Since summer 2017 when the first group of intrepid young people left the heat and humidity of Tulsa for the even-more-intense heat and humidity of Panama, JumpstartTU has been an uplifting launching pad for scores of soon-to-be first-year University of Tulsa students. Now, with 30 members of that intrepid crew having recently graduated, it is a good time to take stock of this innovative program and reflect on its successes.
JumpstartTU is a one-week international experience designed to serve as an introduction to TU’s academic and campus life through a transformative, intensive experience in Panama. First-year students enrolled at TU experience the program in June or July prior to beginning their first semester. Five teams of 15 students are formed to create interdisciplinary perspectives and two TU team leaders, consisting of faculty and staff, are assigned to each team.
A leader in global education
In 2020, JumpstartTU received the IIE’s Andrew Heiskell Award in the Study Abroad category for “providing innovative programs and services to make study abroad more accessible to a broader student population.”
“There are four core values of JumpstartTU,” explained Laura Semenow, the director of the university’s Center for Global Engagement:
- Building curiosity and excitement about entering college
- Learner-centered education through engagement with nongovernmental organization (NGO) partners
- Team collaboration and interdisciplinary discovery
- Engaging with Panamanian communities in order to discover similarities and differences from communities in the United States.
Discovering global issues in an international context
JumpstartTU exposes students to the importance of collaborating with a multitude of experts to learn about global issues, Panama’s unique biodiversity, global trade, world consumption and the culture of indigenous people and their contributions to the country. The program aims to foster a learner-centered environment where team leaders and NGO partners become enablers in guiding students to take responsibility for their learning and to ask informed questions.
One of the students in the first cohort to venture south was Kevin Gerstner (BS ’21), a computer science major who graduated this spring from TU. Participating in JumpstartTU clearly had the intended impact on him. “The trip was filled with too many memorable moments to remember,” reflected Gerstner. “But the one that has stuck with me was visiting a local neighborhood that had been affected badly by a flood caused by commercial development in a nearby area. We entered a small house that had been completely demolished and talked with some of the neighbors.
“Afterwards, we got back on the bus and sat quietly for a while. Eventually, a group of five or six people in the back broke out in a discussion of what could be done to prevent the issue in the future. We must have gone back and forth for an hour, fueled by the passion by having just seen the damage and met the affected people in person. The takeaway from that part of the trip for me was that immersion in another country helped me understand the interaction between me, my country, and the rest of the world.”
For the students, a major highlight of the program is when each team spends three days with one of JumpstartTU’s Panamanian partners:
- Luna Llena de Tambores utilizes the power of the drum and music to build community, create harmony and social change.
- MUCEC (Mujeres Colonenses enc amino) enables poor and abused women to become productive citizens and obtain a better quality of life.
- CATHALAC (Centro del Agua del Trópico Húmedo para América Latina y el Caribe) promotes sustainable development through education and research in watershed management, climate change and environmental modeling.
- Geoversity pursues breakthroughs in human design, enterprise and creative expression to promote sustainability.
- Olga Sinclair Foundation promotes cultural and racial union through the love for art and brings artistic expression to the children of Panama who otherwise may not have access to the arts.
Field experiences with these NGOs include onsite study of watersheds, teaching children self-esteem and inclusiveness through the art of painting, exploring the challenging issues of Colon following a post-Canal economy shift to Panama City and Panama’s biodiversity.
Demonstrating the resiliency of TU’s approach to onboarding and educating first-year students, in the summer of 2020 during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, JumpstartTU went virtual. While students might not have been able to hop on a jet to the lush landscape of Central America, they enjoyed a three-week virtual program. Teams of TU interns working remotely in Panama, as well as a variety of TU faculty and staff back in Tulsa, created a memorable experience for the participants.
Young transformers: Individuals into groups into friends
Another vital facet of JumpstartTU is the program’s ability to help individual students begin to form the friendships that will sustain once they get to university. On this account, Robin Ploeger, the dean of Oxley College of Health Sciences who served as a trip leader for three years, noted the program’s transformative benefits: “When students arrive at the airport to go to Panama, they are coming as ‘individuals’; many are very unsure and nervous. Then, when we return home a week later, they are a part of a group. They have confidence and a feeling of security. Then, when they come campus in August for orientation and the start of the semester, they are still a part of that group and have friends and a shared experience upon which to build during their first few weeks on campus and throughout the fall.”
For incoming nursing student Grace Cox, her 2019 JumpstartTU expedition to Panama was an eye-opening and inspiring encounter with the need to protect the planet’s biodiversity and the age-old living cultures of its indigenous peoples.
Steven Denton, who was part of the team that helped to plan JumpstartTU and who served as a team leader twice, also noted this friendship-forming dimension. A highlight for Denton, who is director of student development at TU, was “seeing students for the first time think about how their course of study could impact the world for the better.” And, for first-generation students, Denton added, JumpstartTU is “a powerful crash course of preparation for what it means to be a college student – in addition to being a meaningful learning opportunity.”
Fun, adventure and embracing the unknown
Of course, JumpstartTU likely would not be as popular or successful if it were entirely focused on learning. “Much of the trip was just plain fun,” observed Gerstner. “We ate great food, made friendships earlier into college than most other people and had our fill of adventure exploring the gorgeous and life-filled rainforests with sloths and monkeys. Whether you want to make friends, explore a new country or try something new, Jumpstart TU is the perfect way to start college and your adult life.”
This student perspective is echoed on the team leader side. According to Ploeger, “participants’ shared experience in an environment that is new to everyone allows them to bond and experience the vulnerabilities that come with the unknown. It breaks down a lot of barriers and they can get to know their fellow students in a way that couldn’t happen in many other settings.”
To make a gift to JumpstartTU, click here and then write in “JumpstartTU” as the designation.