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The Birth of America’s First Study Abroad Program

Raymond kirkbride and first group 1923

The University of Delaware (UD) offered America’s first study abroad program in 1923, an innovation rooted in the international experiences of one particular individual. Raymond Watson Kirkbride immersed himself in French culture while serving in the U.S. Army Ambulance Service during World War I. He would later become director of UD’s study abroad program. 

Raymond Kirkbride served part of his military duty in the ambulance corps during the St. Mihiel and Argonne drives. Following this deployment, the Army assigned him for four months to France’s University of Grenoble. 

This posting secured Kirkbride a position on an Army planning committee, one dedicated to enabling American veterans to study at foreign universities. The Army demobilized him in the spring of 1919 before implementing any educational plan. Undeterred, Kirkbride continued to nourish his passion for French language and culture. He joined the University of Delaware as an assistant professor of French in October. 

Professor Kirkbride returned to Grenoble during the summer of 1920 to explore the idea of a university-backed study abroad. He then pitched the concept to University of Delaware President Dr. Walter Hullihen in January 1921. Recognizing the plan’s promise, Hullihen dispatched Kirkbride to Paris during the summer to firm up foundational arrangements. 

Finally, on July 7, 1923, Kirkbride and eight UD juniors set sail for France. Students in Kirkbride’s program lived with provincial families in Nancy for several months while refining their language abilities, then moved to the University of Paris. 

Kirkbride reported back to Hullihen in November “A very important as well as pleasant part of the work at Nancy,” he said, “was the program of industrial visits, excursions, and social functions enjoyed by the Foreign Study Group. These ‘outside activities’ are of the greatest value in giving the student a familiarity with France and French life, a feature almost as necessary as the language itself.”  

UD study abroad students 1930

“The program of courses is well worked out and is getting results. Although our students have only been here a short time their progress in French is noticeable. The schedule provides for three regular sessions a day, every day except Saturday and Sunday.  

“The classes are held in the forenoon from 3 to 11 o-clock and include both practical drills and interesting lectures. In addition, under special arrangements made for the Foreign Study group, each Delaware student has a one-hour private lesson every afternoon.  

The Curriculum and Life in France

“The daily lectures are not only very interesting but are of extreme importance in the preparation of the student for his later work under the lecture method. This will be all the more obvious when it is remembered that in French institutions the instruction consists almost exclusively of lectures, and that from November to July our students will have to cope with the difficulties of this method.” 

Kirkbride’s poor administrative and financial management skills exasperated President Walter Hullihen. Nevertheless, the program was popular with UD students and became a model for programs at other institutions.  

Indeed, the French government took notice of the initiative’s significant impact on elevating French culture. Just two years into the program’s existence, they honored Kirkbride with the prestigious “Officier d’Academie” award. 

By 1924, students from UD Women’s College and other schools would join the group. In a letter shared with the ‘Evening Journal,’ G. Billy Carter, then a Rhodes scholar, expressed great admiration for Professor Kirkbride and the Foreign Study Group program. Carter wrote, “Living with Kirkbride gives me a unique perspective on this educational experiment. The young men in the program are evolving remarkably; their views are shifting from provincial to international.” 

First group of 1924 femaie study abroad UD students

He added, “Their development owes much to Kirkbride’s tireless efforts. Despite health challenges, Kirkbride manages every facet of the program—academic, social, and logistical. He is not only a director but also a mentor, constantly working to ensure the program’s success.” 

Carter also praised Kirkbride’s vast network in France, saying, “Through him, students have met key French figures and gained unique cultural opportunities. His dedication is leading the program to inevitable success.” 

A Professor Cestre, of the Sorbonne, wrote to UD President Hullihen in June 1925: “The eight students from the University of Delaware who worked at the University of Paris for the year, profited diversely, but on the whole remarkably, by their stay in Paris.” 

Raymond Kirkbride retired due to illness in 1928. That year, 44 students from 28 colleges were included in the University of Delaware Foreign Study Group. On Feb. 28, 1929, just weeks shy of his 37th birthday, the Blue Hen professor died from sarcoma. ‘

The Kirkbride Model Endures

The University of Delaware established a memorial library in Raymond Kirkbride’s name at the Paris headquarters, and the French Government declared him “Officier de l’Instruction Publique,” and “Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur.” 

In the years that followed, 127 peer institutions, including Princeton and Harvard, sent their own students on the UD experience. Today, one hundred years later, the Delaware-developed model of study abroad — in which faculty members lead academic courses and cultural excursions in foreign countries, with the noble goals of opening minds and hearts — persists.  

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