Travel-based Learning at Community College

Blog Post
Photo by Alexis Brown on Unsplash
June 23, 2021

In today’s increasingly interconnected world, travel-based learning experiences can play a key part in marketability and success after college. In an AIFS study, 66 percent of surveyed alumni were asked to talk about their study abroad experience during a job interview, and 24 percent believed their experience gave them an edge over other job candidates. A study by the Institute of International Education found that study abroad experiences helped students cultivate transferable job skills. More than half of the respondents believed that their study abroad experiences directly contributed to a job offer.

But not everyone has the means or opportunity to participate in travel-based learning. In the 2018-2019 academic year, only 1 in 10 U.S. undergraduate students studied abroad. Only 1.9 percent of these were associate degree seeking students. Open Doors also found that 68.7 percent of study abroad students were white. Part of the solution may lie with community colleges and increasing access to travel-based learning. At community colleges, the flexible programming and affordable cost-per-credit makes for a more diverse student profile. Expanded programing at community colleges could further diversify the talent pool from which local employers can draw.

As the College of DuPage (COD) demonstrates, community colleges can offer a range of travel-based learning opportunities tailored to the unique needs of their students. “We have an obligation to prepare our students to have a level of global competency. Employers expect that,” says Maren McKellin, the Manager of Field and Experiential Learning/Study Abroad and Global Education at COD. Since 2003, COD has been one of the top five community colleges awarding credit for study abroad. Its domestic and international travel-based programming offers students an opportunity to bridge the gap between theory and practice, says McKellin.

Travel-based learning at community colleges can be accessible and affordable. At roughly $140 per credit hour, COD is a less expensive option than credit-based travel at universities. Unlike many study abroad programs, COD programming is developed by its faculty and rarely relies on third-party providers. Students can combine financial aid with internal and external funding, meaning some students pay next to nothing to travel.

Travel-based learning at community colleges can also be a way to begin addressing issues of equity and inclusion. McKellin wants to ensure that study abroad opportunities aren’t limited to wealthy students. COD opens registration for travel courses a year in advance to give students ample time to apply for scholarships and make payments. While COD does still see a lot of white, female students, its travel programing is also peppered with more unexpected faces, like a local eighty-year-old retiree.

Contrary to popular perception, non-traditional students can make ideal candidates for travel-based learning. A recent study suggests that part-time students are actually more likely to participate in study abroad. For students who don’t intend to transfer, community college can be the only opportunity they’ll have at travel-based learning. For other students, such experiences can facilitate transfer pathways. As McKellin notes, community college students often have undecided majors, and travel-based learning experiences can help narrow their academic focus and forge connections to further studies at four-year institutions. “These programs say that you’re someone who likes to discover, problem-solve, and learn in a way that is unique,” says McKellin.

Community colleges can provide opportunities for experiential skill acquisition through short-term international travel. At COD, students interested in criminology can travel to the UK for a Global Justice course. They’ll visit prisons, talk to experts, and discuss criminal and social justice concepts. Or students might go to Canada on an ecological field program, where they’ll work at a remote field station and learn how to study animals in the wild. For students pursuing a certificate in COD’s culinary program, taking a course on chocolate making in France will set them apart on the job market. Experiential learning, argues McKellin, helps students make sense of what they already know.

Domestic travel-based learning can also prepare students for the workforce not only by fostering many of the same transferable job skills as study abroad but also by facilitating experiential skill acquisition. COD offers a Thunderstorm Laboratory where students do hands-on forecasting and chase storms in “Tornado Alley.” COD is one of the few programs in the country that does this for credit. For students interested in forensic anthropology or criminal justice, COD offers a summer taphonomy course in a lab at the University of Tennessee Knoxville. There, students study bodies in various stages and settings of decomposition. These kinds of opportunities can give students an edge over others entering the workforce.

While studying away takes many forms, these kinds of experiences can augment career readiness. Field-based experiential learning can strengthen self-confidence, provide students new ways to talk about themselves on the job market, and can help students gain tangible job skills, says McKellin. One alumnus, Taryn Gombe, participated in both the taphonomy and global justice programs. “There isn't a week that doesn't go by where I don't recall a learning point from one of these two courses,” says Gombe, who developed confidence, adaptability, and problem-solving skills through his experiences.

Community Colleges can provide affordable travel-based learning to those who might not otherwise have the opportunity. To create more equitable access to these opportunities, community colleges need to be part of that conversation.

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Workforce Development & CTE