First-year students visit a school in China.

First-Year Globetrotters

By Kristen Manieri

“I think the social experiences and interactions helped our students not only gain more insights into Chinese culture, but also reflect on themselves through the lens of their own language and culture.” –Li Wei

Unique study-abroad experience eases transition to college life.

For some incoming students, the Rollins experience begins even before they arrive at the smorgasbord of activities awaiting them on campus. Launched in 2009, Rollins’ innovative First-Year Field Experiences program—one of just a few programs of its kind on the national academic landscape—gives a handful of lucky students the opportunity to kick-start their first year in exotic and engaging locations across the globe weeks before the school year officially begins.

Participants earn course credit for the field-study excursions, which are led by Rollins faculty members. After completing an intensely competitive application process, accepted students tackle a hefty load of assigned reading and are required to submit a summary essay prior to departure. This year, two groups of first-year students journeyed abroad: one to Costa Rica, the other to Shanghai.

Barry Allen, associate professor of environmental studies, led 12 eager students on a 10-day adventure through Costa Rica’s rugged landscape. Participants studied flora and fauna in the country’s world-renowned protected areas and national parks while completing a two-credit environmental studies course. “It was pretty amazing,” Allen commented. “I left with a dozen kids from around the country and came back with Rollins students.”

The Shanghai adventure was an intensive 23-day language immersion trip led by Rollins Lecturer Li Wei, who described it as “a five-credit, 101-level Mandarin Chinese language course entirely transported to China.” Thanks to an exchange partnership with Shanghai University, he explained, students were able to study in classrooms weekday mornings, receive free tutoring from native speakers weekday afternoons, and engage in a multitude of cultural activities and excursions in Shanghai and its neighboring towns. “It was a total immersion encompassing everything from food to culture to history to art,” Wei said.

Since the field experiences are anchored in academics, these new Rollins students get a taste of what will be expected of them in college. “It’s a fun but rigorous experience that helps prepare them for what’s ahead,” Allen said. “When my group got to campus to begin the fall semester, they hit the ground running.”

Wei agrees that this type of opportunity allows students to grow as individuals before facing the huge life change of starting college. “The students who went to Shanghai did have cultural shocks, especially with the local food,” he said. “But overall I was very impressed with their maturity and sensitivity when dealing with local culture and people. I think the social experiences and interactions helped our students not only gain more insights into Chinese culture, but also reflect on themselves through the lens of their own language and culture.”

“I feel like I grew tremendously from the Shanghai trip,” said Jen Jokl ’14 of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “It was my first time really living on my own. I had to be completely self-propelled. There was also a kind of independence that I was able to cultivate by learning how to use the subway by myself and just going where I wanted to go. It was a much more drastic change than moving to Florida has been.”

Beneath the obvious allure of a summer adventure combined with academic credit, the First-Year Field Experience serves one other important function: it gives new students the chance to begin their life in college with confidence and ease. Over the course of the trip, participants form close friendships that continue once they arrive on campus, making the transition to college a little bit easier. “This isn’t just a trip,” Allen said. “Like all Rollins study-abroad experiences, these are academic courses that provide unique bonding opportunities. I still see the Costa Rica group hanging out together on campus.”

“I still can’t believe I got to study abroad with a school I hadn’t even started attending yet,” said Costa Rica participant Emily Sessoms ’13, who is from Sanford, Florida. “It was an absolutely amazing experience and it definitely relieved a lot of the pressure of starting at a new school. I’m still friends with everyone from the trip. It changed my whole freshman year.”

Next year, the First-Year Field Experiences program will be expanded to include field-study opportunities throughout the year.

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