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Students go abroad during their first year of college

This year during spring break, 120 first-year students from the University of Georgia boarded planes bound for exotic destinations around the world. For many, it was their first international trip, and for others, it was their first time on a plane. But for all of the participants, it was their very first study abroad experience.

successfully completed its inaugural pilot program by dispatching four student groups to four vibrant international hubs—Cuba, Italy, the U.K. and Morocco—in early March.

After arriving in the East Moroccan community of Merzouga, Connect Abroad students ride camelback across Tafilalt, the largest Saharan oasis in Morocco. (Photo by Trang Nyguen)

This initiative offered students academic adventure right at the outset of their college journeys, aiming to create the newest class of global citizens at UGA.

A collaboration between the and the , Connect Abroad represents a targeted study abroad program for first-year students at the UGA. Traditionally, study abroad programs are geared toward upperclassmen, but studies have shown the value of early exposure to global experiences.

“Looking at the study abroad participation data, we identified a critical need to expand study abroad programming for UGA first-year students to supercharge their freshman year and provide opportunities for them to connect with peers, faculty and staff in a global setting, which can be difficult to do at a large institution,” said Yana Cornish, director of global education at the Office of Global Engagement.

Cornish oversees all and noticed this gap in experiences for freshman students. Nationally, only 1% of college freshmen study abroad. UGA’s new program emphasizes the importance of early exposure to diverse cultures and perspectives and encourages students to cultivate these skills with like-minded classmates and the support and guidance of UGA faculty and staff.

Dami Odubola takes a ride in one of the many classic cars that line the roads of Havana. (Submitted photo)

Each destination selected for the program represented a distinct culture, providing students with a spectrum of experiences and insights. From classic car rides in Havana to climbing the steps of the Tower of Pisa, visiting the bustling markets of Medina-Fes to trekking the cobblestone-paved neighborhoods of London, students were fully immersed in new environments. They also engaged in reflective academic coursework tailored to each destination, allowing them to delve deep into the historical, social and cultural fabric of the region.

“You just had to be there,” was the title of student Anaya Bernard’s Photo Voice Journal, an academic component of the program, which all students complete.

“From my travels in Morocco, I learned that culture is a process of accumulating concentrated value, identifying what is valuable towards oneself and preserving that in the culture.”

A daunting prospect is made accessible

For many freshmen, the prospect of studying abroad may seem inaccessible due to financial constraints, academic requirements, or lack of awareness about available opportunities.

Georgia Women Give, a nationwide philanthropic network of Georgia donors, generously provided a $35,000 commitment to Connect Abroad students. Combined with funding from the Office of Global Engagement through its General Scholarship and the Passport Initiative, over $74,000 in aid was provided to students pursuing Connect Abroad, opening doors for students that may not have had the chance to study abroad.

Students take a stroll around Volubilis, the ruins of a Roman city founded in the third century B.C, only a 40-minute drive from Meknes. (Photo by Trang Nguyen)

Trang Nyguen, a Connect Abroad Morocco participant and recipient of a Georgia Women Give scholarship fund, found Connect Abroad to be a life-changing experience. “I was lucky enough to create invaluable memories with a new group of friends in my first year of college. … I want to show my sincere gratitude to the Georgia Women Give Fund for giving me this invaluable opportunity to broaden my world horizons.”

With 30 students per group, each cohort represented a variety of UGA colleges and majors, from business to pre-medicine. There were also several first-generation and rural students in the group.

Amaya Powell and Anaya Bernard prepare to board a high-speed train to Rome after their three-day stay in Florence, where they got their very first glimpses of Italy. (Photo by Angel Bhardwaj)

“As a second-generation immigrant, I’ve been exposed to Nigerian culture and how it contrasts with American culture and society,” said Dami Odubola, a philosophy and women’s studies double major who participated in Connect Abroad Cuba. “But it was eye-opening to see the differences between the standard of living in Cuba and the U.S.,” she continued. “Bringing back what I learned to Athens and UGA is important to me … it inspires me to seek out mentorship roles on campus, so that I can advocate for programs like this one to other students.”

Connect Abroad U.K. students enjoy a stunning view of London atop the O2 Arena. (Photo by Annelise Norman)

Accompanying each group, UGA faculty members served as mentors, guides and facilitators, enriching the academic experience with their expertise and insights while providing students with peace of mind.

By fostering close mentorship relationships, the program creates a supportive environment where students can navigate the complexities of international travel, academic challenges and personal growth.

Connect Abroad Cuba students take a breather and show off their Dawg pride after hiking into the tiny community of Los Aquaticos. (Photo by Jordan Holmes)

“Two of my Italian language students this semester joined the Connect Abroad program, and I had the unique privilege of getting to know them better. Their language skills were put to the test in a relaxing and low stress environment,” said Samantha Gillen, Italian lecturer in the Department of Romance Languages.

The program also included local guides with years of professional experience, giving students the opportunity to engage with residents. Students were eager to connect with the culture by speaking with locals.

Connect Abroad Cuba students take some time to explore the heart of historic Havana. (Photo by Lauren Baker)

Dozens of returning Connect Abroad students indicated interest in studying abroad again as soon as possible.

“Before Connect Abroad, I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy studying abroad or not. Now, I know that I want to study abroad once each year during my time at UGA,” Thomas Njee said. After returning from the Connect Abroad U.K. program, Njee signed up for a summer engineering course at John Cabot University this summer in Rome.

Connect Abroad will return in 2025 during spring break, with new locations to be announced at the end of April.