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Northampton company expands in response to surge in international study

Business is so good that the Center for International Studies Abroad, or CISabroad, has leased and revamped the former Center for the Arts space in the Sullivan Square building on New South Street into a spacious, 8,800-square-foot home for the 38 employees based in Northampton.

The company employs 68 people worldwide and expects to add another seven to 10 staff members at its Northampton office in the next few months to meet an ever-increasing demand for its placement services, said Jeff Palm, founder and executive director.

The company did not have to go very far, having moved up one floor in February from much smaller space on the building’s second floor which had been its quarters for the last 12 years. But the move is a significant milestone in the company’s 15-year-old history, Palm said.

“We’ve been growing pretty considerably in the last three to four years,” Palm said. “Studying abroad is appealing to many more students today than it has in the past. It’s not just humanities anymore.”

The space became available about a year ago when the Center for the Arts’ 30-year lease of a major portion of the former school expired. Since then, the center has moved to a portion of the old Universal Health and Fitness building on Hawley Street owned by the Northampton Community Arts Trust.

Palm said CISabroad has been careful to keep as much of the space intact as possible, including a large ballroom where events used to be held. That space now houses a series of portable cubicles that can be easily moved should the space revert back to its old use. Additionally, window shades that the arts center used to darken the interior to protect artwork have been removed, allowing more light to enter.

In addition to the cubicles, the space has been converted into administrative offices overlooking the former First Baptist Church, conference rooms and an open area on the main floor with couches and other comfortable furniture where employees can relax.

“We’ve tried to leave the integrity of the space,” Palm said.

The atmosphere inside CISabroad has an international feel, with a variety of music from throughout the world playing and as many as 15 different languages spoken, in addition to English.

CISabroad shares a suite of offices on the third floor with another company called World Internships, which provides students and young professionals with internship opportunities around the world. Palm said another five international education companies are expected to join CISabroad’s suite of offices in the next year to form a lively consortium of global education organizations that share similar missions and objectives.

Interest in studying abroad among American students has more than tripled over the past two decades, from about 71,000 students in 1991 to 283,300 in 2011, according to Open Doors, a division of the Institute of International Education. That total, however, represents fewer than 10 percent of all U.S. undergraduate students.

Palm founded CISabroad not long after spending years traveling abroad as a university admissions recruiter in the South Pacific. While working at that job, the idea for CISabroad began to take shape. Palm found that while many universities have international programs, a large number of them do not offer a one-stop office for students to handle every detail of a study-abroad program.

That’s the niche CISabroad begin filling in 2000 when Palm founded the company with a partner who ran a similar operation in Sweden.

CISabroad partners with universities and colleges throughout the country that either do not offer study abroad programs or outsource some of those services. In many cases, CISabroad staff handle all details of a program, from group activities to visa information, housing and enrollment. Depending on the university or college, the organization also handles the academic side of the agreement such as course selection, scholarships and financial aid.

“We’re there every step of the way, from the application process to meeting students at the airport,” Palm said.

Palm said that in addition to the 38 employees in Northampton, the company also employs about a dozen “university relations” staff throughout the country to recruit students and work with college officials stateside, and about 20 “in-country” experts to help students overseas.

CISabroad sends student abroad on summer, semester, intern and customized faculty-led programs to over 43 countries on all continents except Antarctica. The organization placed nearly 2,000 students last year from between 300 and 400 colleges and universities nationwide, including many from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Palm said.

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