Origins of off-campus study

By James Leach

When off-campus study director Joanna Holvey Bowles and research fellow Elizabeth Gonzales ’19 traced the history of off-campus study at the university for a Bicentennial research project, they learned that students’ deep intellectual engagement in “seeing the world” went back much further than one might expect. A presentation of their findings in April 2018 heavily informs this historical overview of the global reach of a Colgate education.

Group of students with Pres Harry Truman in oval office
Group of students with Pres Harry Truman in oval office

Washington Study Group participants with President Harry Truman, 1949

Today, the university is “ranked first by the Institute of International Education in percentage of students participating in mid-length off-campus study programs,” and “typically ranks among the top 10 baccalaureate institutions for the number of students studying abroad.”1

How did such a robust set of offerings come about?

Early organizations of ministerial students such as the Philomathesian Society, the Eastern Association, and the Society for Inquiry focused their activities on studying the language and culture of Burma. The Hamilton Baptist and Theological Institution’s first graduate, Jonathan Wade ’22, established a famous mission there, and four students from the institution’s early classes followed Wade to Burma. Those students corresponded with groups on campus, and later returned to Hamilton, bringing Burmese students with them to study in Hamilton.

image of hand-written letter

Letter to Society for Inquiry from Leonard Woolsey Cronkhite

image of hand-written letter

Examples of similar correspondence date to the late 19th century, when missionary alumni wrote to members of the Society for Inquiry back on campus.

While the Baptist Education Society of the State of New York, Colgate’s progenitor, didn’t label the students’ endeavors as “off-campus study,” their travel and writing qualify among the earliest examples of the activities that students would pursue on study groups in the years ahead. Ultimately, study groups would proliferate and become one of Colgate’s signature features.

In his sesquicentennial history of Colgate, the late professor and archivist Howard Williams ’30 wrote2 that the university in 1905 began offering a study group in New York City for advanced seminary students. The university’s name had been changed to Colgate by then and — while it was increasingly secular — it still incorporated a seminary. Seminary students could elect to “spend a term in New York City under the instruction of Edward Judson, minister of the Judson Memorial Baptist Church in Washington Square,” Williams wrote. Judson, who had taught briefly in Hamilton, introduced the students to the practical experiences of ministering to the needs of a metropolitan congregation.

Starting 30 years later, Colgate’s first semester-long program in Washington in 1935 is generally credited as the beginning of the university’s modern study group movement. The Colgate Scene marked the 75th anniversary of the Washington Study Group with an article in 2010 that included quotes from many alumni and directors of the program.

Among them, Professor Paul Jacobsen, who led the early groups and described the goal of the program in the 1937 Journal of Higher Education: “The fundamental purpose of this off-campus study was to give the student an opportunity to see the government at work — to learn how it operates by watching ‘the wheels go round’ from vantage points of intimate contact and association with the officials.”3

Except for a five-year hiatus during World War II, the Washington Study Group has been offered annually since its founding, and while some of the details have changed, the goal has remained remarkably consistent. The late political science professor Joseph Wagner led the group in the late 1980s. He described the program as having “a liberal arts emphasis. We engage students in seeing the world not just as practical problems that need solutions, but as intellectual puzzles about what makes government work.”4

Widely regarded as the first program of its kind in Washington, the Colgate group was featured in national press, including the New York Times and Chicago Tribune.5 The Times in its story on October 19, 1947, referred to the study group as “Colgate’s mythical Capitol Hill Campus.”6

black and white photo of men in winter coats
black and white photo of men in suits around a table
Group of students on steps of Capitol Building
Group of students gathered around desk

Colgate’s first international study group began in 1958 with seed funding from the U.S. Department of State through its Office of Educational and Cultural Affairs.7 Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures James Dickinson, Class of 1939, led that inaugural group to Argentina.

The success of programs in Washington and Argentina soon led to the development of additional study groups. The economics department inaugurated its group in London in 1962; the history and English departments first offered a combined group in London in 1966, which later expanded to two separate groups. Other departments added groups in London in the ensuing years. The Romance languages and literatures department began its popular group in Dijon, France, in 1966.8

students on the Norway study group
Economics Study Group trip to Norway, 1961. Photograph by Cyril Morris.

The fundamental purpose of this off-campus study was to give the student an opportunity to see the government at work — to learn how it operates by watching ‘the wheels go round’ from vantage points of intimate contact and association with the officials.”

Professor Paul Jacobsen Journal of Higher Education

A study group in Asia (1966) led to increasing enrollments in the Asian Studies Program on campus; two students from Wells College joined the 1970 South Asia Study Group and became the first women to participate in a Colgate study group. The music department’s study group to India, begun in 1974, was led for years by Professor William Skelton.9

A study group at an Israeli kibbutz began in 1972. During the Yom Kippur War of 1973, college officials were advised by the State Department that it was safer to have students remain on the kibbutz than to attempt to fly home.10

In the decades that have followed, the scope and reach of study groups — both domestic and international — have continued to expand. International offerings have expanded to locations as diverse as Wollongong, Australia; Nsukka, Nigeria; Sri Lanka; and countries in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and the West Indies, as well as China, Japan, Korea, and, most recently, Singapore. Domestic study groups, meanwhile, have enabled Colgate students to immerse themselves in media in Los Angeles; Native American history and culture in Santa Fe; and the work of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda. 

Students at school in Jamaica
Students in front of NIH building
Students on castle tower in front of lake
Students, some in hijabs, in Istanbul

As Holvey Bowles and Gonzalez note in response to the question, “What is Colgate’s Legacy?”

“What sets Colgate apart is the sheer number of semester-long, faculty-led programs. Study groups serve to enhance student understanding of their major (or minor) while challenging student cultural beliefs and sense of identity — all while maintaining a connection to the pedagogical style that defines a Colgate liberal arts tradition.”

Notes & Sources

  1. Colgate’s off-campus study web page
  2. Williams, Howard D., A History of Colgate University 1819–1969. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1969, p. 254
  3. “Living in History,” The Colgate Scene, Summer 2010, p. 30
  4. Ibid.
  5. Powerpoint for “The History of Off-Campus Study” lecture, April 19, 2018, by Joanna Holvey Bowles and Elizabeth Gonzales ’19, Colgate research fellow, slides 15, 16, 17, 18
  6. Ibid., slide 18
  7. Ibid., slide 20
  8. Ibid., slides 23, 24
  9. Ibid., slides 23, 24
  10. Ibid., slide 25


Images in Order of Appearance
  1. Colgate University photograph collection, A0999, Special Collections and University Archives, Colgate University
  2. Society for Inquiry records, A1277, Colgate Special Collections and University Archives
  3. Washington Study Group slideshow photos courtesy of alumni
  4. Norway Photo: Colgate University Department of Economics records, A1087, Special Collections and University Archives, Colgate University
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