Intensive Study Abroad for First-Generation College Students

Article excerpt

I watch Rubi Garcia, a rising sophomore at the University of Southern California (USC), expertly negotiate a conversation with three Japanese students at a reception in Nagoya, Japan, even though she speaks only a few words of Japanese and these students speak little English. Rubi is nearing the end of her first trip outside of the United States, part of a class I teach on America culture in Japan and Japanese culture in the United States. At the beginning of this study abroad intensive course, I didn't imagine that Rubi or her peers could successfully engage in this international dialogue, given their limited language skills. Rubi is a first-generation college student from the Watts area of Los Angeles, and she has travelled with twelve other students, freshmen to seniors, who are all the first in their families to attend college. These students are Norman Topping Scholars at USC, a fellowship program that identifies low-income students who have overcome major obstacles to attend college. These thirteen undergraduates have travelled to Japan with the student service professionals that run the program, along with a team of two PhD students and a working professional I have assembled to provide them a first-rate educational experience.


As a faculty member dedicated to working with underrepresented minority and lowincome students, and a dean whose responsibilities include ensuring that diverse students take full advantage of their college educations, I have been overjoyed by the chance to develop this intensive study abroad course. It is currently a three-and-one-half week "Maymester" course that takes place immediately after commencement and before our regular summer sessions. This allows our students to enroll in this four-unit course as part of their regular spring curriculum, taking advantage of their respective financial aid packages, while also being supported in their travel by the exceptional funding of the Norman Topping Program and research support from the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences.

This is the second Topping student group that has gone to Japan under the auspices of this course. I initially developed the course with Christina Yokoyama, director of the Norman Topping Program, in academic year 2009-10, after we realized that first-generation college students were among the least likely USC students to participate in traditional study abroad programs. Although the university was proud of producing "global leaders and citizens" among its undergraduates, very few students from our first-generation college population - which accounts for 16 percent of our student body - pursue traditional study abroad opportunities. The Topping Scholars were perfect partners to create a new cohort of global leaders, since the scholarship program consisted almost exclusively of first-generation college students, many of whom were already campus leaders committed to community involvement. What was needed was a course dedicated to their particular needs and interests.

We chose Japan as a site to study because it was a relatively safe environment for a first trip abroad, as well as a non-Western culture that had deep connections to our region of southern California. I wanted to make sure that students could see Japan in our local culture, while also experiencing how features of US society and history made their way across the Pacific to Japan. Unlike study abroad programs made for students familiar with international travel and cosmopolitan culture, this program would make global culture itself part of the investigation, trying to show how Japan and the United States were interrelated societies that had made connections despite differences in race, class, and culture over time. Those transnational connections included a history of war and violence, corporate relationships, and the movement of people and culture back and forth for over a hundred years. …


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