In 2015, 61 percent of Goshen College’s graduating class went on SST. For the class of 2017, that number is down to 46 percent. Tom Meyers, Director of International Education at Goshen College, says those figures represent how SST is struggling to adapt to Goshen College’s changing student demographics. “We have fewer legacy students now. We have a lot more local students now for whom SST is a strange idea,” Meyers said.
There are 215 first-year students at Goshen. Of these 215, 56 are commuter students and 74 are student-athletes. Effectively 60 percent of Goshen’s first-year class consists of students Meyers says are significantly less likely to go on SST.
“There are a whole lot of factors at play,” Meyers said. “A big one is the increase in the number of commuter students. Their costs are greater because they don’t live on campus,” said Meyers. “There are coaches that see SST as an impediment to the ongoing training of their athletes.” Meyers also mentioned the small number of undocumented students for whom going on SST is impossible. He acknowledges that many of these types of students don’t arrive on campus expecting to go on SST. “I’m not blaming them, it’s just a different perspective.”
Kristen Kolter is in her fifth year as softball head coach at Goshen College. Kolter thinks overseas experience is valuable for students, but that they must make a choice between going on SST or staying at Goshen to train with the team. Kolter can’t guarantee her student-athletes won’t drop on a depth chart after going on SST. According to Kolter, only three of her student-athletes have gone on SST in her time at Goshen.
“Overall our coaches are very supportive of the mission of SST,” said Josh Gleason, Athletic Director. Gleason knows student-athletes are less likely to go on SST. He used basketball as an example of a year-round sport at Goshen. “There’s not a track record, and frankly, there won’t be a track record of basketball players on SST,” he said. Gleason says he hasn’t yet engaged in serious conversation about how to make summer SST, which currently costs students up to $21,850, more affordable.
Gleason and Kolter believe in the potential of the May Term Nicaragua trip for student-athletes. Doug Schirch, professor of chemistry, and Maria Sanchez Schirch, assistant professor of Spanish, first approached Gleason with the idea. The resulting program took a portion of Goshen’s baseball students to Nicaragua for three weeks in 2016. A combined 20 softball and women’s basketball student-athletes are slotted to go to Nicaragua this May, although the trip may be cancelled due to political protests in the country. “It’s not enough,” Meyers said of the Nicaragua trip. “But it is a great start,” Meyers said.
Potential solutions to SST’s various challenges will be discussed at a search conference in the fall of 2018. The conference is being planned by a committee of faculty chaired by professor of history, Jan Bender Shetler. “A search conference is when you look across campus and you invite students, you invite faculty, you invite administrators,” said Shetler. Shetler says her committee is focused on gathering a diverse set of voices that will bring different perspectives to the table. She mentioned financial advisors, undocumented students, coaches and faculty from various departments as persons who may be selected to reimagine SST.
The final group of 30-35 people will go to Camp Amigo retreat center in Sturgis, Michigan from the evening of Friday, September 28 until noon on Sunday, September 30 to talk about how SST may be improved. “Here on campus we have all the expertise to figure out this problem and figure out what we need to do with SST. We just need the right voices in the room,” she said.
President Rebecca Stoltzfus expects the search conference to generate action. “It’s much more participatory as it isn’t people just giving speeches,” Stoltzfus said. She says the conference will discuss the story of SST, where SST is right now, and the dangers for the program if it doesn’t adapt to the current Goshen climate. She is confident the event will be geared towards concrete action.
“I don’t right now have a particular solution that I’m advocating for,” Stoltzfus said. “I do think it’s possible that Goshen can provide a portfolio of experiences that is more accessible to the diversity of our student body.” Stoltzfus believes there are experiences within the United States that can provide intercultural learning. “There’s nothing magical about going to another country in terms of how much a student is going to learn,” she said.
Stoltzfus says the impact of SST comes from having mentors that help guide students through unpredictable environments. She believe homestays and internships all contribute to this unpredictability.
“At this point in time there’s not going to be one shape or form for SST that unifies the faculty. What I hope is that by focusing on goals and certain qualities of the experience, a variety of new forms can emerge, one of which very well could be the traditional Goshen SST,” Stoltzfus said.
English professor, Beth Martin Birky, says there are faculty members who want to see SST stay as it is. She and others believe it needs to change form. Some, she says, don’t believe it is worth the resources expended towards it. Birky wouldn’t be surprised if there were faculty opposed to how much time is spent on intercultural learning in the Goshen Core: 14 or 12 credits are required for SST or alternatives, in addition to an eight credit language requirement.
“SST has been really transformative for people,” said Birky. “But saying ‘well nothing compares to SST’ really limits our options.” Birky wants people to understand that SST in its current form isn’t a possibility for every student, “especially the extra cost for students who live off campus,” Birky said.
Professor of music, Beverly Lapp, says it will be important to observe how Goshen’s new demographics perform on SST. Lapp cautions that SST should be careful to not predominantly cater to white Mennonites. The 2017 Tanzania trip included one white non-Mennonite and one Latino student. Lapp says that Goshen could learn a lot from her 2017 China SST group which consisted of 15 students, six of which were students of color. She believes Goshen’s diversification should be a positive for SST so long as the topic is approached with intentionality.
Lapp acknowledges that SST requires sacrifices, recalling a semester when the Goshen College Symphony Orchestra was missing several key string players because of SST. She values the impact SST has on the lives of students, and hopes that it stays a part of the Goshen core.
According to Academic Dean, Jo-Ann Brant, there may be a search for a new Director of International Education in the near future.
“SST has been part of the fabric of Goshen College for 50 years,” said Meyers, who has been on SST as a student and professor as well as leading the program. He is certain that SST will continue to be a large part of what makes Goshen College unique as the program approaches its 50th anniversary.
Editors Note: This article was written as part of a Reporting for the Public Good class.