Following Pandemic Hiatus, MC’s Study Abroad Program Returns in Full Swing
Before she received “the call,” Kathryn Miller was deeply embedded in the heart of Spain, soaking up the culture and developing international relationships.
The political communication major from St. Martin had always wanted to travel abroad, but until her junior year at Mississippi College, she had not made it out of the southern United States. Thanks to MC’s Study Abroad Program, an opportunity for international travel beckoned, and she was soon attending Spanish grammar classes each morning and practicing her language skills with her host family in La Piel de Toro itself.
“When I went to Spain, I truly only knew how to say ‘Hello,’ ‘Goodbye,’ and ‘I don’t like tomatoes,’” Miller said. “I was able to have better and deeper conversations with those in Spain.”
In the evenings, Miller got to sample authentic Spanish cuisine and visit historical sites throughout the country. She took short weekend excursions to nearby countries like Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Morocco, and France. She and her friends would gather in Plaza Mayor to visit and enjoy the local culture.
“Everywhere I went, I found kindness,” she said. “Wherever I visited, in every part of Spain, everyone was so kind. The people, the country, the culture, the way that they lived – everything about it was cool. My host family really treated me like family. It was really special.”
Before getting “the call,” Carlynn Culpepper, a senior communications major from Montgomery, Alabama, was enjoying a return trip to her favorite international destination.
Her family traveled quite a bit while she was growing up, and during her junior year of high school, Culpepper spent a couple of days in London. It was love at first sight.
“London has this energy about it,” she said. “There’s always some big energy in big cities, but London is different. It gets ahold of your heart and doesn’t let go. It has a captivating history, but it’s extremely modern at the same time.
“I absolutely left a part of my heart there, and when the opportunity to travel abroad became available at MC, I absolutely jumped at it.”
Culpepper and her classmates in the program were taking full advantage of the opportunity, traveling all around the United Kingdom, from Canterbury to Bath, visiting museums, and exploring the country’s rich history.
“London is a very different culture than Mississippi,” she said. “We still have similar interests, but the culture is very different. It’s wonderful to experience something out of the norm than what I had grown up and lived in.
“It’s great to experience a different point of view.”
Then in March 2020, Miller and Culpepper got “the call.”
“The call,” of course, was the notification that, because of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, all MC Study Abroad participants would have to leave their host families immediately and return home until further notice.
As it turned out, that notice lasted longer than even Dr. Beth Stapleton, director of the McMillan Center for Education Abroad at Mississippi College, could envision.
This fall, after more than a year of unexpected hiatus, Stapleton said she is happy to announce the Study Abroad Program at MC is back in full swing for MC faculty, staff and students.
Five students are currently participating in the program: three have traveled to France and two have gone to South Korea. Stapleton is in the process of planning a spring semester in London and language study trips to Spain and France for students, enrolling MC faculty and staff in the program’s annual Spring Break tour next March, organizing departmental trips for May 2022, and accepting applications from faculty interested in a short-term international program next summer.
“We are just beginning to get back to our full capacity to study abroad,” said Stapleton, professor of Spanish and linguistics at MC. During “normal” times, she estimates anywhere from 100 to 150 students and faculty members participate in the program each year, and would like to see that number reach 400 annually.
“I’m excited to be enrolling students and faculty into the program again. It’s just a wonderful experience.”
Stapleton can be forgiven if she seems a bit exuberant about the Study Abroad Program’s return. Like Culpepper and Miller, she experienced firsthand the disappointment of having an international trip cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We were abroad with a Spring Break tour in Israel when it all shut down,” Stapleton said. “We were on one of the last flights out of Israel. Then throughout the fall of 2020 and the spring of 2021, the program was on lockdown.
“MC’s COVID Task Force, along with advice from medical professionals, allowed students who were vaccinated to go on trips this summer. This fall, they started allowing students to resume Study Abroad trips again, although the task force does require individuals who go abroad to be vaccinated.”
Study Abroad participants may take advantage of established programs in a host of countries, including Argentina, Brazil, China, Costa Rica, France, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Spain, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom. Students and faculty aren't limited to those countries, however.
“If anyone has a desire to travel, we will find a program that works for them,” Stapleton said. “We always tell students, if you want to go somewhere, we don’t have a program, we can find an international partner to help you do that program. We also support faculty in developing short-term international programs they can engage in as well.”
Stapleton said the benefits of the Study Abroad Program far outweigh the inconvenience of obtaining passports, necessary documentation, the COVID-19 vaccine, and other health requirements. In fact, she credits the program for changing the course of her life.
“Everything about going abroad tests your value system,” said Stapleton, who estimates she has traveled to about 30 different countries in 30 years. “It offers different dimensions of growth.
“Going to an international setting, gaining a different context on things and learning from different people can be exhilarating.”
She said it can pay dividends in a crowded job market, too.
“Professionally, it’s great because, career-wise, most job seekers are looking for people with international experience. If you have that experience, it shows that you can work with different cultures.
“Students learn how to deal with situations that might make them uncomfortable. You learn how to be flexible in difficult situations. You learn to be accepting – not that you agree with everything – but you understand your own perspective a little better.”
She said there may be faith-filled advantages to international travel, too.
“For me, there’s also a spiritual benefit. Because we live in Mississippi, the buckle of the Bible Belt, there’s a sense of social Christianity here. When you go abroad, nobody is expecting anything out of you spiritually.
“You take the time to connect with God on a different level. You see what truth actually is. I didn’t get to see that relationship with Christ, and I didn’t see myself in the world, until I saw how I had to rely on Christ when I was abroad.”
Culpepper and Miller both understand that perspective. They each had to weather uncertainties and logistical difficulties to return home safely in the pandemic’s early stages. Despite having their trips curtailed, both would return to their respective international study destinations in a heartbeat.
“I tell my friends to jump in headfirst and completely take the dive,” Culpepper said. “College is all about finding experiences to get involved in. It tests your worldview when you study abroad. You leave one person and come back another person. College is so much about finding who you are. Studying abroad takes that and carries it on exponentially.
“Even though it was cut a month short, I wouldn’t have changed my experience for anything. Literally, any time I have the chance to go again, I will jump at it.”
Miller said her experience made her aware of just how valuable international travel can be for students.
“I saw probably the most beautiful sunset I’ve ever seen,” she said. “I slept on trains, buses and in airports. It was so different from anything I’d ever experienced in the U.S.
“It changed my outlook and I’m definitely looking to go back to Spain because of my experiences there.”
Stapleton said students aren’t the only members of the Mississippi College Family who can learn from participating in the Study Abroad Program. Faculty can sharpen their instructional skills by traveling internationally as well.
“Professionally, it gives you new experiences, new information from which to teach,” she said. “It’s a perk for faculty to be able to go and spend time abroad to enrich their students’ lives. If we only teach from our own perspective, we’re missing a lot of context, a lot of exposure for our students to the world.
“International travel can connect you to historical events that happened abroad in a real, experiential way, for faculty and for students.”
And of course, international travel is ideal for individuals studying a different language and culture.
“There’s clearly no substitute for being in a country with the native speakers of the language,” Stapleton said. As a linguistics professor herself, “It helps me keep my skills sharpened.”
Although she would like everyone at MC to participate in the Study Abroad Program, Stapleton said she understands many of the reasons students remain hesitant to explore international opportunities. Chief among them is financial.
“When you look at what you get from participating in the Study Abroad Program, it’s really very affordable,” she said. “A lot of students think it’s unreachable or unaffordable, but we can find ways of financing their trips. We can use scholarships or grants they may be eligible to apply for. We’re trying to make it where any student who wishes to participate in an international opportunity can come to the Mac Center and we can place them.”
“It changes your life in every way possible. That’s so cliché, but it’s true. It’s definitely something worth investing in.”
Students and faculty who would like to participate in a Study Abroad Program this spring should contact Stapleton by Friday, Oct. 1. To learn more about the program, send Stapleton an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule an appointment or visit the office in Room 124 on the main floor of the Leland Speed Library.