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Grant Funds Opportunity For Murray State Students To Study Abroad

MURRAY, Ky. – Eighteen first-year, first-generation Murray State University students had the opportunity to study theater and media literacy in London over spring break thanks to the Kentucky Innovative Scholarship Pilot Program, a grant program run by the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education and the Kentucky Higher Education Assistance Authority.

Jennifer Smith, assistant director of Murray State’s Center for Student Engagement and Success, said that she was researching new ways to help first-generation students succeed at Murray State. She said that she had learned that other colleges had seen improved success (i.e. higher graduation rates, better grades) among first-generation students by engaging them in some kind of program or activity that creates a “cohort,” or a smaller community within the University that gives them a sense of belonging, connection and support.

Smith said that many students find this sense of community through a group such as a fraternity or sorority, or an activity such as a marching band. However, first-generation students might not see these groups as options because of financial barriers. In talking with Steven Guns, director of Murray State’s Education Abroad program, and learning about the grant from the Kentucky Innovative Scholarship Pilot Program, the idea of creating a first generation college study abroad cohort came to life.

The cohort plans to have regular get togethers and check-ins during their academic career at Murray State. The grant covered about 85 percent of the cost of the London spring break program for each student. Guns said that many of the students mentioned while on the program that without this scholarship, their families would not have been able to afford or would not have been supportive of this international experience.

Developing new ways to help first-generation students succeed at Murray State is especially important, according to Smith, because 41 percent of Murray’s undergraduate population are first-generation college students. This percentage is higher than most other comparable schools. The success of one first-generation student can have profound ripple effects for an entire family, changing that family’s educational and economic trajectory for generations.

“With me being at Murray State, I’m opening the door for my brother, cousins and other young people in my family,” said Navaeh Jackson, freshman public and community health major from Cadiz, Kentucky, and a participant in the London program. “They see that they can do whatever they set their minds to through me.”

Another participant, Madisyn Farley, freshman exercise science major from Hoyleton, Illinois, said, “To be a first-generation college student means to break tradition and challenge myself. It means setting a higher goal for my family’s incoming and future generations. It means raising the standard bar in my family, encouraging others to further their education. This course has helped me explore other cultures, further my understanding in diversity, and later in life I will be able to not only encourage my children to go to college but to reach for the stars, go to London, or whatever they dream of.”

Of the 18 students who are part of the program, half are enrolled in THD 104, The Theatrical Experience, with Professor David Balthrop, dean of the College of Humanities and Fine Arts, and the other half are enrolled in JMC 168, Media Literacy and Society, with Dr. Marcie Hinton, associate professor of public relations. The two classes traveled through London together. Each class has spent the first part of the semester preparing for the London experience, and will spend time in the second part of the semester processing and reflecting on it.

Some of the highlights of the program included touring Windsor Castle, attending shows on the West End, seeing the Roman Baths in Bath, visiting Stonehenge, riding the Tube, visiting museums such as the Victoria and Albert Museum, trying new foods, exploring St. Paul’s Cathedral, taking the Warner Bros. Harry Potter Studio Tour and even just walking around the city. The group also had opportunities to interact with locals, including engaging in a conversation about the importance of community building and culture with an activist and social entrepreneur in a bookshop she manages.

Balthrop, who was a first-generation college student himself, said that the program is a totally immersive experience.

“The whole day every day is class time,” said Balthrop. “Class is never-ending, and students love and thrive on that.”

Not only are students experiencing London, its culture and history, and its diverse population, but they are learning skills such as how to get around in a city, how to navigate air travel, and how to act in different situations such as going to a live theater show. Students experience so many “firsts” during the trip that Balthrop sees it as a “springboard.” He hopes that by trying so many new things, and seeing that they can do it, the students will gain confidence that they can try other new things in the future and “not just do it, but thrive in it.”

London offers the advantages of being an English-speaking country, a deep and rich history and culture, a diverse modern population so students can experience many cultures in one place in a short amount of time, and a wealth of opportunities to study both theater and media. Hinton said that, with her course focusing on helping students become media savvy, she can use almost every experience in London as a chance to help the students think about how the media that they see is produced, and why, and how they can use this understanding to make better decisions as consumers of media.

Like Balthrop, Hinton said that getting the students to open up to new experiences, and then gain confidence in themselves that they can continue to try new things and not be scared of them, is an invaluable part of the education abroad program.

“The biggest compliment I could ever get is when a student tells me or writes about how the program has expanded their sense of curiosity,” Hinton said. “Developing curiosity is essential to learning, and studying abroad does this very well.”

Those interested in supporting education abroad opportunities for students may visit  and search for “study abroad” scholarships.