Feb. 22 is National Study Abroad Day
By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – As a student employee in the University of Nebraska at Kearney’s Academic Advising and Career Development Office, Joel Kreifels often works with fellow Lopers who are solely focused on completing their degree and finding a job.
That is, of course, the goal of higher education.
But Kreifels doesn’t want them to overlook another valuable opportunity – studying abroad.
“This is a time to enjoy yourself before you go out there and start your career,” he said. “You have your whole life to work. Get out there and see the world.”
That’s exactly what Kreifels did in December 2019, when he traveled to Finland for the experience of a lifetime.
A senior from Nebraska City, Kreifels had never been outside the U.S. before he signed up for a semester exchange program at Tampere University in southern Finland. His interest in this particular school stemmed from a friendship he developed with a Finnish student who previously studied at UNK.
“One thing led to another and I was like, ‘You know what, why not see what it’s like in a different country and see what their schooling is like compared to ours?’” Kreifels explained.
The criminal justice major couldn’t have been happier with his decision.
He took classes in criminal justice, Finnish history and Nordic government while learning the Finnish language and living in campus housing. The trip was also an opportunity to experience the local culture and meet students from across the world.
“They were very, very welcoming,” said Kreifels, who joined a campus group that organized events for local and exchange students to hang out and have a good time.
“There were plenty of things to do around town and lots of opportunities to travel, too,” he added. “I saw a lot of Finland.”
Through the campus organization, Kreifels chaperoned a trip to Lapland in northern Finland. He also planned a weekend excursion to Tallinn, Estonia, with a group of friends.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic cut his time in Finland short – he returned to Kearney in mid-March 2020 – it was still a worthwhile experience.
“I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” Kreifels said. “It was amazing. For students who are outgoing and willing to meet new people and experience the world, I definitely recommend doing this.”
UNK offers dozens of opportunities for students to study abroad, with programs ranging from a few weeks to a full year.
Lopers can participate in an international experience in almost any country through individual or faculty-led group trips.
Currently, about 7% of UNK students choose to study abroad, but the Office of International Education is committed to increasing that number.
“I would like to see that number get to at least 10%,” said Tim Burkink, assistant vice chancellor for international affairs. “To do that, we need to broaden our programming and involve more faculty.”
Nationally, around 70% of study abroad programs are short-term, about one to four weeks, according to Burkink, but most of UNK’s programs are for a semester or summer.
“We’re missing out on where the real growth is by not offering more short-term programs,” Burkink said.
One of his goals is to partner with faculty to develop shorter study abroad trips that are part of an academic course. For instance, a proposal for next year’s January intersession would create a three-week international entrepreneurship course that includes a trip to Ireland, where students would work with a local business.
Burkink also wants to see more UNK students taking advantage of the exchange agreements the university has with other higher education institutions across the globe.
“Those have been underutilized,” he said. “We have many more students coming here through the exchange programs than we have UNK students going to our partner institutions. That’s another area of focus, making sure our students know about those opportunities.”
UNK offers plenty of assistance for students interested in one of the 50-plus study abroad options.
With proper planning, most course credits transfer directly to UNK, ensuring students remain on their preferred path to graduation. UNK’s new general studies program further supports students who study abroad.
Additionally, the cost of many study abroad programs is comparable to taking classes and living on the UNK campus, plus travel expenses. Scholarships are available specifically for study abroad, as well.
“It’s very affordable, and that surprises students,” Burkink said. “Their financial aid and scholarships almost always apply.”
Because of COVID-19, UNK paused its study abroad programs through the spring 2021 semester – a decision on the summer trip to Palacky University in the Czech Republic will be made in early March.
Burkink hopes to see a return to normal this fall.
“We’re taking applications now for a variety of programs in fall 2021,” he said. “There’s a lot of student interest.”
The next faculty-led group programs are tentatively scheduled for spring 2022 in the Czech Republic and Ireland.
On top of being a fun trip where students make lasting memories and lifelong friendships, study abroad is a cultural experience that allows participants to broaden their worldview while preparing for the workforce by boosting their self-confidence, communication, networking and problem-solving skills.
“We want our students to develop a global mindset and cultural awareness they can take into their citizenship and the professional world,” Burkink said. “Wherever you are in the world, even in central Nebraska, it’s important to have a sense of how to navigate international markets and relationships.”
For more information on UNK’s study abroad programs, contact Burkink at 308-865-8246 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit unk.edu/studyabroad.