As freshmen arrived at Cedar Crest College in Allentown this month, they made history in a world-class way.
They are the school's first class that will go as a group - as many as 150 students - on an eight-day excursion outside the country during their sophomore year.
Destination? Rio de Janeiro.
Students at the nearly 150-year-old women's college knew they would be taking a trip somewhere in the world, but it wasn't until Sunday afternoon at a ceremony welcoming them to campus that they learned they would be Brazil bound in March 2018.
They let out earsplitting screams when Cedar Crest President Carmen Twillie Ambar revealed the news she had been keeping secret, even from her own 9-year-old triplets for the last 10 months. Black, yellow and white balloons drifted down from a net on the auditorium ceiling and students batted them around in celebration.
"I've never been anywhere outside the country before. To have an opportunity like this, it's amazing," said freshman Moet Hamilton, 19, a psychology major from Steelton, near Harrisburg.
Ambar said the college chose Brazil because students can learn something there, but also because they can be of service to the country.
"It had to be a place that had some challenges," she said.
Students needed only to watch the summer Olympics this year to see that the city struggles with water pollution.
"I feel as though we at Cedar Crest can make a very positive impact on such a community," said Rebecca Dolan, 18, a nursing major from Wayne. "It's a wonderful opportunity for us to go there and have an understanding of what life is like in that country."
The other criteria for the location?
"It had to be kind of a fun, cool place," Ambar said.
All full-time sophomores in good academic standing (2.5 GPA required) are invited to participate at no additional cost beyond their tuition, fees and room and board, Ambar said. This year, tuition, fees and room and board amount to about $48,000.
Cedar Crest estimates the trip will cost $450,000 to $600,000, which she said will be covered by an anonymous donor and other university funds.
The college estimates that 150 of the 180 or so students in the class will make the journey - dramatically increasing the number of Cedar Crest students who study abroad, if only for a week. In the past, about 40 students each year have studied abroad.
The Institute of International Education, which tracks study abroad, had not heard of any other programs like Cedar Crest's when the college announced the effort in February.
"We have not seen another institution that has specifically announced that they will provide these opportunities to all students at no additional cost beyond the regular tuition," Wagaye Johannes, who leads the organization's Generation Study Abroad initiative, said.
The trip will take place over spring break, and no class time will be missed, Ambar said. Sophomores will take a class during the fall semester to prepare for the trip, including the basics on visiting another country and assistance in applying for passports.
While in Brazil, students will be grouped with others in their fields of study for academic and service-learning experiences, guided by Cedar Crest faculty and staff.
Ambar, 48, who is in her ninth year as president, said she has wanted to offer the universal study abroad experience since she started. But when she took the helm, the college was running a deficit and it's only in recent years that a surplus and a $4 million donation became available to fund the program.
She said she wanted to give students "a collective, communal experience" no matter their financial background or family history that they will remember even decades later when they come back for reunions.
Some of the college's students could not afford to study abroad without the program, Ambar said. About 40 percent of Cedar Crest students are the first in their families to attend college. The students' average family income is $65,000 per year, she noted.
"Some of our students have never been out of Pennsylvania," she added.
Ambar, a native of Little Rock, Ark., said she went into higher education because she saw what it did for her parents, who met at and attended an historically black college. Her father had grown up on a farm picking cotton from the time he was six, feeling the sting of discrimination and knowing that he wanted to be doing something else with his life, she said. He became a high school principal and her mother a college professor.
As a result, Ambar said she got the opportunity to attend some of the best colleges in the country. She graduated from Georgetown and received her law degree at Columbia and her master's in public affairs at Princeton.
"When our students walk across the stage at Cedar Crest, I know they're not just changing their own trajectories, they're changing their families' trajectories," Ambar said.
Ambar, who is married to Saladin Ambar, chair of the political science department at Lehigh University, came to Cedar Crest from Rutgers University, where she had served as dean of Douglass College for women.
Before that, she was a senior-level administrator at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
She's proud, she said, that Cedar Crest welcomed 1,704 students this month, its largest enrollment since 2009, when the recession and a dip in the number of high school graduates nationally began pinching colleges across the region. Since Ambar took the helm in 2008, the college's endowment has nearly doubled to $27.7 million and the school has added 16 programs, such as art therapy, to attract more students.
The college's percentage of minority students also has grown, from 17 percent in 2008 to 34 percent last year.
"Students just love her," said Suzanne Weaver, a professor of social work and gerontology.
Ambar plans to be there when students get off the plane in Rio.
Her message to them?
"Think about your place in changing the world."