I was there to clean out a closet.
You read that right. I flew all the way to Australia to inventory, sell, destroy, and ship stuff contained in an approximately 10' x 8' closet located in a tiny coastal town.
the problem with leftovers
In study abroad we talk a lot about program development and creating new ways to immerse our students in the local culture. There are tons of resources on how to build a new study abroad program. We almost never talk about the flip side. What about when we create programs that, for one reason or another, don't work out? I'm referring to programs that need to be dissolved because they are no longer meeting enrollment, financially solvent, or satisfying the needs of our students. What then?
The program in Lennox Head was one of these programs. I won't get into the complexities of why, but the program my institution operated there for over 10 years was closed down. Over that decade equipment was purchased, student belongings were left in storage for the subsequent participants, and there were physical remains left behind.
You might be thinking, why not chuck it in a bin or leave it for someone else, but universities, particularly state universities, have strict protocol for how these sorts of things are handled. For example, you can't donate items to charity if they were owned by the state because it might be seen as favoring one charity over another. And electronics that could contain data need to be wiped and destroyed by a certified tech. It is not so easy as walking away. Last summer it was my role to ensure that every rule was followed and all materials were properly inventoried and handled.
local impact from our global programs
There was another thing I realized when I prepared to say farewell to little Lennox Head. Our programs don't operate in a bubble. It's not just about my university. I had to explain to the locals why we were closing up shop. They asked things like, what could they do to help bring the program back or if it was something they'd done (that one broke my heart).
Our study abroad program had grown to be a part of their community-- our students chatting with locals at the lawn bowling club, shopping in the markets (spending $$$ on surfboards they could barely get up on), and volunteering for beach cleanups. Yes, sometimes it wasn't the best impression we made (mostly loud students coming home from a night at the pub). But the people in town loved sharing their Aussie culture, comforting homesick Midwestern students, and talking about the local history, plants & animals. The town became an unofficial sister-city to our campus.
I suppose I am sentimental about this program because it was where I worked for my first residential study abroad job in 2006. Or maybe it is just because the town is so small, the people so friendly, and the landscape so breathtaking. Regardless of the reason, last summer inspired me to think about program sustainability in a new way.
It's great when some of those items (hairdryers, bath towels, guide books) can be left for the next group. But what if there isn't a next group? Has anyone thought about the impact on the local community? Does your office have an "exit" plan? Are there partnerships with local agencies in place so that students can donate their unwanted personal items on the last day? What measures will the institution take to sell or repatriate equipment purchased with program funds? Are you prepared to incur the cost of sending staff to dismantle the program? Are you familiar with the regulations and laws governing property disposal?
These are important questions for international educators and just as critical as "Where should we build a program next?"
NOTE: If you are an education abroad professional who has experienced the "death" of a program and would like to present on this topic at an international education conference in the future, please get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org