of the early modern world. She counted sophomores to seniors among her 19 students, only one of whom was a history major.

Currently, 2.5 percent of engineering students study abroad. But in coming years, Donald Hempson, who coordinates such programs for the College of Engineering, thinks the number of engineering students who do so — or at least take courses with a strong global emphasis — will grow nearly tenfold.

For Mikal Nolan, who graduated 12 years ago with a degree in agribusiness and applied economics, a quarter in Brazil produced an “aha! moment.”

“This is when I realized that I wanted to help people to maintain access to land, develop economic opportunities and strengthen social systems,” she said.

Since graduating, Nolan has worked and volunteered for non-governmental organizations in Zambia, Indonesia and, now, Papua New Guinea, where she is program manager for the Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program.

Faculty members across the university agree that international experience is an increasingly valuable personal and career asset.

“A lot of people can bring [skills] to the table,” Brustein said. “If you can add to it an abroad experience, your résumé will stand out.”

Long back from her trip to Japan, Brianna VanNoy relays the experience of seeing a high-water mark left by the 2011 tsunami on the wall of a hilltop hospital in Ishinomaki, far above where locals expect tsunamis to reach. It’s impossible to see that and not be changed.

Now, as she sifts through graduate school acceptances, VanNoy said she is more aware of other cultures and sensitive to the strangeness international students might feel.

“When we were in Japan, we were the odd man out,” which in itself is educational, she said. “I’m thankful that at Ohio State it’s almost an expectation that you should study abroad.”

Efforts help keep students safe in a volatile world

Dru Simmons has two smartphones. One, he would prefer not to have to answer. Any emergency call of an international nature that comes into Security Services in Blankenship Hall activates a phone tree. “The first call is this cell.”

Within 12 minutes of hearing about the Paris terrorist attacks in November, Simmons, Ohio State’s international risk manager, had reached out to all 11 students and the one faculty member studying in France.

When the university hired Simmons in 2013, not many schools had a full-time staff member to monitor health, safety and security related to study abroad. One of Simmons’ first tasks was to arrange for the evacuation of three students from Egypt because of the violent upheaval there. That was the only time he has had to take such action.

The growing popularity of study abroad, especially in developing countries, intensifies Simmons’ job.

“When people hear what my job is, they immediately think terrorism is the principle concern. While we constantly monitor that, I am more focused on areas such as transportation and traffic safety, because statistics tell us that is the leading risk for students and U.S. travelers in general.

“You have to talk with students about reassessing their street smarts when abroad,” Simmons said. His other top concerns are swimming safety and overconsumption of alcohol.

In addition to keeping in touch with embassies throughout the world, Simmons looks for guidance from the U.S. Department of State, travel insurance providers and colleagues at other universities.

What did you learn from study abroad?

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Learn more

Learn about the grants and scholarships for study abroad, click here.

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For details on supporting students’ study abroad endeavors, click here.