By Jamie L. Freedman
Thinking about studying abroad? Stop by GW’s Study Abroad Office and get the inside scoop from a passionate team of peer advisers eager to share their firsthand experiences from around the globe.
The Peer Advisor Program, launched last year, pairs up prospective study abroad participants with students who recently returned to campus from a semester overseas. “Our peer advisers provide invaluable student perspectives on studying overseas and help students sift through the 250 program options available to them,” says Shelley Gentry Jessee, M.A. ’09, Study Abroad Advisor, who oversees the program. “They’ve just been through the process themselves and enthusiastically share their personal insights and practical know-how on everything from cultural adjustment to academic and social life abroad.”
Peer advisers sign on for a full year of service, offering weekly advising sessions, assisting at pre-departure orientations and the annual Study Abroad Fair, and promoting study abroad across campus at club meetings, classes, and in residence halls. “This year, we have seven peer advisors representing a broad range of regions—from West Africa to China, Europe and Latin America,” says Ms. Jessee. “They are dedicated, well-spoken, and excellent at conveying the international student experience to others interested in studying abroad.”
The number of GW undergraduates studying abroad has risen steadily over the years. “Overall, study abroad participation at GW increased 38 percent between the 2003-2004 academic year and the 2007-2008 academic year. Currently, 45 percent of GW's junior class studies abroad each year," Ms. Jessee says, noting that more than 6,000 GW undergraduates studied abroad in 70 countries over that period. The top 10 destinations for GW students are (in order): Spain, England, Italy, France, Australia, China, Argentina, Egypt, Ireland and Germany.
Peer advisers serve as in-house experts on study abroad in general and work on region-specific projects. Two advisers who recently studied in West Africa, for example, are spending the semester compiling a package of resources and practical tips for students preparing to depart for that part of the world. “Their document will include books to read about the region, films to see, music to listen to, things to bring, and other tips to give students a taste of the local culture and a sense of what to expect when they get there,” says Ms. Jessee.
“We’re trying to give students the real deal about life in West Africa,” says junior Samantha McLean, a peer adviser who studied in Mali last semester and is working on the project with senior Caitlin Loehr, who recently returned from studying in Senegal. “Anyone can give you a packing list, but our document will also include country-specific information like where to rent a cell phone, where to find the best vegetarian food, and other firsthand information that will hopefully make the preparation process less nerve-wracking for GW students departing for West Africa.”
Ms. McLean, who is majoring in international affairs and minoring in French, was the first GW student since 2006 to spend a semester at the School for International Training in Mali. “One of my goals as a peer adviser is to spread the word about Mali and my amazing program to GW students,” she says. “It’s a rich nation culturally and artistically with wonderful people and music, and if I can convince other GW students to go and experience that, then I’ve done my job.”
“I’ve always been a huge advocate of study abroad,” adds Ms. McLean, who lived in Europe for four years as a child. “There is definitely a program for everyone, no matter what you’re looking for, and we can help you find that perfect fit.”