First pre-freshman study abroad trip planned for 2012

GVL/ Eric Coulter
Study abroad consultant Pablo Prieto discusses with student Lindsay Marshall possible country she could study in.

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GVL/ Eric Coulter Study abroad consultant Pablo Prieto discusses with student Lindsay Marshall possible country she could study in.

Anya Zentmeyer

For Gary Stark, associate dean of faculty at Grand Valley State University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, his study abroad trip to Germany his junior year of college was one of the most important experiences in his life.

“It was a tremendous experience for me,” Stark said. “It got me interested in things I never thought I would be interested in, I hadn’t done much traveling before that, I learned German really well, decided to go on in German history and I’ve been back many times.”

Stark is the main coordinator of GVSU’s first-ever pre-freshman study abroad program, which aims to enlist freshman accepted into the Frederik Meijer Honors College on a three-week trip to Berlin, Warsaw and Krakow that will earn them three credits the summer before they begin their freshman year.

“We’ve been interested for several years in trying to create a program like this and thought that starting it with Honors students was appropriate: they are already a particular cohort, and this course proposed by Professor Stark is both appealing for students and works well in the Honors curriculum,” said Mark Schaub, director of the Padnos International Center. “We’re hopeful that this early, and short-term, study abroad will encourage Honors students to consider a semester- or year-long study abroad program later in their college career.”

The process began last January, when members of the Honors College approached Stark and asked him for help in creating a program that would help fulfill a social sciences requirement. Stark, who doubles as a professor in the history department, saw an opportunity to use his background in history and prior knowledge of Germany and Poland to create something students could use.

Stark submitted his prospectus, a preliminary proposal, last February for review by the International Education Committee before going on a site visit to Berlin, Krakow and Warsaw this summer to work out details like living arrangements and monument visits and exact costs.

“I got my full proposal in this fall, and that’s been approved,” Stark said. “Now we’re going full steam ahead.”

With all systems go, the Honors College and the Padnos International Center are still working on recruitment. Since the program is so new, spreading the word will be the biggest challenge yet.

Jeffrey Chamberlain, director of the Honors College, said they’ve been recruiting during open houses, visit days and prospective student visits, and plan on sending out more information once next falls’ crop of honors students are accepted into the program.

“When candidates are accepted into the Honors program — and we will probably have about 450 between now and mid-March — we will contact them via e-mail and talk about it, as well as send a flier with their acceptance letter,” Chamberlain said. “On our application form, we ask students to list their language training and any international experience. We will particularly encourage those who have been abroad or who express strong interest in studying abroad.”

Stark said they’re envisioning between 12 and 15 students, and hope they can fill the space, though they haven’t quite worked out the details if they don’t. As Stark said, they are “feeling their way as they go.”

On the trip, students will visit to monuments and museums with controversial history.

“We analyze each of those because sometimes things are left out, sometimes it gives one perspective and not another, and usually how to remember and commemorate things is very controversial – we think it’d be easy,” Stark said. “So we would look at what the controversies are surrounding these different, sensitive topics. How do the German’s feel about the Nazi period – are they embarrassed about it, how do they portray it, who do they blame for it – that kind of thing.”

Since the students will not yet have gone through the full orientation program, the dean of students is sending an assistant with Stark who is trained to deal with the emotional issues that often times crop up when younger students are thrust into the unfamiliar.

“They’ll do some additional orientation, deal with the kinds of issues that I don’t have much experience dealing with because I’ve only dealt with older students abroad, and that’ll be a great help to me and will probably reassure students who are worried about their son or daughter,” he said.

For more information, visit the Padnos International Center’s website at

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