In the early days of 2020, the Office for Global Engagement was making final preparations to establish the Global LEAP program—a distinctive, early-career learning abroad opportunity that would enable Freshmen spend their second semester at the University Asia Campus in South Korea.
But when the project was blanketed in the uncertainty that became the hallmark of that first pandemic year, many wondered if the program would succeed in sending students overseas as planned in 2021.
Four years later, the program is thriving. This year’s cohort of Global LEAP students totals 27, nearly double the first year of the program, and there is discussion of adding another section in the future due to its popularity.
Overcoming odds to send freshmen abroad
“One of our primary concerns the first year was that these students were so young—freshmen—and many were first-generation college students. They were already stretching their comfort zone. Would they, or their parents, even be interested in opportunities abroad in the context of a global health crisis?” said Randy McCrillis, Executive Director of the U Asia Campus.
“At the same time, we also knew that getting students on international experiences earlier in their academic career offers a host of benefits, and there was a strong desire from our team to do anything possible to make sure students didn’t miss out on those gains. That felt especially important given the restrictions already being imposed on students by the pandemic,” said McCrillis.
The program launched on the Salt Lake City campus that Fall, with the caveat that the second element of the Global LEAP experience—the global part in Korea—could be subject to COVID travel restrictions. With plenty of planning and precautions, the first cohort of seven students boarded an Incheon-bound plane that February for an unforgettable experience.
Dr. Rebecca Larsen has been teaching the first semester course of the program since the program’s inception. When asked what it was like launching Global LEAP during the pandemic, she sums it up in one word—”wonderful.”
Small cohorts equal comfort & quick learning
“It was a unique class at a unique time, thus it was a lot of fun. That first group of students is special to me because there were a small number in the class, so I got to know them well,” said Larsen.
All LEAP cohorts are intentionally small, so students can work closely with faculty and peer advisors. The intimacy of the program enables new students to transition to college in a supported environment and empowers them to play an active role in their education.
The Global LEAP program structure is two-part; students spend the Fall semester of their freshman year at the Salt Lake City campus and Spring semester in Incheon. It’s part of a growing higher-education trend of international experiences tailored to incoming freshmen. Citing increased cross-cultural awareness, development of soft skills, higher college completion rates, and employability after graduation, universities are keen to create learning abroad programs that attract students earlier in their academic careers.
Living local, thinking global
While still in Utah, Global LEAP students take a course focused on the economic development, history, and social norms of South Korea. Taught by Larson, it inspires students—many of whom have never traveled abroad—to think as global citizens. They also work as a cohort on college skills such as using the library, developing study habits, and meeting people on campus. Those same executive function skills help them take on the responsibilities and challenges that will come with learning abroad during their second semester.
“The Global LEAP program made such a good call by requiring a course before heading to the U Asia Campus. We learned about South Korea’s history and prepared for many of the differences in culture, language, and beliefs compared to the U.S. It really helped me to not be hit so hard by culture shock and helped me adjust to a Korean lifestyle faster,” said 2020-21 Global LEAP student Jesus Juan-Pacheco.
The Global LEAP group goes abroad
At the start of Spring semester, the students pack all that confidence they’ve cultivated and head to Incheon, South Korea with their cohort. Their Global LEAP experience continues at the Utah Asia Campus with Dr. Ahram Park—focused on the exploration of global social justice issues through a fine arts lens while remaining focused on the Korean peninsula.
“This experience changes these students. They are stronger and more comfortable at figuring out things on their own. I visited the UAC in May of 2022 and talked with some of my former students. I could not believe the change in appearance, confidence, and maturity,” said Larsen.
The Key? A Campus Abroad
“One of the key features that made this program work is the fact that the campus is ours. We were able to maintain mobility, manage student concerns directly, and control for safety much more easily because it’s a University of Utah campus—just in a different country,” said McCrillis.
Launched in 2014, the U Asia Campus is an extended campus of the University of Utah. Courses are taught in English by U faculty. There is no need to transfer credits because grades are reported directly to transcripts. Salt Lake City students even pay in-state tuition for up to two semesters. The result is that students can have a seamless, “One U” experience while gaining critical global leadership skills.
Students remark that they appreciate the smaller scale of the U Asia Campus too—something especially beneficial to Global LEAP participants navigating their first year as college students. Student life activities abound, it’s easy to get involved and find leadership opportunities, and exploring the country together builds on the camaraderie already established in the group.
“While the U Asia Campus may be tiny compared to the Salt Lake City campus, the atmosphere here is amazing with such amazing faculty and students. The International Student Diplomats are saviors in helping international students find their way around campus, the city, and overall questions about Korean life,” said Juan-Pacheco.
Friendships that sustain
The friendships formed through Global LEAP have sustained many students through their college experience.
“Living in another country with people bonds you in a way that nothing else can. Being able to go on late-night convenience store runs, having weekly movie nights on campus, and exploring a new country together gave me friends that I will never forget,” said Daffodil Buchert, a political science major who went to U Asia Campus with the 2022-23 Global LEAP cohort.
“Even now, as we’re back on the main campus, I meet up with friends I made through Global LEAP for study sessions, coffee breaks, and more movie nights. It’s special to have friends who understand the experience I had studying abroad. I’m so glad that Global LEAP brought me the friends that it did,” she said.