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Released July 18, 2003


HATTIESBURG -- Conducting field research abroad is no longer the sole province of students involved in what are considered the hard sciences at The University of Southern Mississippi.

Thanks to a unique research abroad program that debuted in June, the ingenuity and expertise of Southern Miss graduate students in the College of Business and Economic Development is now being applied in an international context.

And the French Research Abroad program, which saw Southern Miss students conduct a pair of hands-on data collection projects in the Loire Valley region of France June 14-30, does more than just benefit Southern Miss researchers educationally and their European test subjects economically. It also allows for an exchange of international goodwill between cultures whose relations have been somewhat strained of late, according to Dr. David Butler, who directs the College's International Development Ph.D. Program.

"I believe there was definitely a two-way interaction, a benefit for everyone involved," Butler said. "Given the international climate recently, I think this was definitely a positive gesture from both sides."

Southern Miss Business and Economic Development student researchers interacted with French business owners and European travelers while conducting two separate research projects.

The first project examined the economic impact of the Abbey Program, by which Southern Miss has established a studies abroad experience based out of a 1,000-year-old Benedictine abbey in the town of Pontlevoy.

Students spoke with business owners throughout Pontlevoy, and the nearby town of Montrichard, to determine how the "European Semester in France" program, which has been in place for two years, has affected their bottom lines.

"Because we've run two successful semester abroad programs there, with students going over and staying at this abbey that was previously closed, and spending their money, we wanted to find out what kind of economic impact that has had on the area," Butler said.

The second project the Southern Miss researchers conducted involved exit surveys carried out at tourist chateaux in the Loire Valley towns of Chambord, Chevery and Chaumont.

The surveys-which were carried out in French, English, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and German-asked visitors to the chateaux to rate various aspects of their stay. The data, which is still being compiled, will be shared with the chateaux managers for use in the future management of their establishments.

The survey process provided invaluable experience to the students who participated, Butler said.

"You can read about how to get a participant to fill out a survey," Butler said, "but standing outside a gate when someone is leaving a chateau, with thousands of people coming through speaking multiple languages-that is something different. This cemented real-life practice and examples."

Tony Becker, an Economic Development master's student who participated in the research abroad trip, said that the survey's eventual findings should help the French chateau managers by offering a uniquely American point of view.

"The French have a different perspective on business patterns," Becker said. "They deal with observations and 'guesstimates,' not hard-pressed numbers that we as Americans come to cherish.

"Therefore, the information that we have collected, no matter what it is, will be helpful. It is just good business sense-no matter what country or culture you live in-to know your customer and what they like. The managers of the chateaux will better be able to serve their customers and therefore find both direct and indirect improvements to their day-to-day operation."

Julie Jordan, a Ph.D. candidate in International Development, agreed. "Our up close and personal experience with French tourism, viewed from our American perspective, might just turn up some ideas that help the chateaux managers revolutionize their business."

Other students participating in the first French research abroad trip were Ph.D. candidates in International Development Billy Morehead and Paula Mathis, and Dusty Farned, a Harvard student who discovered the program while exploring graduate degree opportunities at Southern Miss.

Butler said that the data collected by the two research projects will be made available to the French, and to the academic community through journal publications authored by himself and the students.

And there will more research abroad to come, both in France and perhaps another country as Butler plans for future learning opportunities.

"Absolutely, I will repeat this program next year," Butler said. "The idea is not only to grow the French Research Abroad program, but within a year or two launch another type of research abroad program, taking another set of students to a different country, a different region to do field research."

Research abroad programs at Southern Miss are open to all graduate students from every discipline, from any university, Butler said.

Butler developed the French Research Abroad program in coordination with the Southern Miss Center for International and Continuing Education (CICE).

CICE Director Suzy Steen said of the new program, "The French Research Abroad program is a terrific example of excellence and innovation in study abroad programming.

"It fosters faculty and student research, provides economic development expertise and assistance to the local region, and helps prepare our students for success in today's global economy by giving them the chance to acquire international experience while engaging in applied research and earning academic credit. Dr. Butler has created a wonderful learning experience for our students."

For more information on the French Research Abroad program, contact Dr. David Butler at (601) 266-4735.


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April 20, 2004 4:09 PM