A relative newcomer to the higher education scene, study away programs offer transformative learning experiences that combine academic rigor with “travel-to-learn” immersion in the field (Brock et al., 2023, p. 62). Study away programs offer unique opportunities for hands-on experiences with current practices in one’s discipline that can enhance student learning and professional development beyond the traditional classroom setting (Stinnett & Oregon, 2018). Study away programs are considered a high-impact practice for the positive effect that participation has on a student’s engagement, learning, and overall academic success (Kuh, 2008). At ODU, faculty-led study away programs are defined as for-credit courses that contain a short-term domestic travel component (Center for Global Engagement).

One such course is COMM/QUST 495: LGBTQ+ Organizational Culture in the Pacific Northwest, offered this spring. The course is led by instructor Alison Lietzenmayer and co-facilitated by instructors Professor Carla Harrell and Dr. Megan Mize. Through a critical cultural studies approach, students are examining the ways in which major tech companies like Amazon and Microsoft support and celebrate LGBTQIA+ culture and workers within their larger organizational culture. Specifically, participants are aiming to understand the ways in which organizational policies and gendered communication in these spaces promote equity and radical inclusivity. Lead instructor Alison Lietzenmayer explains, “this immersive learning experience asks traveling students to consider how organizational policy might differ internally within an organization from the external messages of LGBTQ+ support.”

For the first part of the semester, students analyzed Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) of Pacific Northwest (PNW) headquartered corporations. They examined organizational content such as ads, promotions, policies, and other artifacts in order to analyze these corporations’ cultural branding through the lenses of gendered communication and organizational communication, as well as the intersection between the two. This set students up to see the ways in which the LGBTQ+ community is actually supported by these companies – in society, at home, and at work.

This pre-work served as a springboard for the main event: a whirlwind six-day field-based experience in Seattle, Washington during the University’s spring break. In addition to touring the typical attractions like the Space Needle, Pike Place Market, and Seattle Aquarium, students also visited the Wing Luke Museum and a tea-house in the International District. Lietzenmayer explained, “part of the class experience is being in a new place– and being able to explore the attractions, both popular and perhaps less known outside of the region. Just as other high-impact practices like service learning and internships (or work-based learning) teach us that many people learn by doing, you simply cannot learn about a culture as deeply as if you can safely and ethically explore a space yourself. Traveling to Seattle allowed for cultural immersion. The weather, the pace, the communication style of the locals– it is all unique to the Pacific Northwest and not something that can be replicated in a classroom setting.” And while the main objective of the program was to experience corporate culture, “it was important to me that we also learned and experienced firsthand the history of Pan-Asian Americans and immigrants that supported the building and growth of Seattle.”

Lietzenmayer leveraged her personal connections to set-up meetings with Microsoft and KING 5 (Tegna, Inc.). During these site visits, students had the chance to learn from both regional scholars and professionals on the forefront of advocating for inclusivity and protections for the LGBTQ+ community and observe how professionals are enacting change in their workplaces that better represent intersecting identities of their workers and corresponding regional communities. Both the meetings themselves and the acts of setting up these meetings were learning experiences for students. As Lietzenmayer shared, “we might never know how our networks might intersect with our personal and professional goals. I’ve been lucky to be surrounded by smart, fun, women– and this experience was a chance to see them shine as leaders as well as share their knowledge and professional journeys with the students.”  In doing so, Lietzenmayer hoped that students would develop a greater awareness of LGBTQ+ culture and how communication scholars study related issues and topics, thus introducing students to both practical and scholarly applications of their work and the importance of networking.

Students were additionally tasked with documenting and actively reflecting on their experiences in Seattle by way of a collaborative course ePortfolio. The goals were twofold: collect the sights and sounds of Seattle and contribute these individual experiences to a group product. Once again, these acts were intentional learning experiences for the students. Co-instructor Dr. Megan Mize added, "as the Director of ePortfolios & Digital Initiatives and an English scholar, I noted a shift in the learning experience as we encouraged deliberate media collection during our excursions. For instance, prompting participants to capture soundscapes infused a playful element into our activities, fostering a heightened awareness of the sonic nature of our surroundings. This led to striking discoveries, like witnessing a protest drowned out by the sounds of public transit, sirens, and children playing nearby. Collecting this sort of media in real-time adds immediacy to our collaborative portfolio, enabling students to recall their affective responses to the spaces they encountered.” Lietzenmayer added, “By completing a collaborative course ePortfolio (rather than individual assignments), we are queering the experience of reflection by emphasizing the collective over the individual.” The work of the collaborative ePortfolio remains on-going for the rest of the semester.

ODU students often share that their study away experience was a highlight of their ODU careers because it allowed them to learn actively, engage with their professors and classmates, and see their course content “come to life” in a real-world setting (Center for Global Engagement). The success of this course provides just one example of how students can benefit from immersive learning experiences without leaving the country. But the benefits are not limited to the student participants. Faculty-led study away experiences can lead to a richer and more fulfilling educational journey for instructors as well. Co-instructor Carla Harrell explains, “Being able to share in the learning alongside the students creates a rich experience as an educator. I enjoyed the more relaxed vibe of getting to know the student participants in a more collegial context and the opportunity to reflect on the shared learning throughout the week.”

And while this might have been the first LGBTQ+ focused study away/abroad course offered by ODU, it will not be the last. Lietzenmayer shares, “In future class offerings I hope we can add in the Northwest African American Museum, because as you can guess– I’m already planning the next offering of this course!” Faculty who are interested in developing a study away course for spring or summer 2025 are encouraged to submit a proposal by no later than June 1, 2024. More information can be found here through the Center for Global Engagement or by contacting Nathan Owens, Study Abroad Coordinator, at nowens@odu.edu.

It’s important to note that the course was made accessible to students thanks to underwriting and support from both the department of Communication & Theatre Arts and the Gay Cultural Studies program. It is because leaders such as department chair Tim Anderson and program director Cathleen Rhodes invest in these kinds of immersive learning experiences that our students are able to make the most of these opportunities.

Works Cited

Brock, D.B., Reyes, J.M., Higham, R., & Beach, D.M. (2023). A Scholar-Practitioner Examination of Experiential Learning: Student perceptions of the benefits of a study away experience. Administrative Issues Journal: Education, Practice, and Research, 13(1), 59-75. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1381131.pdf

Kuh, G. D. (2008). High Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter. Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Stinnett, B., & Oregon, E. (2018). Pedagogical Practices and Curriculum Considerations for a Study Away Course in Sports. The Physical Educator, 75(3), 454-470. https://doi.org/10.18666/TPE-2018-V75-I3-8211