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After about two weeks in Fiji studying marine and terrestrial ecology, student Thomas Burnett was ready to change his major.

“I got a lot out of it,” said Burnett, 20, of the study abroad opportunity he took as a freshman at Northern Virginia Community College. “It's why I have the major I have now.”

Study abroad is not a program offering normally associated with community colleges.

“I never thought community colleges did that,” said NVCC student Victoria Martin, 32, a Herndon resident. “When I first started at NOVA, they didn't offer any [traveling study programs] that I know of… It makes a world of difference.”

Bolstering the visibility and availability of study abroad programs at NVCC has been a goal taken on within the last few years, said Associate Vice President for Global Studies and Programs Paul McVeigh.

“Study abroad has really been focused on the individual [professor] and student interest in going abroad… What we've done in the last couple years is to help facilitate and coordinate,” he said.

Launched during the recent economic recession, NVCC's study abroad program has faced obstacles like student financial ability to pay for trips. Similarly, because of the diversity of students and needs on campus, NVCC has struggled to get the word out about study abroad offerings.

Some students, like Burnett, utilize community colleges with the goal of taking core classes at a lower cost and then transferring to a four-year institution later. Burnett is now a sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh studying evolutionary biology.

Community colleges also host working students, older students who are continuing their education and a large number of part-time students.

This diversity can cause the community college experience to feel more commuter-based than like traditional college life, students said.

“At community college… you don't really have that relationship with your professors and students,” Burnett said.

Martin agreed, but said programs like traveling or study abroad courses are helping enhance the community college experience.

“A lot of the kids I went on the Rockies trip with, we still keep in touch,” she said. “It gives lifelong bonding opportunities that — at a community college-level — are hard to get.”

Burnett has traveled to the American Rockies twice with a geology class over the summer. This year marks the first time the geology class will travel abroad, visiting the Canadian Rockies.

“Every year these kids tell us how awesome [the trip] is and that they want more,” said geology Professor Callan Bentley. “It's much more intuitive if students are there in person seeing these rocks in the field” rather than in photographs from a book.

“Last year a student wrote, ‘I learned more in those two weeks than I've ever learned in any other class ever,'” said Bentley, adding there is a demand for more traveling study opportunities at the community college.

Professors at Northern Virginia Community College said the demand for more study abroad offerings is growing at the school. But there are a few barriers to this growth.

“I think it's really the staffing. But even more than that, I think it's about the cost,” said English and composition Professor Jay Steere. “We can't afford to subsidize transportation [airfare]. Community college students are trying to get the bang for their buck.”

Western Civics Professor Ruma Salhi said, “The fact that you can get this at a community college is a huge thing. There is a big student interest… The only barrier to this is the faculty having time to go.”

Salhi last took a study abroad group to London in the winter of 2006.

“This is kind of an unspoken secret: you can get all the offerings of a four-year institute from a community college while living at home,” he said.

Because of the diversity and large number of part-time students, offerings like the study abroad program are not always known to students, said American Literature and composition Professor Yuemin ‘Booke' He.

“Community college students, a lot of them, don't know how to grab opportunities,” she said. “They don't know what's out there like grants and scholarships. This is part of that.”

Because many of NVCC's students end up transferring to four-year universities, He said, “It's important that we offer the same kind of experiences.”

Professors at NVCC said students should also take advantage of the community colleges offerings early on because they could have an impact on their choice of studies later.

McVeigh said the college is currently looking at ways to help students pay for study abroad trips, like through scholarships provided by the school.

“Because our tuition is so much lower, that difference in tuition can be used to go on a really nice study abroad trip,” said NVCC Professor Jill Caporale, who teaches biology courses and leads the Fiji study abroad trip, which is now in its second year. “It's best to get [a study abroad] as early in your college experience as you can because it may change what you want to major in. I've had many people say that.”

This was true for Martin, who began at NVCC with a liberal arts focus.

“I blame Callan [Bentley]…I fell in love with natural sciences, geology in particular,” she said. “That trip completely changed everything for me.”

NVCC educators are hoping the study abroad program will draw the attention of non-traditional students as well.

Students like Burke resident Sherry Hawkins.

“I am actually a senior citizen with a background in liberal arts, who went back and took geology because I've had a long-time interest,” Hawkins said. She is signed up for her third trip with NVCC. “The trips are just fabulous. On the Rockies trip, they had us camp out. That was my first time camping… It's one thing to go through a PowerPoint presentation or a textbook, and another being onsite. It's really a matter of magnitude.”

Registration for the geology trip to Canada closed with 18 students signed up, more than the dozen or so who registered for the American Rockies trip last summer, Bentley said.

Fiji Study Abroad enrollment is still open, Caporale said. The trip is offered as a for-credit and a continuing education class. Last year's trip, she said, had students of all ages including a 70-year-old.

“It's open. If teachers want to come on this trip — like high school or even elementary school teachers — they can bring it back to the classroom… It's definitely a life changing experience.”

hhobbs@fairfaxtimes.com