U.Va. sends first-year students abroad in pilot program

Another location added for Fall 2018


Participants in the London program gather in front of a vista in Naples, Italy.

Emily Lockwood | Cavalier Daily

For many students at the University, the summer before their first semester brings back memories of choosing twin-sized bedsheets, double-checking that their roommate is buying the microwave and imagining their home in Charlottesville for the next four years. However, this year, first-year students were offered a new opportunity — to begin their college academic careers overseas in a pilot program entitled “U.Va. London First: Global Cultures in a World City.” 

More specifically, 20 incoming first-year students began their first semester of the 2017-18 year in London, under the guidance of faculty advisor English Prof. Michael Levenson. Levenson is also the chair of the English department and the founding director of the University’s Institute of the Humanities and Global Cultures.

First-year College student and participant Emily Lockwood said she would recommend the experience.

“I had some doubts,” Lockwood said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “But in the end, if I could go abroad my first semester and I could build confidence and make friends, I could go to U.Va.”

Since Lockwood lives in northern Virginia and already knew a fair amount of students attending the University, she chose the program as a way to branch out. 

Levenson has also led summer programs at Regent’s University London in Royal Regent’s Park and Marylebone within central London for the past 20 years, which inspired the U.Va. London First initiative.

“[When Regent’s University was] looking for a new partner and because we had known [Regent’s] quite well for all these years as a summer program, it seemed natural to think about extending what we were hoping to do in the way of globalizing the University,” Levenson said. “People always say, ‘let's be global, let's be global’ and my impatient response is, ‘let's stop talking about it, and let's start doing it.’ This was one very sharp way of bringing it into action.”

The 20 students selected enrolled in five courses summing up to 16 credits, and incorporated components of the University’s new College of Arts and Sciences curriculum which is partly comprised of topics known as ‘engagements.’ The U.Va. London First program will incorporate two out of the four engagements: Engaging Differences and Engaging Aesthetics. In addition to these courses, students also take courses taught by Regent’s faculty  alongside Regent’s students.

“Our Dean, Ian Baucom, was very decisive in seeing that we could begin this program quickly and efficiently and also [helped] to make it coincide with the transformation in the undergraduate curriculum,” Levenson said. 

Levenson said the two engagements — focusing on differences and the arts — come together especially well in London, because the city’s diversity means human difference can be found naturally just by living there.

One of the main reasons the program was designed was because educators noticed a gap in the number of students who showed interest in going abroad and those who actually ended up going. This was often due to academic commitments and major requirements. Levenson hoped that offering a study abroad program in the first semester would get more students traveling abroad.

History Prof. Mark Thomas will lead a new and similar “U.Va. Shanghai First” program next year in collaboration with Fudan University, and expects the experience abroad to emphasize important facets of the University education while not differing greatly from the curriculum students follow in Charlottesville.

“Shanghai is a modern, dynamic, cosmopolitan city with a fascinating history,” Thomas wrote in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “We will be creating an academic, social and cultural community that is closer to the Jeffersonian ideal of the academical village than is usually possibly for incoming first years.”

Thomas explained that, while on the study abroad trip, students will be housed in one central location, will share classroom space and will experience Shanghai through cultural events and group trips to areas such as Suzhou, Nanjing and Hongzhou. The group will also spend a week in Beijing together. Upon returning to Charlottesville for the spring semester, students will be housed in the International Residential College, where they will continue to enjoy the company of their Shanghai peers in addition to making new friends.

The Shanghai program academic structure follows that of the London program, with a slight difference in Thomas’ combined four-credit Engagement class, which will focus on what it means to be a global citizen and understanding cultural difference in the context of a Chinese setting.

“There will also be a Writing class, taught by a U.Va. graduate student, as well as the option of taking Mandarin classes — at introductory, intermediate or advanced level,” Thomas said.  “The final part is the opportunity to take classes from the excellent faculty at Fudan University; all of these courses will be taught in English and are designed to meet area requirements for the College.”

Many, including Levenson, question whether first semester is the best time for students to go abroad as their peers adjust to Charlottesville and being at college for the first time, but after careful consideration, Levenson feels the experience is positive overall. 

“One encouraging piece of evidence was in those years of doing the summer program, one of the stronger things I discovered [was] that [studying abroad provides] personal and intellectual solidarity,” Levenson said. “On the London trip, students were able to create their own communities that were more or less permanent friends.”

Lockwood said her favorite part of the trip was having the ability to experience and get comfortable in a new place.

“I lived in my town for 18 years, so I never had to experience living somewhere new,” Lockwood said.

After this pilot semester, Levenson reflected on the program’s potential expansion.

“While we know that there were wonderful students who became part of the program, I think that there were other equally capable students who were not admitted in the program,” Levenson said. “What we realized [was] that very accomplished students will be kept away unless we expand these programs.”

The addition of the Shanghai program is the first step that has been taken to ensure a greater number of students can experience their first semester abroad.

“I feel so strongly that this is such a remarkable and transformational experience that I think the University should aim to have 10 percent of the first-years go abroad somewhere,” Levenson said. “They're going to come back and be little global seedlings in the class and talk about their experiences. Those are very powerful contributions to the University.”

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