Christopher Morris is living proof of the spreading reach of community colleges.
The 18-year-old honors student from Ellicott City plans to spend the next month exploring the ruins of Mycenae, the ancient Greek city-state whose ruler warred with Troy in Homer's epic poems, the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey." Joining an archeological dig organized by Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, Morris will sift through dirt looking for ceramic shards, figurines and other clues to this still-mysterious culture.
Then he intends to travel north to the Macedonian region, making stops at centuries-old Christian monasteries. During his seven weeks in Greece, he'll also visit places such as Athens and Santorini. Much of the cost of the trip is covered by scholarships, and he's earning class credits at Howard County's community college.
"Now I can go in depth and explore how did the Greeks evolve," said Morris, who is of Greek descent and speaks the language. "That's the important thing on this trip that I'm so excited about."
Morris, who began his trip last week, joins more than 350 Howard Community College students who in recent years have gone overseas to learn. Their experiences reflect how the school, like many community colleges, is pushing its students to acquire a worldly perspective in their fields of study.
"Everybody needs to be aware of what's going on in the rest of the world," said Rebecca Mihelcic, the school's international education coordinator. "There isn't a single educational area untouched by global initiatives."
In higher education, study abroad traditionally has been the province of four-year institutions. Towson University, for example, has had programs for 30 years, said its study abroad director, Adam Grotsky.
While community colleges are getting more involved, their offerings still can be uneven, according to John Halder, president and executive director of Community Colleges for International Development Inc., a national group based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
"It varies state by state to some extent, and discipline by discipline as well," he said. "Some colleges are very good, and others are more patchy." He added, "Technical programs at community colleges have, generally speaking, been very poorly represented for study abroad."
Since 2000, Howard Community College has developed at least a dozen study abroad programs for its seven academic divisions, encouraged numerous faculty exchanges, expanded foreign language offerings and forged overseas partnerships with such four-year colleges as Dickinson.
Alison and Laura Gottschalk, 19-year-old Columbia twins who are transferring to the University of Maryland Baltimore County in the fall, both traveled outside the United States for the first time as Howard Community College students. Alison lived with a Mexican family for three weeks and took classes at Universidad Internacional in Cuernavaca in January 2004. Last July, she and her sister, using travel scholarships, took a month-long independent study tour of Germany and visited places described in the diaries of their grandmother, a native of Germany.
"After traveling twice, I'm fearless in some ways," Alison Gottschalk said.
Most community colleges in Maryland are expanding their study abroad programs. At Anne Arundel Community College, culinary arts students work in the kitchens of northern Italian resorts for six to eight weeks. Marine biology students at the College of Southern Maryland dive the coral reefs off the coast of Belize, and at Frederick Community College, students live and work in London for a semester.
"This is an eye-opening, maturing process," said Peg Mauzy, an assistant professor at Frederick Community College. "Students come back very changed. They're more focused on what they want to do with their lives."
Yet, devising study abroad programs at community colleges takes special effort. Affordability "is paramount, it's central," said David Tengwall, professor and chairman of the department of history and political science at Anne Arundel Community College. "The economic situation often demands we try to do things as inexpensively as possible." While college officials seek bargains on airfare and lodging, they also raise sizable scholarship funds.
That was crucial for Susan Linden, a Howard Community College nursing student. At 53, Linden has had a 22-year career as a contract negotiator in the corporate world, but as a single parent with two college-age daughters, she relied on a partial scholarship and her ongoing financial aid from the college to finance a three-week study trip to China.
"I didn't know when I'd have the chance to go again and spend three weeks in a really exotic country," said Linden, who hopes to combine travel and nursing through work with private agencies after graduation.
Now, officials hope a new cooperative effort among Maryland community colleges will bring more students overseas. A recently organized international education consortium intends to launch a Web site in the fall, listing the Maryland schools' study-abroad offerings, with links to individual programs.
The consortium will encourage students to shop for study abroad programs among the community colleges.
"There are so many options out there our students don't know about," said Mauzy, who helped lead the consortium's development.