International Co-ops: Closing the Circle
The list on the wall of Eric Miller’s ’81 office in the co-op department on the Antioch College campus tells you something about his job: Kenya, Brazil, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Japan, India, England, France, Spain… As assistant professor of cooperative education, Eric Miller oversees co-ops in these countries and many others.
Approximately 80 students per year co-op abroad in about 30 different countries, said Miller. The requirement that students have a cross-cultural experience in order to graduate is partly responsible for the number of students doing international co-ops, said Miller. Also responsible is a new policy that allows students a stipend for international as well as domestic co-ops.
“That’s made it a little easier for students who couldn’t afford it before,” he said.
Miller works with students who want to work abroad on “own plans” and also helps place students in prearranged jobs. “We’ve normalized our interactions with employers abroad” in the last few years, he said. “We work with them in the same way we work with domestic employers.”
The co-op department works with two main agencies to place students in jobs overseas, said Miller: Willing Workers in Organic Farms (WWOF), which has placements in about 50 countries, and British Universities North American Club (BUNAC), which operates mostly in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Scotland.
Miller is in the process of “fleshing out some program ideas” to improve students’ co-op experiences abroad and hopes to “institutionalize” them, he said.
One of the ideas centers on better preparing students for their cross-cultural experience. “Students have been prepared before, but there’s always room for improvement,” said Miller. “We have a lot of resources we can use better.”
For example, faculty members who are knowledgeable about a particular country could share what they know with students headed to that country, said Miller. Also planned are regular seminars covering such things as the logistical and cultural aspects of going abroad as well as issues related to re-entry into U.S. culture. In addition, the co-op department hopes to gain access to information about countries that is not available on the State Department’s web site.
The co-op department is “borrowing a page from AEA” with respect to another initiative, said Miller. “We’re looking at having regional coordinators in various countries who can be resource people for both students and employers,” he said. “It would be somebody I can get in touch with easily. And somebody students can get in touch with and who will help orient them when they arrive.” There are already coordinators in Nairobi and in northern Brazil, and “we’re hoping to develop them in other places,” said Miller, adding that Japan, India and England are priorities at the moment. The co-op department also plans to cultivate other contacts for students in these regions, said Miller.
He encourages students planning a co-op abroad to have some language preparation, though this is not always possible since Antioch doesn’t offer instruction in the languages of all the countries in which co-ops are available. The college regularly offers Spanish, Japanese, French, German and Swahili. Instruction in Hindi and Portuguese is occasionally available.
Miller also encourages students to tie their co-op to an Antioch Education Abroad program or other study abroad experience whenever possible. The more structured AEA experience is one other way to better prepare students for their co-op, said Miller. “We work very closely with AEA and the language faculty to coordinate things,” he said.
Miller, who graduated in 1981 from Antioch, says working abroad is a “phenomenal experience. You have the opportunity to become totally immersed.” He should know. Before coming to work for the co-op department, he spent several years teaching English in Japan. He cites a 1978 study, entitled “The Impact of Antioch Education through Experience Abroad,” as further proof of the value of working abroad. The study was conducted by Irwin Abrams, now professor emeritus of history at Antioch, and Ruth Churchill, then dean of educational evaluation and research at the college.
The study found that a great number of the AEA alumni who responded to a questionnaire about their experiences abroad considered the AEA experience “the most important they ever had.” They felt it had a “significant influence upon their subsequent educational and job decisions and their way of living.” The finding also revealed something else: “Apparently, the work experience, the distinctive part of the Antioch educational pattern both at home and abroad, had much to do with these outcomes.”
Conrad Zagory Jr., ’70, was among the alumni whose responses helped Abrams and Churchill reach their conclusions. The impact of his AEA experiences (which included co-ops abroad) was “profound and long-lasting,” he said. Zagory studied and co-oped in Japan through AEA. He eventually returned, married, had “two marvelous children,” and lived and worked there for 19 years. Zagory has friends from all over the world, he says, many of whom he met through AEA and related co-ops. “It took me on a path that changed my life,” he said.
It’s too early for Amanda Bilecki ’01, to judge the long-term impact of her study/work abroad experience. She returned only recently from a co-op at a Tibetan refugee center in Dharamsala, India. The co-op followed a semester in AEA’s Buddhist Studies program at Bodh Gaya, India.
Bilecki felt she was transformed by the entire experience abroad. But it is difficult for her to separate what she did in Bodh Gaya from her work in Dharamsala, she said, for one informed the other. “My experience in Bodh Gaya influenced my success in Dharamsala. It allowed me to approach my co-op on stable ground,” she said. “But I feel like Dharamsala really enriched my experience in Bodh Gaya. It helped solidify what I had learned there.”
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