Michele Waller wanted to be different.
While many of her high school peers were taking Spanish, she was enrolled in Japanese.
Now a junior at Kansas University, Waller will be different again this spring, when she spends a semester studying at Obirin University near Tokyo. Only 26 of the more than 1,500 students who participated in KU study abroad programs last year chose to travel to Japan.
"I think it's important to get out of the box," said Waller, a junior from Leawood. "Not that going to Spain or London isn't getting out of your comfort zone, but that's pretty much America. I think this will set me apart when I get into the business world."
By going to a less-commonly visited country, Waller is helping KU's Office of Study Abroad reach one of its goals: diversifying foreign study experiences in an effort to double enrollment in the next five years. That includes adding variety to both the countries visited and the programs offered.
More than two-thirds of KU students who studied abroad last academic year studied in the same five countries: Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Spain and France. And most of the professional schools -- including journalism, architecture, pharmacy, business, law and engineering -- don't have program-specific, semesterlong options for students to enroll at foreign universities.
"Study abroad used to be an enrichment experience," said Susan Gronbeck-Tedesco, KU's study abroad director. "Now we're seeing a shift to get it into the regular curriculum."
KU already ranks highly for percentage of students participating in foreign study.
The "Open Doors" report, published by the Institute of International Education, recently showed 25 percent of KU students who graduated in the 2002-2003 school year had studied abroad during their college careers. KU was ranked fourth among public universities for participation in foreign study.
More than 1,500 students will enroll in KU study abroad programs this year, including students from other universities who are allowed to participate. About 1,100 KU students are included in the figure.
Gronbeck-Tedesco would like to see the enrollment even higher.
"I'd like to get to 2,000 (for enrollment) in the next three to five years if we could," Gronbeck-Tedesco said. "But that's very fast growth."
To do that, Gronbeck-Tedesco is hoping to attract students to countries that previously haven't drawn many study abroad participants, including China, India and all of Africa.
In the past, she said, studying in a foreign country was focused almost entirely on learning that country's language. Now, she said the focus could be on learning the automotive industry in Germany or scientific research procedures in another country.
"The interesting thing about study abroad is it's a 24-hour experience," Gronbeck-Tedesco said. "You learn a lot in the classroom, but you get at least as much outside the classroom."
Another expansion route will be encouraging professional schools to develop formalized study abroad programs.
KU offers about 100 study abroad programs in about 50 countries. Currently, about half of KU's foreign study is led by KU faculty on short-term visits, lasting three to nine weeks. Classes are largely taught in English.
The other half of students enroll in KU's partner universities around the world, in courses that already have been approved for corresponding credit at KU. Departments at KU work with partner departments to determine whether courses meet KU's academic standards.
Gronbeck-Tedesco is hoping to add more of the latter type of program in areas other than the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
"We're still struggling with the issue of getting study abroad into the professional schools," she said. "They worry about academic quality. Departments are very careful about what the students are learning."
Study is underway in each of the professional schools to add study abroad options for students. The goal is to add options that won't require students to extend their stay at KU.
Gronbeck-Tedesco said she hopes KU students begin to see study abroad as something that will be critical to living in an increasingly globalized society -- and not just a way to learn a language or visit another country.
"They're learning to live in the world that's to come," she said. "There's a good life in Kansas. It's easy to be isolated here."