Study abroad – without leaving the U.S.

National Student Exchange offers another option for traveling in college.

Heather L. Mueller

Communications senior Katie Barten spent last semester living on a tropical island and relaxing on the beach between her classes at the University of the Virgin Islands at St. Thomas.

For Barten, a New Prague, Minn. native, the National Student Exchange program was her opportunity to broaden her “horizons” and spend some time away.

The program, which offers students who have completed 20 college credits and have a minimum 2.5 grade point average the opportunity to study at one of 200 participating colleges in the United States and several of its territories, including Canada, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam and Puerto Rico.

“It’s like a hidden treasure that nobody knows you can go to school in paradise,” she said.

National Student Exchange coordinator David Holliday said many students may not realize they can experience language and culture immersion without ever leaving the U.S.

“NSE is the domestic equivalent to study abroad,” he said. “Many students go to a different climate or bioregion to be exposed to something that’s not here in Minnesota.”

Family social science junior Sinying Lee studied at the University of Hawaii at Hilo last fall because she was tired of school, bored with the environment and wanted to live away from her home in St. Paul.

“Being able to live there, versus vacation, you really do see a different side of the local people,” she said. “You understand the culture and why the Hawaiians are so connected to the earth.”

About 70 students from the University go on national exchanges to participating universities in the U.S. territories every academic year. Nearly 70 percent of those students chose to study in a warmer climate, Holliday said. However, others may determine their location based on academics.

Biology senior Valerie Molinari, on exchange from the University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras, didn’t even pack a swimsuit before flying to Minnesota last September. But she did come ready to improve her English and finish several classes she needed to apply for veterinarian school.

“Coming here helps a lot because I speak English to my friends, in class and everywhere,” she said.

After having a positive first semester at the University and seeing snow for the first time, Molinari extended her stay at Centennial Hall through spring.

But there can be some drawbacks to the program.

Students have found that the school they apply for does not always have space to accept exchange students. There is no guarantee students will get into the classes they want and the cost of living may be higher.

“I pay more for my dorm plan and meal plan than I pay for tuition (in Puerto Rico),” Molinari said.

English and journalism senior Hee Chul Moon studied at the University of Hawaii at Hilo last fall with an international study abroad program through his college in South Korea.

“To tell you the truth, classes are very easy in Hawaii because people don’t spend a lot of time studying. They take time to enjoy their environment,” he said.

Moon, an honors student now studying at the University through the Student Exchange, said his full-time course load of all law classes is more challenging than he expected after spending the fall semester exploring caves, swimming with sea turtles and hiking in Hawaii.

“I thought American classes were very easy,” he said. “It’s the first time I’ve had to compete in a classroom.”

Students, like Moon, do experience cultural and academic variances through the Student Exchange program.

Learning Abroad Center associate director Martha Johnson said although talk of internationalization helps generate buzz for study-abroad programs, students do forget about the Student Exchange program.

“I think that sometimes people tend to forget that other parts of our country are culturally very different and so in terms of an opportunity to explore diverse cultures, that can happen in some cases in the U.S. as well as abroad,” she said.

The next application deadline to study abroad in fall of 2007 or spring 2008 is Feb. 9, and students can choose to study for one semester or an entire academic year.

Holliday said 97 percent of applicants get placed into their top two exchange choices.

Students have the opportunity to pay in-state tuition rates at their university, which is sometimes lower than Minnesota’s, but this requires permission from that university.

Still, most students join the program for the chance to try something new.

Barten said she put more emphasis on the life experience she gained while on exchange, rather than focusing on cost or academics.

“It was an inexpensive way to travel while still going to college,” she said.