TAMPA — When new students arrive at the University of South Florida for freshman orientation this year, they'll hear an unusual suggestion.
Bring a passport.
The advice reflects a growing push at USF to get students to study abroad — and a growing demand.
This summer alone, USF students are in China, Colombia and Costa Rica. South Africa, Spain and Slovenia. Thailand, Tanzania, Bolivia, Jordan and more.
"These are students with itchy feet," said provost Ralph Wilcox. "One country, one language, one culture is not enough for them."
But it's more than just adventure that USF is advertising.
At a time when the state university system is under more pressure than ever to prove its worth — with a governor and state lawmakers continually questioning higher education leaders about students' success after graduation — USF's study-abroad pitch also includes this incentive:
Or, at least, the potential for students to make themselves more attractive to employers.
"It gives them a career advantage to have that basic understanding of the world," said USF president Judy Genshaft. "Businesses will tell you."
It's something the governor seems to understand, too, said Wilcox, pointing to Gov. Rick Scott's recent trips to England, Spain, Brazil, Israel and Panama.
"In order for our students to compete in a global marketplace, we owe it to them to provide a global experience," Wilcox said.
The passport suggestion is just a start.
In the past year, USF also has ramped up its study-abroad outreach programs, started a peer ambassador program to reach out to new travelers and opened a study-abroad adviser office in the Marshall Student Center.
And it has pushed students toward more travel scholarships, including competitive awards like the Fulbright and Gilman programs.
That's what lured Lauren Shumate, a 23-year-old USF criminology student.
Shumate went to Serbia last year as a Fulbright Scholar. She spent nine months teaching English, making new friends and learning a new culture. She says the experience changed her.
"You just don't realize what's out there," Shumate said. "It kind of opens your mind. You can learn things from other places, other people."
That perspective is what Genshaft hopes students take away from their travels.
It's the reason she and her husband donated $1 million last year for "passport scholarships," allowing students to study abroad.
With about $1,000 dispersed per student, 40 awards have been given out so far, including two dozen this summer.
So far, it seems the extra efforts are working.
Though the overall number of students studying abroad is still only about 2 percent of USF's total enrollment, in the past two years the number of study abroad students has grown by more than 50 percent. Right now, there's a USF student or faculty member in every time zone in the world.
More proof sits on the windowsill of Genshaft's office.
Dozens of figurine bulls are lined up across from her desk — souvenirs brought to her from various nations. There are several from Spain and from Brazil, a colorful one from Thailand and one from France in high heels.
Behind them are experiences: students who gained new appreciation for people and places they wouldn't get in a classroom, students who came back more tolerant of others, students who learned to be more open-minded. And, of course, students who now have additional skills to offer when applying for jobs.
"I truly believe … everything we do now has to be global," Genshaft said.
Kim Wilmath can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3337.