Cultivating A Global Perspective

In accordance with its mission statement to “enhance students’ global perspective by helping them encounter and understand changes confronting our world in a context of global community,” St. Olaf College has a deep tradition of study abroad. From interdisciplinary study travel to language immersion, scientific research to hands-on to service learning, St. Olaf has offered strong study abroad programs since the 1960s.

St. Olaf has adopted a global perspective since the college’s earliest days, when Lutheran pastors who taught at the college told students about their mission work in Asia, Africa, and Europe. Their stories helped instill a passion for international travel in St. Olaf students, but not yet in a way tied to their studies.

In 1952 Professor of Art Reidar Dittmann ’47, who had recently opened a Northfield travel agency, was approached by some students planning a trip to Europe. With a wealth of experiences in Europe during World War II and a keen interest in the arts, the Norwegian native seemed the perfect candidate to lead a 78-day tour through more than 10 countries. He agreed, and in June he embarked with 32 St. Olaf students on the first (though unofficial) St. Olaf “study travel” tour abroad.

The importance of Interim

In the early 1960s St. Olaf adopted its distinctive “4-1-4″ academic calendar that allowed for intensive study of one subject during January the calendar’s “1,” also known as Interim. The new calendar also helped better integrate off-campus study into the curriculum by allowing a number of month-long study abroad programs.

In January 1965 the college pioneered its first official study abroad programs with four faculty-led classes in Europe. The most extensive trip, to the art museums and galleries of London, Paris, Florence, and Rome, followed the route laid out by Dittmann 13 years earlier. Two programs focused on language acquisition and another on French drama and literature.

A faculty report issued soon after the completion of the first Interim programs made the following observations based on interviews with returning students:

“The humanizing and broadening result of direct contact with different portions of the world and different cultural environments [have] constituted an important gain for our students. [They] have come to recognize from these experiences that people in other parts of the world think different thoughts and express them differently. This in itself is an important step toward the creation of deeper international understanding integral to the liberal arts and educational development in general.”

Going bigger

Before the first Interim abroad programs left campus, however, Dittmann and Professor of Religion Ansgar Sovik were thinking about longer, more in-depth programs that would immerse students in the cultures and environments of the Middle East and Asia. When putting together their respective proposals, Sovik called upon extensive academic, church, and cultural contacts throughout the Middle East that could help with hosting and teaching students, while Dittmann integrated similar contacts he had fostered on his travels through Asia.

Once adopted in 1966, Term in the Middle East and Term in the Far East (now Term in Asia), supplemented a few years later by the circumnavigating Global Semester, quickly became St. Olaf’s flagship study abroad programs. They showcased the benefits of longer term, more immersive study in a variety of locations than could be accomplished during the month-long Interim courses.

By the end of the 1960s, 16 interim programs and six semester or term programs all led by faculty experts were benefiting from the 4-1-4 schedule. By 1972 nearly 400 St. Olaf students participating in 27 different programs were traveling to places all around the globe.

Leading the way

Today St. Olaf offers 110 off-campus programs on virtually every continent of the globe. They vary in educational approach (from courses taught by St. Olaf faculty to enrollment in a foreign university), in numbers (from large groups to single students embarking on their own), and in accommodations (from village homestays to urban hostels).

The idea of “global perspective” enhanced through off-campus study has long held a place beside the liberal arts and the church as one of the highest values of the college. With a wide array of opportunities for domestic and international study, the strong tradition set in place by pioneering faculty members has led generations of St. Olaf students to fulfill the college’s mission of creating responsible and knowledgeable citizens of the world.

Learn more about St. Olaf College’s commitment to overseas study.

Explore the program offerings available through the St. Olaf Office of International and Off-Campus Studies.