Cleared for Travel

Cleared for Travel

Study abroad changes lives. Here’s how UAB is giving more students the chance to go.
Story by Matt Windsor
Photos courtesy of Education Abroad, Kenya Barnes, Tanner Caton, Arielle Griffin and Valtena Rosenblum
Photo: Tanner Caton

Cleared for Travel

Study abroad changes lives. Here’s how UAB is giving more students the chance to go.
Story by Matt Windsor
Photos courtesy of Education Abroad, Kenya Barnes, Tanner Caton, Arielle Griffin and Valtena Rosenblum
This spring, Kenya Barnes spent her free time exploring Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels, and Prague with friends from Germany, Britain, and Austria. During the week, when she was not working on her research at Europe’s most innovative university, she would bicycle around her adopted hometown of Leuven, Belgium. “I wanted to see everything,” said Barnes, a junior from Pensacola, Florida, who is majoring in neuroscience at UAB.
Barnes is part of the first group of Blazers to go abroad since UAB reopened for international travel in January 2022. Even without a pandemic, however, she had wondered whether her academically demanding major would allow her to spend a semester away from UAB. Barnes plans to go to medical school and become a surgeon. “I was always interested in study abroad; but when you are pre-med, there are not a lot of options,” she said. “Most medical schools want to see domestic courses on your transcript, so I wasn’t sure I would get the opportunity.”
The opportunity came through NeuroScholars, a new program especially for students in UAB’s Undergraduate Neuroscience Program. Barnes and one other student were the program’s pioneers in the spring 2022 semester. Developed by UNP program co-director Cristin Gavin, Ph.D., and Ashley Neyer, director of UAB Education Abroad, NeuroScholars gives students the chance to work in a neuroscience lab in one of several European countries.
In the past few years, the Education Abroad office has “added options so that 95 percent of our majors” can take advantage of the life-changing experience of study abroad, Neyer said. “There are programs that we have to work creatively with, but something is available for every student.”
For Barnes, the experience was transformative. “It definitely changed me,” she said. “It made me realize how much bigger the world is and made me stronger. It gave me the confidence that I can go anywhere and be successful, across a continent or across the globe.”
Graphic: Study Abroad Changes Lives

Major growth, pre- and post-pandemic

In the five years before the pandemic halted international travel in spring 2020, Education Abroad had increased the annual number of participating students by 59 percent — from 158 in the 2014-2015 academic year to 252 in 2019-2020. During the pandemic, “we still did international activities, especially remote internships,” Neyer said. Now that travel has resumed, “we are really back to normal,” she said. “We are advising more students than we have ever had. And we are focusing on growth post-closure.”
Growth means both increasing the overall number of Blazers taking advantage of study abroad opportunities and increasing participation from underrepresented groups. Nationally, Black students made up 13.3 percent of U.S. postsecondary enrollment in the 2019-2020 academic year, but only 5.5 percent of U.S. students studying abroad. At UAB, where Black students made up 20.9 percent of enrollment in that same period, they accounted for 19 percent of students studying abroad.
“One can never underestimate the value and importance of cross-cultural learning,” said Majd Zayzafoon, M.D., Ph.D., associate provost for International Education and assistant dean of International Medical Education in the Heersink School of Medicine. “UAB recognizes that the opportunities abroad will forever impact students’ lives and make a difference in our global community. That is why the prioritization of diversified programs and cost-affordable avenues that Education Abroad has created are so important. When the world is a student’s classroom, they’ll gain an unparalleled education.”
Although the programs offered by Education Abroad are constantly being evaluated and improved, “right before the pandemic, we had started on a detailed portfolio analysis,” Neyer said. “In 2020, all our programs underwent an analysis to make sure they were meeting different needs and perspectives.”
That analysis involved three overarching questions, Neyer said: “Are the courses accessible — that is, are we meeting all majors on campus? Is the experience accessible financially, to meet students at all financial levels? And is it accessible in terms of identity — are we making sure that all students feel safe and represented?”
The evaluation led to several new programs and the expansion of initiatives begun before the pandemic. Neyer highlights five ways that Education Abroad and its campus partners are reaching a larger, more diverse student audience than ever.

1. New programs for specific audiences

The NeuroScholars program that took Barnes to Belgium is one example of what Neyer calls “signature programs.” These are “concerted efforts to develop programs for specific audiences,” she said. “We are constantly looking for how we can meet these different segments of campus.”
With NeuroScholars, “Dr. Gavin wanted a research opportunity for our neuroscience students” that would allow them to meet the UNP’s lab-experience requirement while having the opportunity to spend time abroad, Neyer said. “That is a large uncertainty for all students considering study abroad: how a course will transfer back. Students in UNP now have a gateway to put this in their four-year plan.”
The first signature program from Education Abroad was UAB in Wales, which allows students to spend the spring semester at Aberystwyth University on the west coast of the United Kingdom. More than 150 courses from Aberystwyth’s course catalog are pre-approved to carry over for UAB credit, and a UAB representative accompanies the group to Wales. “This is unique — a hybrid between faculty-led programs and a semester abroad,” Neyer said. The cost includes housing and a three-day excursion in London. Recognizing the importance of an affordable experience and the strong connection between Birmingham, Alabama, and Wales, International Medical Education established a scholarship fund for UAB in Wales participants — offering $55,000 each year for three years. Awards range from $3,000-$5,000 and build upon financial aid and other scholarships students may receive for studying abroad.
Photo: Arielle Griffin.Arielle Griffin (left) and Tena Rosenblum (right) by the sea in Aberystwyth during their UAB in Wales semester abroad in spring 2022.
Arielle Griffin, a biomedical engineering major from Boone, North Carolina, spent the spring semester of her sophomore year at Aberystwyth. She extended her time abroad with an International Research Experience for Students trip to Łódź, Poland, led by Department of Physics Professor Andrei Stanishevsky, Ph.D., in June, where she did nanofiber research.
“I have wanted to do study abroad since I was in high school; but with moving and then the COVID pandemic, I couldn’t go my first year at UAB, and afterward I figured I probably wouldn’t be able to study abroad at all,” Griffin said. “But then I saw the UAB in Wales program advertised in the undergraduate research newsletter and thought it looked like a great opportunity, and I knew for certain that I would be able to actually go abroad.”
Griffin took classes in linear algebra, immunology and German at Aberystwyth, and enjoyed spending quite a bit of time in town, along the seaside (the university is located on the Irish Sea coast), and exploring in Wales and across the English border. “I enjoyed exploring being abroad and the fact that I could stay on track with my studies,” she said. “It was a really great experience. I’ve become more independent since I’ve been abroad. I changed more as a person in those few months than in a year at home.”
Another signature program is being developed in collaboration with UAB’s TRIO Academic Services program. TRIO provides intensive support to students, including tutoring and enrichment. The program will alternate semesters in Spain and Costa Rica and include home stays and cultural immersion trips. A UAB TRIO Academic Services team member will accompany students for the first week of the program to assist with program adjustment. “This is an international experience that is cost-affordable, language-immersive and designed to maximize scholarship success for our TRIO students,” Neyer said.

2. Expanded funding

Scholarship funding is a critical aspect to reducing barriers to study abroad. In 2018, UAB President Ray Watts issued a match challenge to donors, resulting in $90,000 in scholarship funding in the 2019-2020 school year. “We are on target for $95,000 this academic year,” Neyer said. Funds are available for graduate students, who are not eligible for many external scholarships for study abroad, she says.
One donor is Lydia C. Cheney, who earned a master’s degree in health education from UAB and was a university staff member for 19 years. She experienced the life-changing possibilities of travel during her own study abroad trip to France as an undergraduate at Birmingham-Southern College in 1970. “The trip changed a lot of lives,” Cheney said in a UAB article. “To this day, seven or eight of the core group of students stay in touch. One student who went on the trip named his child after the history professor who led the group.” Cheney’s gift created the Lydia C. Cheney Endowed Support Fund for Education Abroad, which provides up to $1,000 toward tuition and fees for undergraduates.
To help students maximize their chances of finding and winning external support, Education Abroad has partnered with Michelle Cook, Ph.D., director of the UAB Office of National and International Fellowships and Scholarships. “We have worked with her to foster a relationship that supports students through the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program,” Neyer said. Gilman scholarships, awarded by the U.S. Department of State, support undergraduates from diverse backgrounds with up to $5,000 toward study abroad costs. In September 2022, nine UAB students were selected, the largest cohort of recipients from UAB in a single application cycle. UAB was recognized by the Department of State as one of the U.S. colleges and universities that sent the most scholars abroad through the Gilman program during academic year 2020-21.
“Dr. Cook is amazing in helping students craft their essays and mentoring them throughout the application process,” Neyer said.

3. Reaching more faculty

In 2019, Education Abroad started the Faculty Fellows program, which provides an avenue for faculty to design a new course or to modify an existing course to include a faculty-led education abroad component. (In UAB’s new Blazer Core curriculum, courses that include a study abroad component receive a flag that designates them as a high-impact practice.) The program includes a $1,500 stipend for participants, and is supported through an IDEAS grant to UAB from the Department of State.
“Study abroad is so important to higher education going forward, because it offers the opportunity to engage our students as global citizens,” said Mary Ann Bodine Al-Sharif, Ph.D., assistant professor in the School of Education, who was a member of the 2021-2022 cohort of Faculty Fellows. Bodine Al-Sharif, who serves as program coordinator for UAB’s online master’s program in Higher Education Administration, developed an innovative way to allow online students to benefit from study abroad: UAB’s first formal virtual faculty-led program. This fall, students will have the opportunity to take Global Perspectives in Higher Education Leadership in collaboration with the Institute of Study Abroad Ireland. “Many institutions are creating sister institutions abroad for research and education partnerships,” Bodine Al-Sharif said. “Our students will learn about that process and the importance of these types of partnerships to the future of higher education.”

4. Tapping into international internships

“International internships have been one of the most popular growth areas” among students, particularly in the College of Arts and Sciences and Collat School of Business, Neyer said. These internships are generally unpaid because of visa requirements, but often carry the possibility of academic credit and are eligible for financial aid. Education Abroad has worked with the UAB Career Center to let students know about these opportunities and include them in the Career Center’s training modules.
“We offered international internships before the pandemic, and then they went virtual,” Neyer said. In spring 2021, criminal justice major April Alvarez was one of several UAB students who worked virtually with staff at Clinica Verde in Boaco, Nicaragua. The clinic provides mental health interventions and health education. In addition to interacting with clinic staff, Alvarez worked on a community-driven project to support development of the clinic’s services. The partnership was established through Majd Zayzafoon’s work with Clinica Verde over the years. International Medical Education supported this initiative with funding that reduced program fees to tuition only, with the goal of creating a sustainable, long-term partnership with Clinica Verde.
In addition to Nicaragua, students completed remote internships in Spain, the Dominican Republic and Kenya during the pandemic. Since travel has resumed, “we are able to offer international internships in person or virtually with companies worldwide,” Neyer said. “They are customized for each student based on the student’s professional goals, and then we find a company that matches those goals.”

5. Passport programs

This spring, UAB received a grant from the Institute of International Education’s American Passport Project that will pay for the full cost of passports — including photo — for 120 Pell-eligible U.S. students. The current costs for a passport, following a rise in fees in late 2021, is $165, plus $12.99 for the picture, Neyer says.
“The passport is the first thing that a student needs, six to eight months in advance of going abroad because of visa requirements,” Neyer said. “But those costs can’t be wrapped into financial aid for the study abroad semester. That’s where this grant can really support students in accessing an international experience.”
In two previous passport programs, UAB has enabled 75 students to get their passports. “In the first cohort, there were 50 students, and 23 percent studied abroad the next semester,” Neyer said. “It really showed us that, if we can remove that burden, we can open up opportunities for each student.”

Top overseas destinations, 2019-2020

  • United Kingdom
  • Spain
  • Italy
  • Japan
  • South Africa
  • Ecuador
  • Denmark
  • Bahamas
  • Costa Rica
  • Guatemala

Top majors studying abroad, 2019-2020

  • Public Health
  • Psychology
  • Occupational Therapy
  • International Studies
  • Biology
  • Neuroscience
  • Accounting
  • English
  • Health Care Management
  • Political Science
  • Foreign Languages
  • Social Work
  • Biomedical Sciences
  • Industrial Distribution

Faculty perspective: Mary Ann Bodine Al-Sharif, Ph.D.

Assistant professor, Department of Human Studies, program coordinator of M.S. in Higher Education Administration program

How can online programs extend the benefits of study abroad to their students? Bodine Al-Sharif created an innovative answer to that question as a member of the 2021-2022 cohort of Faculty Fellows in Education Abroad. “My students aren’t just in Birmingham — they are in Arizona, Florida, Tennessee and beyond, working in mid-level roles as professional practitioners and faculty with family responsibilities,” she said. “I wanted to create an opportunity for them to have a study away experience and still maintain their full-time work positions without having to take vacation or spend time away from family.”

Bodine Al-Sharif is collaborating with Niamh Hamill, Ph.D., director of the Institute of Study Abroad Ireland, for a fall 2022 course that parallels the Irish civil rights movement with the U.S. civil rights movement and the impact felt by higher education administration in both countries. “Our program has a strong social justice focus,” Bodine Al-Sharif said. “Students will go on tour in different spaces and places through their work with the Irish institute, learning about Irish culture, folklore and tradition. They will compare and contrast the civil rights movement in the United States with the civil rights campaign in Ireland, which looked to the U.S. as a model. We will also study global academic revolutions and the historic role of women in higher education in Ireland, as well as the academic structures that hold power and influence decision-making in the country.”

Bodine Al-Sharif is using her Faculty Fellows stipend to reduce the cost of attendance for students. “Right now, they will get this experience for the same cost as enrolling in a regular online course,” she said. And that experience should prove invaluable to their future careers, she adds.

Student perspective: Tanner Caton

Photo: Tanner Caton posing for a photoTanner Caton posing for a photo.

Caton, a junior majoring in neuroscience and Spanish, traveled to Alicante, Spain, in spring 2022 for a language immersion program at the University of Alicante.

What was your program like?

“I stayed with a family. All of us who had home families had very unique experiences. I really liked it, but you need to be aware that you are staying with someone with different customs and expectations.

“I took a series of Spanish classes at the University of Alicante. I rode the train to school each day — a 20-minute trip. I was the only UAB student there. In both of my classes, I was either the only American or one of two Americans. There were Japanese students, Russians, Canadians — people from all over.”

Did you do any traveling during your study abroad semester?

“We went to Madrid and Valencia; but my favorite places to visit were the smaller towns around Alicante, places like La Vila Joiosa. I wanted to speak Spanish all the time. In big cities like Valencia, when I would say something in Spanish, people would often answer me in English, because they were used to tourists. In the little towns, they were excited to get a visitor and I could practice my Spanish.”

Do you have any advice for students studying abroad?

“Know what you want to get out of it. That applies to everything, but especially study abroad. You should also know you are going to a different culture. I didn’t realize how much culture I had, being from the South. I never thought of it that way, but the people I met were not as open and talkative. That was a big shock. You need to be aware that things are going to be different, no matter how hard you studied before you left. There will be frustrations, but you can get past them.”

Were you interested in medicine first, or Spanish?

“Spanish came first. I was interested in Spanish in high school and thought I wanted to be a lawyer — I like public speaking. But then I started thinking about medicine, and I read a stat that stuck with me: Only 7 percent of physicians speak Spanish, which is very low compared to how many Spanish speakers there are in the United States.”

Do you feel that study abroad changed you?

“Yes, I think so. I’m so much more comfortable in new settings now. This summer, I am taking classes [at UAB] and all my friends are gone. That is something that could have been anxiety-producing before, but I’m making new friends. I really do feel that is something from Spain.

“A little bit of doubt creeps in when you are away from your studies. I had some doubts about my pre-med track. It’s OK to have doubt. New experiences bring on new questions about yourself. I ended up more sure of my decision to do pre-med, but it has helped me to be more aware of why I am doing it.”

Student perspective: Kenya Barnes

Photo: Kenya Barnes with friendKenya Barnes (right) with friend.

Kenya Barnes, a junior majoring in neuroscience, was a NeuroScholar at KU (Katholieke Universiteit) Leuven in Leuven, Belgium, from February-June 2022. She worked with a research team led by Professor Astrid van Wieringen, Ph.D., that has developed an app that helps people with hearing impairment train their listening and communication skills in a process called auditory rehabilitation. There are currently more than 430 million people worldwide with disabling hearing loss worldwide, a number that is estimated to grow to more than 700 million by 2050.

What was your program like?

“I took one ‘culture’ course, and the rest was full-time research at KU Leuven. I did a literature review on the psychology of motivation for people with hearing impairments. My job was to research how people with disabilities see motivation and how to increase motivation to use the app.” [Her research noted the potential motivational power of goalsetting, rewards, competition, personalization and testimonials.]

“Because of COVID restrictions, being fully in a lab wasn’t possible. But I was able to shadow my P.I. [van Wieringen] for several days. A lot of what they do is very independent. I got to see the different projects they were doing and see how differently they do medicine over there.”

Was this your first experience with research?

“The summer after my junior year in high school, I did research in the UAB Department of Surgery through the PRISM [Pre-College Research Internship for Students from Minority Backgrounds] program. I worked with Dr. Brenessa Lindeman, an endocrine surgeon, studying how different communities around Birmingham were informed about health care options available at UAB for diabetes, obesity and renal issues. We were able to write a manuscript, and it was published in the Journal of Surgical Research and I got to be a first author. That was a very cool feat in high school. We also got to present our research at the Academic Surgical Congress. It made me want to get involved with research, and I also got to see the culture that UAB cultivates firsthand. Even though I was in high school, Dr. Lindeman and the entire team treated me like I had ideas they believed in. That said a lot about the culture of UAB. To this day, I still talk to Dr. Lindeman.”

Where did you travel during your study abroad?

“I got to see Paris, Amsterdam, Prague, Brussels, Antwerp — but not as much as I wanted to. I wanted to see everything. The great thing is that Europe is all connected. I took the train for the most part. I flew to Prague with friends.

“I stayed in a university-run ‘kot’ — that’s what they call a dorm. Primarily there were international students on the Erasmus program. I had German, Austrian, British friends. There were only two of us UAB students in the NeuroScholars program — the other student was at Leiden University in the Netherlands. We presented our research midway through the program, and I saw him there.”

What was your favorite destination?

“I really enjoyed Amsterdam, and Bruges in Belgium. But Leuven was my favorite. It has a slow pace but the energy of a university town. You can walk from one side to the other in 20 minutes. It felt very safe and comfortable. I had a bike, and I biked everywhere.”

Do you feel that study abroad changed you?

“Definitely. I would say it made me realize how much bigger the world is. It made me become more adaptable. And it made me stronger, knowing I can go anywhere and be successful. I was able to go across the continent and across the world.”

Peer Ambassadors

These undergraduates, all alumni of the study abroad program at UAB, are often the first points of contact with students interested in going overseas. “Our portfolio is vast,” Neyer said. “Peer Ambassadors help students home in on what is most important to them: academics, location, program features.” Crucially, the Ambassadors are paired with students based on their school or major.

Tanner Caton, a junior majoring in neuroscience and Spanish, traveled to Alicante, Spain, in spring 2022 for a language immersion program at the University of Alicante. “When I had my first meeting with a Peer Ambassador, I was so overwhelmed as someone who is trying to go to med school and meet those requirements while doing a semester abroad,” Caton said. “I really appreciated the Peer Ambassador who talked with me, answered a lot of questions, eased my anxiety and made it seem like this was possible.” Now, Caton is repaying that assistance by joining the Peer Ambassadors in the fall 2022 semester. “I loved my study abroad experience and I would like to help others do that,” she said.

Kenya Barnes, a junior neuroscience major who spent her spring 2022 semester at KU Leuven in Belgium through the NeuroScholars program, is also going to be a Peer Ambassador this fall. “Being in pre-med, enjoying research, being Black and female, there were a lot of things I wanted to share with other students about study abroad,” Barnes said. “I want to encourage other students with how accessible it really is.”