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Morehouse Pan-African Global Experience (MPAGE)

As our college mission states, our special responsibility is for teaching the history and culture of black people.  This has been reflected in our curriculum and currently fortified in our general education plan.  Our programs, divisions and centers have emphasized this special responsibility through countless events and activities on our campus.  In the study abroad arena, the Morehouse Pan-African Global Experience (MPAGE), our signature education abroad program, has been taking the lead role in supporting our college’s mission and commitment to cultivate the history and culture of black people around the world.  MPAGE Projects have included curriculum development, course enhancement, international civic engagement, faculty development and research, and student development and research.

MPAGE II builds upon the successes of each of the prior MPAGE initiatives with a vision to increase the number of Morehouse students who complete their education with practical proficiency in a foreign language, international experience, and to increase the involvement of General Education faculty members in delivering international education.  MPAGE II has not only fulfilled this important responsibility but goes beyond by providing life enriching and fulfilling experiences for our students.  In recent years, MPAGE II programs have offered all students the opportunity (regardless of their majors) to travel wherever there is a rich history of the African Diaspora such as Ghana, Cuba, Mexico, Ecuador, and Brazil.  In this blog entry, I will examine two commonly overlooked ramifications crucial to our college: student retention and interdisciplinary collaboration.  

In order to understand student retention in our context, we need to review some statistical data. The National Center for Education Statistics shows that for:

Full-time degree-seeking undergraduate students who enrolled in 4-year degree-granting institutions in fall 2016, the retention rate was 81 percent. Similarly, the retention rate for private nonprofit 4-year institutions overall was 81 percent, ranging from 66 percent at institutions with an open admissions policy to 96 percent at institutions with acceptance rates of less than 25 percent.

The study Signature 12 Supplement: Completing College: A National View of Student Attainment Rates by Race and Ethnicity – Fall 2010 Cohort brings a view by race and ethnicity in public institutions:

Nationally, 54.8 percent of students who started in any type of college or university in Fall 2010 completed a degree or certificate within six years. When examined by race and ethnicity, Asian and white students had a much higher completion rate (63.2 percent and 62.0 percent, respectively) than Hispanic and Black students (45.8 percent and 38.0 percent, respectively). These rates included students who graduated after a transfer. They also count both full time and part time students.

At public institutions, African-American students fall short again: “Among students who started in four-year public institutions, Black students had the lowest six-year completion rate (45.9%).”  In our institution, the retention rate is 44.3 percent in four years and 52.9 in five years (the average in the past five years has been around 41.2 percent and 50.5 percent).  These figures are consistent with national statistics.

This disparity in the African-American completion rate is also reflected in their participation in study abroad programs. The last Open Doors Report (2019) on International Educational Exchange, published by the Institute of International Education, shows there is still only a small fraction of minorities who participated in any study abroad experience in comparison to white students.  White students participated in study abroad programs at a rate of 70.0%, compared to the African-American participation rate of 6.1% and the multiracial student rate of 4.4%, without taking into account that only 1 in 10 undergraduate students in the United States participate in a study abroad program.  In addition to that, only one-third of college students who choose a study abroad experience is male.  In other words, there is a 1:3 ratio between male and female students studying abroad.  These are particularly crucial for minority serving institutions such as HBCUs where only a small population of students participate in study abroad programs.  For Morehouse, the yearly average of students studying abroad is around 80 students.  However, data shows that MPAGE programs comprise around 30% of Morehouse students participating study abroad programs in the past four years.

Supporting study abroad programs not only increases representation of minorities in these programs, it also supports retention and graduation rates. In the study Underrepresented Students in US Study Abroad: Investigating Impacts found that “overall 93% of students [at Florida State] who participated in study abroad attained their degree, compared to 64% of non-participants. The effect was particularly noted in four-year bachelor’s degrees, where 81 percent of study abroad participants completed their degree compared with 57 percent of non-participants.”  This study demonstrates similar increases in degree completion at other universities, including the University of Texas at Austin, the University of California, San Diego, and the University of Georgia. The conclusion is inescapable: schools should support minority students studying abroad because it increases both graduation and retention rates. My empirical knowledge and initial data suggest that similar numbers of students that participate in MPAGE II programs graduate from Morehouse College in 4 or 5 years (92% retention rate, 70% of MPAGE students have graduated in 4-5 years, 22% of MPAGE junior/senior students are still taking courses this semester and plan to complete their degree in the span of 4-5 years and 8% of participants have not returned to the college to finish their degree).

In organizing a study abroad experience, faculty and study abroad practitioners take countless factors into consideration such as educational objectives, costs, financial matters, and time of year and duration.  The success of the MPAGE II program lies in its model.  MPAGE II programs are affordable for students at less than $2,900, and in some cases, there is some external financial support through grants.  In addition, MPAGE II programs are designed as short-term experiences (approximately two weeks) that do not interfere with summer programs or internships.  The program is organized around interdisciplinary views relating to student majors, academic interests, and faculty research.  This creates an organic academic synergy among student studies and faculty research.  MPAGE II programs have attracted students and faculty from a variety of areas such as anthropology, business, engineering, biology, Spanish, Portuguese, political science, sociology, music, psychology, public health, history, and English.  MPAGE II is the most interdisciplinary study abroad program at Morehouse College.  That experience has also infused course development and curriculum bringing material from those experiences to classes in the regular semester, such as: Introduction to Public Health, Cultural Anthropology, Medical Sociology, Brazil and Music of the African Diaspora, Survey of African American History II and African Diaspora Literatures among others (reaching around 440 students in the past two years), in addition to faculty research.

MPAGE II strives to create an international transdisciplinary approach: “An approach to curriculum integration which dissolves the boundaries between the conventional disciplines and organizes teaching and learning around the construction of meaning in the context of real-world problems or themes” (UNESCO).  As Vivien Stewart states, “The benefits and demand for more comprehensive internationalization for higher education institutions in the United States, Mexico and the rest of the world which is a product of an increasingly globalized world is well documented.”  For instance, The General Education for a Global Century (GEGC), a project of the Shared Futures Initiative of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), funded by the Henry Luce Foundation from 2011 to 2014.  That project found that the schools were aware of the necessity of global learning and the interdisciplinary challenges that incorporated global learning into their curricula posed.  The Shared Futures Initiative seeks “to increase the capacity of colleges and universities to help all undergraduates understand and engage the diversities and commonalities among the world’s peoples, cultures, nations, and regions.”  As Dawn Michele Whitehead states: “Global learning is no longer viewed as important only for students who focus on area studies and world languages; it is important for all students—from STEM to the health sciences to education.”

In that global learning context, language is a key component.  MPAGE II focuses on students who are completing their education with practical proficiency in a foreign language and an international experience.  The National Education Association stresses the importance of learning languages as part of global competence in American students:  

Global competence refers to the acquisition of in-depth knowledge and understanding of international issues, an appreciation of and ability to learn and work with people form diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds, proficiency in a foreign language, and skills to function productively in an interdependent world community.

MPAGE II programs also facilitate the learning of foreign languages. A foreign language is a key skill needed to move through the world as it is explained in the framework of 21st Century Learning (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2011).

Additionally, the Lead with Language initiative by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) summarizes its importance:

Imagine waking up one day to a new reality.  A world where English is only one of thousands of languages and 95% of Americans are left out the conversation. Realize that that day is today.  In the world that we share 7 billion people, 75% don’t understand any English and the fastest growing economies across the globe are non-English speaking.  How can we succeed? [answer] With languages.

The length of a study abroad program is directly correlated with language acquisition as students will have more time to interact with native speakers and use the target language. Research has shown that even short-term programs can have an impact on their language, especially in novice and intermediate levels.  T.A. Hernandez (2016) explains:

the findings suggest that colleges and universities might consider a two-tiered approach to study abroad. Students with beginning and intermediate coursework could be advised to participate in a short-term program, whereas it might be advantageous for those students with more advanced coursework or more advanced language competence to participate in a semester or longer. Although service encounter exchanges might be sufficient for lower level language users to make linguistic progress during a short-term immersion experience, more advanced students must be provided with opportunities for extensive interaction with native speakers.

During the MPAGE II program, faculty and students can utilize different opportunities to interact with target culture in order to maximize their amount of exposure.  Finally, after the education abroad experience, students can reassess their level retaking the Can-Do Statements Progress Indicators and taking the ACTFL Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI).  The interview is a live 15–30 minute conversation between a certified ACTFL tester and the interviewee. Through a series of personalized questions, a sample of speech is elicited and rated against the proficiency levels described by ACTFL. Depending on their level, students can receive credit thus advancing their academic curriculum not only in their major but in general education requirements or advancing their language skills.

The aim will be to help students acquire Intermediate level if the study abroad program is short-term and intermediate high or advanced for long-term programs Intermediate level is the minimal functional level in school and in the workplace.  In the private and public sector, a minimum of an intermediate level is required for promotion or salary increase.  In addition to that, learning a second language complements all majors or minors and is the most popular of double majors (Pitt, R. and Tepper, S). Again, this does not particularly tie into study abroad programs for language studies purposes, but rather for any program.

My hope is to raise awareness of the impact of MPAGE II programs and other study abroad programs on our students and in our community. MPAGE II empowers our students to connect with different cultures and reveal how similar we doubtlessly are. The positive impact of MPAGE II is quantifiable in retention, graduation rate, and curriculum development. It is our plan to expand the MPAGE II model and bring the Pan-African Global Experience to our campus and to all students who have not had the opportunity participate. 

Photo Credit: MPAGE MEXICO 2019 – Morehouse students in Yanga, Veracruz (Mexico)

Works Cited

  • The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages [ACTFL]. (2015b) Oral Proficiency Levels in the Workplace.
  • Engel, Laura C. (2017) Underrepresented Students in US Study Abroad: Investigating Impacts. Institute of International Education (IIE).
  • Hernández, T. A. (2016) Short-term study abroad: Perspectives on speaking gains and language contact. Applied Language Learning, 26(1): 60.
  • Institute of International Education. (2020)
  • International Bureau of Education (UNESCO). (2020)
  • Longcope, Peter Duncan, "What is the impact of study abroad on L2 learning? A descriptive study of contexts, conditions, and outcomes" (2003). 
  • Nair, Indira & Henning, Margaret. (2017) Models of Global Learning. Foreword by Dawn Michele Whitehead.
  • Morehouse College (2017). Morehouse Facts 2016-17.
  • National Center for Education Statistics (2020)
  • National Education Association [NEA]. (2010) Global Competence Is a 21st Century Imperative.
  • Pitt, R. & Tepper, S. (2012). Double Majors: Influences, Identities, & Impacts.
  • Shapiro, D., Dundar, A., Huie, F., Wakhungu, P., Yuan, X., Nathan, A & Hwang, Y., A. A National View of Student Attainment Rates by Race and Ethnicity – Fall 2010 Cohort. Herndon, VA: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
  • Stewart, Vivien. (2012). A World-class Education: Learning from International Models of Excellence and Innovation. Alexandria, Va.: ASCD.

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Michael Dillon is an Associate Professor of Spanish at Morehouse College. He is currently directing the MPAGE II program along with Dr. Ida Mukenge and Dr. Cynthia Trawick.