Fostering Global Scholars: International Internships for Fairfield University Students

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 17–18, 2017

Dillard University
New Orleans, Louisiana


In October 2016, with funding from the Department of Education’s Undergraduate International Studies and Foreign Language Program (UISFL), a group of faculty and staff at Fairfield University launched the Global Scholars Program (GSP).1 The GSP was created with two main objectives: to increase the number of students who spend time abroad in the Global South and to increase the number of underrepresented students who spend time abroad as part of an academic program. Of 246 Fairfield University students who studied abroad for a semester or more during the 2015-16 academic year, 243 chose a western country as their destination, and 88% of them self-identify as Caucasian. The GSP was developed to address these statistics by targeting and supporting underrepresented students and creating internship opportunities in non-traditional destinations.

By creating summer international internships in the Global South, the program seeks to address the barriers that hinder diversity in these two aspects of international education. Current study abroad statistics underline the need to increase the proportion of underrepresented students studying abroad and the need to expose students with a tendency for myopic regional interests to different cultures. To maximize the impact of the students’ experiences abroad, the research component of this program explores the ways in which students can share their experiences with the larger university community and contribute to diversity in the classroom context through means such as research projects, capstone courses, and class discussions and presentations. As we completed the first year of the program, we concluded that through concerted efforts and with targeted funding, we were able to meet both objectives.

Thirty students comprised the program’s inaugural applicant pool, and 47% of them were students of color. Of the 20 students who were accepted to participate in the summer 2017 cohort, 50% were students of color. University-wide, 78% of full time undergraduate students self identify as white. Of the ten students who ultimately traveled to South Africa, The Gambia, and Guatemala for summer internships in 2017 as part of the GSP, two were student athletes, six were commuters, eight were students of color, and six were heritage speakers of other languages (Spanish, Korean, and Arabic). Nine of the students received partial scholarships to participate in the program, and eight traveled abroad as part of an academic program for the first time. While the cohort was relatively small and consequently produced findings that can only be considered anecdotal, these findings are consistent with our assumptions regarding the barriers that impede some students from participating in study abroad programs. Financial and time constraints are primary among them; the scholarships that were made possible by the UISFL grant and the flexibility of the program enabled these students to participate.

Why GSP?

The students who participated in the GSP were attracted to the program because of its flexibility. The program was designed to appeal to students who, for a range of reasons, were unable to spend a semester abroad—student athletes, students whose financial constraints require that they work part-time during the school year, and students whose academic programs don’t offer the flexibility to study abroad for a semester. The scholarship that is available to qualifying students serves as an additional incentive for students who don’t believe they can afford expenses associated with studying abroad, such as airfare and living expenses. Although the GSP offers only partial scholarships, students were enthusiastic about raising funds for this opportunity.

Preparing to Participate

Students go through extensive preparation to participate in the program. Selection for summer internships takes place in the fall prior, and is accompanied by at least one interview with the program’s faculty and staff. Central to students’ preparation as Global Scholars are pre-departure workshops and meetings that are aimed at helping them to develop greater intercultural competency, which is based on “understanding and supporting the processes by which individuals develop capacity to effectively communicate across cultures” (Lee et al., 2012, p. 17). This preparation requires students to attend at least two relevant intercultural events, including lectures and workshops, and also involves language training. Students traveling to Guatemala study Spanish, those traveling to Brazil study Portuguese, those traveling to The Gambia study Wolof, and those traveling to South Africa have the option of studying either Zulu or Xhosa. Intercultural competence development also involves required reading and regular meetings with faculty advisors to discuss the history, politics, and contemporary social contexts of the countries where they will be interning.

Preliminary results based on our first cohort revealed that students developed both a heightened awareness of the social, political, and cultural contexts of their host society and a stronger sense of their own cultural identity following their internship experiences abroad. Several scholars have emphasized the enduring influence that the development of intercultural competence has on students’ academic work (Root & Ngampornchai, 2012; Salisbury et al., 2013; & Karnyshev et al., 2014). Lee et al. underscore the significance of reflective exercises, through which students can express how the experiences transformed them and describe the ways in which they engaged with their host communities. When asked in our cross-cultural survey to rate the following four questions on a four-point scale ranging from “Strongly Agree” to “Strongly Disagree,” six out of ten of the interns moved one or two points in a positive direction following their internship:

  • I can describe the unique strengths of my host country
  • I am familiar with the literature and the arts of my host country
  • I understand the ways the United States impacts my host country
  • I can describe the values and norms of my host country

Additionally, five out of ten felt that they agreed more with these statements post internship:

  • Cultural differences impact my daily life
  • I can describe contemporary issues or problems in my host country
  • I can describe economic characteristics of my host country

Another component of the program is the post-internship requirement that students continue to engage with the program through sustained participation in programming and through sharing their experiences via in-class presentations, blogs, and social media. Preliminary evidence from focus groups with the first cohort of students suggests that this aspect of the program helps them to further develop intercultural competency. In reference to their internship experiences, students blogged:

Learning the language before I got there helped me to be able to break ice and approach people. It was a step into their culture and dropped a barrier; it brightened up their days. (Heritage Korean speaker, GSP 2017 Intern in The Gambia)
There is institutional racism, but somehow they are very unified, they are comfortable in who they are. They choose to look at the good. (African American student, GSP 2017 Intern, South Africa)
People were very caring. It’s something that I’m not used to anymore. I moved here from Ecuador when I was younger, where things are more affectionate, but living here for 10 years, I forgot what that was like. So I felt like I was home in a way being back in that environment. (Heritage Spanish speaker, GSP 2017 Intern in The Gambia)
… People perceive that Africa is poor, that people there need money, that they need western culture, but my experience was that I wanted them to preserve their culture. Their traditions and customs should continue. (Heritage Korean speaker, GSP 2017 Intern in The Gambia)
It was my first experience being a minority and I definitely can relate better to minorities here after this internship. (Caucasian student, GSP 2017 Intern, Guatemala)

Why GSP?

Lee et al. describe the development of intercultural competency as:
The capacity of individuals to respectfully engage and communicate with another so that they have benefit of another person’s cultural perspectives. Such capacity results in the ability to communicate and form relationships more effectively with persons who are different from us, and to see, interpret, understand, appreciate, and utilize what we have learned in new ways. (p. 43)

This first year of the program has raised ideas about how best to prepare students, debrief them, and integrate their learning from this experience within our university context. The faculty and staff of the GSP have been challenged to consider the term “intercultural competence” more carefully. How do we define that term, how do we teach it, model it, and measure it? Is this program preparing our students to be “more marketable global citizens,” or to “ help us all live together harmoniously” (Huber et al., 2014, p. 9)? In addition, the transition home is challenging, as several students themselves reported:

I think I need a couple months and years to digest everything that happened! (Syrian American student, GSP 2017 Intern, The Gambia)
I want to go back! I’m working on a research project about race and women. I can learn about these issues in my majors and minors: Sociology, Politics, Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies, and Health Studies. (Heritage Spanish speaker, GSP 2017 Intern in The Gambia)
I’m still talking to a lot of the students and friends. I also want to stay in touch with [host organization] and to keep learning Wolof. I really want to help in their science field. I want to help those girls to get to international science fairs and have been emailing the [host organization] director about that. I will keep in touch. (Heritage Korean speaker, GSP 2017 Intern in The Gambia)
This I remember, because I can’t forget it. When I got to my home and my room, and when I opened my closet door, the first thing I saw were my 25 purses. I felt ashamed. In Guatemala, I had the opportunity to meet a lot of kids who didn’t even have shoes. (Heritage Spanish speaker, GSP 2017 Intern in Guatemala)

The students’ comments serve as a reminder of the need to develop career resources and academic advising for returned GSP students—among other study abroad students—who want to continue in a field related to their experience. Through these measures, it will be more likely that the program will have a more persistent impact on the students’ lives, careers, and interactions with others.


In this, the second year of the program, we deem it to be a success thus far. The program has met its two main priorities: to increase the number of underrepresented students who participate in an academic program abroad and to increase the presence of Fairfield University students in the Global South. The program has also illustrated the significance of intercultural competence to the overall student experience abroad, and to the long-term relevance of the program. Our greatest challenge as we continue the program will be to secure the funding needed to enable the participation of underrepresented students.

1 The Global Scholars Program is funded 100% by U.S. Department of Education, Undergraduate International Studies and Foreign Language Programs.


Huber, J., Reynolds, C., Barrett, M., & Council of Europe (2014). Developing Intercultural Competence Through Education: Développer la compétence interculturelle par l’éducation, 3(3).

Karnyshev, A. D., Karnysheva, O. A., & Ivanova, E. A. (2014). College students’ intercultural competence and interethnic tolerance. Russian Education & Society, 56(9), 3-26.

Lee, A., Poch, R. K., Shaw, M., & Williams, R. (2012). Engaging Diversity in Undergraduate Classrooms: A Pedagogy for Developing Intercultural Competence, 38(2).

Root, E., & Ngampornchai, A. (2013). I came back as a new human being: Student descriptions of intercultural competence acquired through education abroad experiences. Journal of Studies in International Education, 17(5), 513-32.

Salisbury, M. H., An, B. P., & Pascarella, E. T. (2013). The effect of study abroad on intercultural competence among undergraduate college students. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 50(1), 1-20.

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Spring 2018: Engaging With Diversity in the College Classroom