As a prelude to the fall 2012 semester, Jacksonville University launched its first-ever study abroad freshman experience.
Eight incoming freshmen participated in the program, entitled JU 101 in Costa Rica: Expand Your Expectations – Explore New Shores, from Aug. 15 to 22. Having not yet started courses at the JU, the students took a leap of faith by spending a week in San Jose, Costa Rica, preparing for the transition to college that was to follow.
“Our office has been interested in setting up a freshman experience for some time, and we thought that this format would be the most successful,” said Kelly Marton, JU director of study abroad. “Instead of sending them out for a longer period of time, we thought one week with a contained cohort would help them adjust to college the way that the JU 101 course is meant to, but even more so by going abroad.”
The structure for the freshman program was resurrected in the 2012 spring semester from a previous proposal, originally made by Marton’s predecessor. The study abroad office began to collaborate with admissions, academic affairs and the JU 101 program in March in order to make it happen.
“People really bond over a study abroad experience, so this is a really good way for new freshmen to come into college, have some new experiences, and start off their semester with a support system of peers already,” Marton said.
Working with admissions, letters and emails were sent to all freshmen and parents of freshmen, to make them aware of this as an option. All freshmen were eligible to apply and applications were accepted on a first-come, first-serve basis, Marton said.
“I personally wanted to go just so that I could go to college and already have some friends so it wasn’t quite as like, a shock, when you get to college and don’t know anyone and it actually did work out,” said Lauren Henderson, freshman participant.
While in Costa Rica, accompanied by Marton and professor of Spanish and JU 101 Maria González, students resided in homestays with local families and participated in a series of group activities throughout each day.
Excursions included zip-lining in the rainforest, a walking tour of San Jose, a tour of a coffee plantation, a visit to La Paz waterfalls, a trip to a basilica, Latin cooking and dancing classes, mini Spanish lessons, a piano concert, and a day of service with a daycare.
“We went to the rainforest to do the zip-lining it was a beautiful, beautiful place. You were able to see the whole thing down there,” said González, who sang the song “Born Free,” by Andy Williams, as she soared through the canopy.
While each activity was selected for student enjoyment and immersion into the culture, the journey was on a whole designed to develop an analogy between the experience of going to an unknown country and going to a university for the first time, González said.
“Study abroad opens your eyes to a whole different world,” González said. “We forget, when we’re living in one place that this whole world around us is so different.”
The results were visible in the increasing confidence and sociability of students.
“I felt that I was more ready to handle situations in college that I wouldn’t be familiar with because we had to handle a lot of that over there, like the language barrier, the different culture and everything,” freshman participant Kaitlyn Highsmith said.
When the students first met one another, when they departed for Costa Rica, the group was very quiet, González said.
“By the time we were at the end of the week, you couldn’t stop them from talking to each other, singing together,” González said. “I mean, that van [riding back to the airport] was very loud but very full of energy and good emotion and a high. They truly, all of them, enjoyed it tremendously.”
Upon their return, the students remained as a group, enrolled in the same JU 101 course for the semester under the continued instruction of González.
“It has been very positive for them,” González said. “I can see them feeling very comfortable at being in the university where with other students in the past without the trip, it took them a while to get there, maybe the whole semester to get there. They feel very much at home with each other and as a group in the class where they feel very comfortable to ask questions. They feel like they have a little home during the week to come to as they go to their other classes.”
In this twist on JU 101, the international experience is designed to complement the course, designed for students to assess and develop the personal and interpersonal dynamics, skills and sense of confidence necessary for success in college. The concept of students coming into the semester with familiar peers is intended to ease the transition and learning process.
“Every time they have class I see them come in and they’re chatting with each other, they are making jokes,” Marton said. “It’s like they’ve known each other for a really long time so it’s really rewarding to see all of these changes.
For the first launch of this program Marton and González both regarded the endeavor as highly successful, a notion that echoed among the students.
“I would recommend this trip because it’s a great way to meet people,” said freshman participant Abigail Shovlain. “So, when you go to college you’ll feel a lot more at home.”