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With $25m gift, Colby College aims for all its students to study abroad

WATERVILLE, MAINE - JANUARY 15, 2016: Downtown Waterville, Maine, where local Colby College has purchased several properties in hopes of revitalizing the downtown. (Greta Rybus for The Boston Globe)

Greta Rybus for The Boston Globe

Colby College is located in Waterville, Me.

Pack your bags, Mules.

Colby College is promising that, beginning in the fall, every student will be able to study abroad, regardless of income, under a new program made possible by a $25 million gift from a wealthy alumnus.

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Colby, home to 1,800 students in Waterville, Maine, says it is the first liberal arts college in the country to eliminate the financial barriers to international travel, to ensure that every student gains experience overseas during their undergraduate years.

The program, announced Wednesday, will allow students at Colby — whose mascot is the Mule — to travel for work, study-abroad programs, internships, or research.

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David A. Greene, the private school’s president, said the goal is to make international education accessible to students whose parents may not have connections to internships in foreign corporations or be able to afford an airline ticket and a Eurail pass for a summer of sightseeing in European capitals.

The program, which is being funded by Andrew Davis, an investor who graduated from Colby in 1985, will pay for airfare, housing, meals, and stipends to allow students to take unpaid internships, a luxury often available only to higher-income families.

“What we’re trying to do is make sure these experiences are universal when students come to Colby, no matter your ability to pay or your own personal network,” Greene said.

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Currently, 70 percent of Colby students study abroad.

Still, the fact that the benefit is being offered to students at an elite New England college like Colby underscores how study-abroad experiences are still out of reach for most college students.

Nationally, only 10 percent of American undergraduates, including community college students, study overseas by the time they graduate, according to the Institute of International Education.

Mark Farmer, director of higher education and public policy at the Association of International Educators, said it was encouraging to see a private donor at Colby support study-abroad efforts at a time when President Trump is threatening to cut federal funding for such programs.

But he said Colby’s initiative won’t eliminate all obstacles to studying abroad.

In addition to financial concerns, he said, students face institutional barriers, such as financial aid and housing policies that make it difficult for them to travel overseas, curricular barriers that prevent them from getting the required credits they need abroad, and cultural barriers. Farmer said many students, particularly students of color, may not think study-abroad programs are for them or receive the same encouragement to enroll in such programs as their peers.

“The scholarships alone may not be enough to be able to get every student to study abroad,” Farmer said. “Students won’t buy something on sale if they didn’t want the product in the first place.”

Still, easing the financial burden could help, said Lindsay Calvert, manager of Generation Study Abroad, an initiative that aims to double and diversify the number of Americans studying overseas by 2020.

“For most students, the first thing they think about it is: Can I afford it? And if they’re not aware of all the different opportunities, then they don’t go for it,” Calvert said.

Greene described the program as part of an effort to defend the liberal arts against critics — including many parents — who question its value in an era when many are focused on preparing students for jobs, particularly in technical and engineering fields.

At Colby, students will work with college staff in a new center, called DavisConnects, to develop international programs that bolster their particular area of study.

Those plans could range from working on an agricultural project in Ghana to studying literature in Russia, and they will make Colby students more attractive to employers and graduate schools, Greene said.

“These are the kind of experiences that really help you jump off the page,” he said.

Levenson can be reached at michael.levenson@globe.com.
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