Ripple Effects 4.3: Third-party Providers Could Be A Way To Go

A young woman with long hair pushes herself in a manual wheelchair through a narrow alley in Spain painted in pastel colors

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Justin Harford: Ripple effects comes to you from the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange, a project sponsored by the US Department of State's Bureau of educational and cultural affairs and administered by mobility international USA.

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Maritheresa Frain: From a third-party provider perspective, we want diversity on our programs. We want to make sure that we not only have diverse programs and that they are competitively priced, but that they attract students who may not be traditional study abroad participants. 

Justin: You have a lot of options when deciding where to study or VolunteerAbroad. One of those is third-party providers. Essentially they are companies who  specifically send students overseas for study and volunteer opportunities. You might have heard how they offer a diversity of long-term and short-term options around the world while  addressing concerns about course credit, visas or safety. One thing you might not know is the unique way that third-party providers can offer great experiences to participants from diverse backgrounds including those with disabilities. For example, The Council on International Educational  Exchange (CIEE) has sent many students with many different kinds of disabilities overseas and has always found a way to make it work. They have even gone so far as to offer 25 CIEE Program scholarships specifically for people with disabilities.  I caught up with Morgan Reiss and Maritheresa Frain with CIEE to talk about the unique place of third-party providers in the wide world of international exchange. So let's get started.

Justin: Okay. Today we are here with Morgan Reiss and Maritheresa Frain from CIEE. Thanks for joining us.

Maritheresa Thank you for inviting us

Morgan: Thanks.

Justin: Morgan is joining us from Spain and Maritheresa from  Portland, Me., CIEE’s headquarters, so this is kind of a unique Skype call for us… A unique interview style. Morgan and Maritheresa are from CIEE,  a leading third-party provider in the international exchange field, and we are going to talk  about that today, but I just wanted to see if first if Morgan and Maritheresa  could  tell us quickly a couple words about yourselves and how you got into this field.

Maritheresa: Sure I'll go first. So my name is Maritheresa Frain  as Justin said. I am the Executive Vice President  at CIEE. And I became involved in the fascinating world of international education because… Actually for personal reasons I married a man from Spain, and I spent the better part of my life living abroad. With a PhD in political science, it was always easy regardless of whatever country or city we ended up in that there was universities, and that they were American University programs. So that is how I got involved with the field of international educational exchanges.

Justin: Nice. What about you Morgan?

Morgan: My name is Morgan Reiss and I am the Director of Student Life  at CIEE in Seville. I came to the organization at actually roughly the same time as Maritheresa and we both started just about the same time. I came to it a slightly different way. I had studied abroad as a high school student and later as a university student. I spent a little bit of time working abroad living abroad. There was a lot of people in my family who were also living abroad or worked abroad. So I kind of came to it a little bit more organically through a lot of different moments in my childhood, but it seemed like everything was headed in that direction. But I happened to take a job at CIEE's home office in the United States  and as a very gratuitous coincidence it was just about the same time that Maritheresa started. She was a big believer in staff exchanges… People being able to move back and forth from one place to another. So I went from our home office in the United States to what was supposed to be a one-year temporary live and work abroad situation in our office here in Seville  Spain, and I never looked back. Here I am 18 years later.

Justin: So you ended up in your position through actually another kind of international exchange which maybe we will talk about some other time. Of course the clearinghouse we can't endorse any specific organization,  but we have featured  CIEE just because you have had some really innovative practices, but I wonder if you might tell us… I didn't realize for many years that my international exchange when I studied abroad in Chile was actually with a third-party provider… The education abroad program at the UC system… That all different campuses contracted with. It was kind of a child of the UC system, but in a way it was a third-party provider. I wonder if you  could start by giving us a summary here for some of the folks out there just what exactly is a third-party provider. I think a lot of us kind of think more… When we think about study abroad we don't realize all these different parts that can be involved in making a program happens such as a semester or a year overseas.

Maritheresa: So I will start, and I will look at it more from a corporate world perspective and then Morgan can talk about it from a more operational delivery perspective. Third-party providers… That is a term that might be a little bit dated nowadays, but we are essentially… We support a membership. Most of these partners in international educational exchange with universities produce programs in different parts of the world that their membership is interested in sending students on. In very simplistic terms, what we do is we fill the gaps for universities. Universities want to make sure that their students have ample selection of international exchange opportunities whether with host institutions or… Delivered exclusively in English. And we fill those gaps. So like UCEAP… What you just referred to… Not to complicate things too much but often times the programs that they run are really CIEE programs. So it's like even double provider perspective. But essentially I believe that these types of institutions like CIEE and many of our competitors we provide a more diverse set of options for universities to choose for their students when they themselves may not want to be setting up shop in 60 countries around the world. So that would be sort of my perspective on what a third-party provider is in the space of study abroad.

Justin: So basically I am University X and I have my hands full of so many different things at home but I want to offer a diverse offering of exchange programs overseas and the way I can do that is by asking … Hey CIEE hey ISEP hey IES could you provide these programs for me.

Maritheresa: Exactly and you are assured through our academic Consortium quality control mechanisms that these are programs that are academically aligned with what would traditionally be taught on campus. So you are ensuring that the academic quality, student support and also health and security is covered as well.

Justin: Awesome well let's pass it over to Morgan tell us what that looks like…

Morgan: So I was just going to spin off a little bit with Maritheresa in saying that I think that is a great sort of introduction and it's true that there are sometimes layers that overlap in the can be kind of hard to understand. I kind of think about CIEE as a sort of an independent organization. In our case it is also nonprofit. Which may or may not be the case with third-party providers though it is certainly the case with a lot of them. As Maritheresa was saying, for a lot of universities it is not necessarily viable to go out and create direct relationships with host universities in countries and cities around the world. You end up sort of looking at different partners that you can have to facilitate that process. CIEE might be that kind of organization. So when she was talking about the kind of partnerships we have it's true. Then on the one hand we have students who come to us individually. They might see the CIEE website or one of the initiatives where they visited a campus, or even hear a podcast like this and they might come to us independently. They might come to us through the University study abroad office where we are just one of a number of different offers that the student has available to them, or they might come to us as part of their universities funded program, where essentially we are… Almost as if we were an extension of that University study abroad program. Study abroad I think has become sort of interesting. A lot of universities are pursuing it. But as many of them are out there pursuing it, a lot of them are reluctant for some of the things that Maritheresa was talking about, because it's not always feasible to have property around the world and to have staff around the  world, and to be knowledgeable and have the kind of things American students coming from an American higher education system are expecting in all of those places, and I think that Maritheresa's point that we are sort of their to fill the gaps is an important one. In the past, if you were lucky… Maybe you have a university that had their own study abroad program, and that might have been a faculty led program, but it might've also been one person who just lived out there, and they were sort of a satellite of the University. But if your University didn't have that, there wasn't a whole lot. The might've been direct enrollment exchange initiatives, where maybe your University had a direct enrollment exchange initiative with a university in China, where 50 students from the University of California LA study at a university in China and vice versa. But you were also sort of limited. I think that is sort of an important point both the two things that she mentioned filling in the gap with universities but also just students have been able to find a program or city or something that is more aligned with their interests. But also there is the second part… The academic expectations, credentials and more importantly the local knowledge… Local expertise, support, service… Is that going to be there? I think that is where a lot of students find themselves in a pinch if you are on a direct enrollment exchange between your University and the host University, and you might have walked into a host University with a whole lot of support mechanisms there, or you might've walked into a university with a very different campus culture when none of those mechanisms were there. So I think third-party providers really sort of stepped in and were able to fill in a niche which was to respond to what American students and American higher education universities were looking for and to provide an equal level of support and service for what they were expecting and also global expertise and knowledge.

Justin: I think… If I'm a student and I'm looking at one of these… Some of the benefits are kind of obvious here as far as the added structure, the organization, the richness of exchange options… Program options that I would have available. I'm curious… Why don't you expand on that… For a student with disabilities or students from another minority background, are there any unique advantages that a third-party provider brings in comparison to other options out there?

Maritheresa: I'll start. I think that it basically revolves around philosophy. I know that CIEE from our inception 70 years ago, we are an inclusive organization. We want to ensure that all students from all countries have the opportunity to engage in intercultural learning experiences, so that's not just American students studying abroad, but also many international students that come to the United States on our high school or our work and travel or professional development programs. So I think it's kind of in our core. As a part of our DNA. We want to be inclusive. From a third-party provider perspective, we want diversity on our programs. We want to make sure that we not only have diverse programs and that they are competitively priced, but that they attract students who may not be traditional study abroad participants. Including students with disabilities… And Morgan and I have been working on this for 18 years when I started working with CIEE in Seville… We were kind of the forefront of CIEE study centers where we knew that having more diverse students on our programs enriched our programs. Not only the learning of our students, but also of our host communities. Being able to support those students has been integral to how we design our programs. So for example, CIEE's philosophy is that we include a line in our budget which makes sure whether we use the money or not that we are fiscally responsible and making sure that we plan for any particular cost that would have to be incurred to support a special needs student, so that would be for example our experience in Seville… We have had several students in wheelchairs. We would make sure that they had Spanish buddies, special transportation for excursions, inclusive events to the degree of how we delivered or where we would go on our cultural excursions. One year we had a student who is blind, so we did training on when you are talking about something, and the verbiage that one uses in order to ensure that you are as inclusive as possible in your descriptors for helping the student gain an enriching experience while they are on extracurricular or co-curricular activities.

Justin: Staff training?

Maritheresa: Yes we did staff training for students. How do you talk… How do you lecture… How do you engage… How to use vocabulary to make one a blind student would experience much richer for both the blind student as well as all the other students. So I think that you need to have it as a part of your DNA. We are a yes we can type institution, and we don't look at what the challenges are… We look more at what the opportunities and possibilities are, and talk very clearly with students about what their experience would be on site if they have a special need to be accommodated.

Justin: I was recently reading an article about accessibility to exchange in the European Union, and one interesting comment was that many of the successful exchanges for students from diverse backgrounds were on third-party providers, so it seems like we are not the only ones  who are finding consortiums like yours to be particularly effective at creating access.

I really appreciate those reflections though and I wonder if maybe we could just  conclude now.  On our podcasts this season we are asking everybody what exactly  diversity means to you and I think we've heard a good amount of talk about that and some really great ideas and I just wonder if we could conclude with each of you just sharing a  sentence summary what diversity means for you in your experience.

Maritheresa: That's a tough one in one sentence. So I guess diversity is particularly and learning environments, the inclusion of all students from all backgrounds that contribute positively because of the different perspectives that they bring into the overall learning in a classroom or on a study abroad experience. The more diverse our student populations are in terms of their ethnic background, socioeconomic background, and any special needs, their sexual orientation makes learning richer and is integral to life in general, and for the students that we serve, integral for expanding perspectives and experiences with other students in their learning environment.

Morgan: Perfect. There's a lot that I could say. One of the things we typically deal with here in Spain is that Americans come with their perception of what diversity might mean. Then they are challenged by the fact that diversity might be very different in the US. We are currently faced with certain issues having to do with linguistic diversity, which has been a live or die issue here for the better part of a number of decades. I think also one of the things that is important about diversity is to remember that phrase is a concept that means many different things to different people. If I had to say one thing that it means to me… It's also about the diversity of opinions. I think that's a really important point to keep sight of especially with American students working in higher education and facilitating a discussion with people not afraid to have different viewpoints and are not afraid to say their opinions and have an honest discussion I think is very healthy in the long run, because I think it's very hard to clarify our views if we can't sound them out against difference of opinion. I think maybe there is a trend that is happening now in which students are wanting to stick with things that feel comfortable stick with things that feel safer them stick with things that are familiar to them, and a lot of diversity is about pushing that as well. You need a diversity of opinions in order to have a productive conversation that will actually serve people.

Justin: Nice. It seems like diversity is such a key part of education in this world where business, or commerce must function internationally, that we have to really successfully interact and relate to people from all different backgrounds and that's why these experiences are so valuable. CIEE has done a lot to make that happen along with other excellent third-party providers. To learn more about third-party providers including CIEE and others through stories and some of the amazing best practices that you guys have developed people can go to our website www.miusa.org and thank you so much again Maritheresa and Morgan for taking the time with us today. It has really been appreciated.

Maritheresa Thank you very much

Morgan Thank you for hosting us

Justin: And that concludes today's episode of Ripple Effects: travelers with disabilities abroad. If you enjoyed this episode, please consider subscribing and letting your friends know you've done so by sharing. If you feel really positively about us, you might also consider leaving us a review on iTunes. All of those things will help us get the word out to more people.