Study Abroad Sprint, A Component of the Pre-Departure process

“But bringing a vision to life is difficult.” (p. 6)

Sprint - How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days

I originally posted this article on LinkedIn.

The last year or two we have been tweaking our orientation processes for our outgoing students, so that it becomes more practical and strengths-based focused. It has become important for us to move away from just the general pre-departure presentation where we talk about ‘dos and don’ts (*learningfrompastmistakes). It does not mean that the latter does not have a place within the general pre-departure process, but it cannot be the only thing that is done to prepare students going abroad. (It took me a some time to realize this.) Also, I am of the opinion that students have the skills and abilities to travel abroad, we just need to make them aware of it and nurture their confidence and latent skills.

The last two weekends I had the privilege to be involved with pre-departure workshops (which I co-crafted with Leya Mgebisa), and to a certain extent the experience of this prompted me to write this posting. On a different occasion I will talk in more detail about the general framework and approach we have with our pre-departure workshops, but within in this posting I want to focus on a specific component of the workshop, namely the study abroad sprint. And no, we are not requiring the students to run around the field or the Stellenbosch campus. The sprint is inspired by ideas from design thinking, agile design and lean development; and packaged into the book, Sprint – How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Dayswritten by Jake Knapp with John Keratsky and Braden Kowitz. 


Photo by Startaê Team on Unsplash

The above book does not talk about study abroad or international education, but focuses on the development of products and services using a 5-day design sprint: “This book is a DIY guide for running your own sprint to answer your pressing business questions. On Monday, you’ll map out the problem and pick an important place to focus. On Tuesday, you’ll sketch competing solutions on paper. On Wednesday, you’ll make difficult decisions and turn ideas into a testable hypothesis. On Thursday, you’ll hammer out a realistic prototype. And on Friday, you’ll test it with real live humans” (p.16). Obviously, we do not have 5 days, so we have to fit the sprint in on a morning or an evening. However, we try to include the driving ideas behind a design sprint within our shortened study abroad sprint.

Obviously, we do not have 5 days, so we have to fit the sprint in on a morning or an evening. However, we try to include the driving ideas behind a design sprint within our shortened study abroad sprint.

Now, you are probably wondering why we include such an activity within our orientation. In previous years, I have found that students sometimes struggle to firstly develop a complete picture of the study abroad experience, in terms of how different components (administrative, personal and academic etc.) intersect with one another and fit together. In addition, because of this they struggle to develop their own approach to the experience and lean then heavily on the respective international office or study abroad office to provide a pre-packaged approach. I don’t deny there are good and bad practices (which we do convey), but travelling is such an individual affair (even travelling in a group) and therefore students should be enabled to develop their own approach. Developing their own approach is also the first step in developing their personal and travel resilience.

Our modus operandi: We do the study abroad sprint at the end of the orientation, after we have already covered practical aspects, as well as things of personal importance. Previously, we focused very much on only the practical side and maybe neglected the personal, professional and academic goals of a student undertaking this type of experience. (I made this mistake.) This lead to the situation where students would do the sprint, but only focus on the practical components of a study abroad experience – and the personal relevance of it would be lost. Now, our orientation programme starts with a session focusing on framing personal, academic and professional goals after which we have sessions of a more practical nature. This means that by the time the students come to the sprint component, they have a framework to draw from in terms of doing the sprint. 


GV’s Sprint Process in 90 Seconds

In the last two sessions we showed the following, or above clip about sprints before we started, after which we contextualise it within our context of international education. For example, we tell the students that we have been mapping the study abroad experience as a “problem” up until the sprint part, and now they have the opportunity to sketch out individually the experience and provide solutions in terms of how they going to approach the respective study abroad experience. We provide the students with stationary, large sheets of paper and allocated a time limit wherein they have to complete it. I would say we skip session three (decide) and four (prototype) of the normal design sprint, but we do the last step which is the testing part. Here the students have to present their “approach” to the group of students who are also taking part in the orientation, presenting to them as fellow travellers. The presenting component is voluntary, because not everyone is comfortable with this. The fellow students (or fellow travellers) will then give feedback regarding the student’s approach and if needed make recommendations or add components to their own approach.

Student is busy to draw out a study abroad approach identifying what still needs to be done and highlighting personal goals.
Student preparing their “study abroad approach” during the Study Abroad Sprint

Lastly, through the study abroad sprint students are able to visually present their approach to the upcoming study abroad experience, and see how various elements interact with one another. They can also use it to guide their next steps and see what still lies ahead. I hope that through the study abroad sprint, students bring their study abroad experience to life.

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