CONWAY, Ark. (November 1, 2010) – Since becoming the College’s first Director of International Programs in September 2007, Dr. Peter Gess has devoted himself to enhancing and expanding study abroad opportunities for Hendrix students.
Before his arrival, only a small number of study abroad programs were available, and those programs were an added responsibility for longtime foreign language faculty members Dr. Jon Arms and Dr. Wayne Oudekerk.
Gess earned his bachelor’s degree in computer engineering and master’s in environmental engineering from Georgia Tech University. He joined the Peace Corps in 1994 and spent two years in Poland, serving as an Environmental Awareness Adviser. He lived in a national park and worked with people living near the park to get them to help in protecting the area’s natural resources.
“As trite as it sounds, it changed my life,” he said. “After that, I found that the human side interested me more than the technical side.”
When he returned from the Peace Corps, Gess pursued his interest in public administration and policy. He worked first for the Atlanta Commission for the Olympics in preparation for the 1996 Olympic Games and later as a researcher at the School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta, before heading to the University of Georgia in Athens, where he earned his Ph.D. in Public Administration and worked as a public service faculty member.
His first responsibility at Hendrix was to look strategically and see where it was important for Hendrix to have a study abroad presence. More than simply increasing the number of programs, Gess was further tasked with enriching the quality of the study abroad opportunities “to allow students deeper study abroad opportunities, with internship, service and research components.”
Gess made it his goal too to attract more international students to Hendrix.
“My charge was to increase the number of exchange students who are here,” he said. “If we internationalize the campus here that serves everyone, in the classroom, in the social life and in the community.”
Gess said he is pleased in the rapid increase of students going abroad – which is currently about 40 percent of the student body.
Hendrix has introduced innovative new study abroad programs in Brussels and in Rwanda, both of which offer internship components, giving students the opportunity to work side by side with host country nationals, he said.
Students themselves are searching for more meaningful study abroad experiences, seeking out service opportunities above and beyond simply studying another culture.
Service offers a new avenue of cultural immersion, he said.
“Service abroad allows a unique opportunity to reflect on our own society in U.S.,” he said. “For example, by volunteering in a battered women’s’ shelter in London, you’ll get a different take on British society than if you just spent time in the classroom.”
Though the College continues to work on how to effectively measure the outcome of study abroad programs and other engaged learning experiences, anecdotal evidence demonstrates that “the [study abroad] experience is transformational for many students,” Gess said.
“Students are aware that there is a world out there, even if they never go abroad again, at least they are more prepared to be a global citizen,” he said.
Students who study abroad also build bridges for Hendrix by representing the College in other countries.
“For Hendrix, it’s great because our students are incredible ambassadors for this place,” he said. “When Hendrix students go abroad, they spread knowledge of Hendrix.”
In addition to directing international programs, Gess is a member of the faculty. He is an Assistant Professor of Politics and a member of the Environmental Studies and Asian Studies programs. He teaches Environmental Policy, Public Administration and Policy Analysis, and serves as a second reader in the senior seminar for Politics majors.
“I really value that experience because it keeps me well connected to students,” Gess said. “It’s important for someone in my position to have a connection to the classroom.”
As a faculty member and program director, Gess sits at the intersection of the classroom experience and what students learn outside of the classroom through engaged learning experiences under Your Hendrix Odyssey: Engaging in Active Learning.
“Odyssey is not just a program. It’s integral to all we do,” he said. “Study abroad is an integral part of the engaged ethos. If we really value engaged education, it can only come from significant experience abroad.”
Gess and his wife Jennifer, a neuropsychologist at University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, live in Little Rock with their two children, Madeline, 7, and Simon, 5.
For more information on international programs available at Hendrix, visit http://www.hendrix.edu/internationalprograms/internationalprograms.aspx?id=34572