Navigating the world of study abroad: applying to go abroad can often be confusing, but for good reason

Highlights, Opinions

One of the appeals for many students at this University and other small liberal arts schools is the opportunity to study abroad at some point during their time here. The topic is widely discussed throughout campus as students leave, return and are excited by the prospects of doing so for some portion of their junior or senior year.

In the midst of discussion, Puget Sound’s study abroad program seems to generate a lot of frustration among students on campus. And we have heard the comments and even said some ourselves: there’s not enough up-front information about costs and the impact on degree plans. Too many students discover that they cannot go abroad due to either unexpected financial requirements or because they suddenly realize that their credits will not transfer.

Once we looked into what our campus has to offer, however, the program started to make sense. In trying to poke holes in the system, we instead discovered that there are good reasons that the system functions the way it does.

Not All Majors Can Study Abroad

We sat down and talked with Roy Robinson, Director of International Programs, to voice some of the questions and concerns we had been hearing around campus (as well as some of our own questions).  We asked Roy about why some majors can go abroad while others cannot, and what he thought about that. Roy told us that the biggest reason that some major—mainly the sciences—cannot go abroad is because not enough of their credits will transfer, which would then cause the student to not be able to graduate on time. In this situation, most students choose to opt out of going abroad rather than stay an extra semester or two.

While this is not necessarily fair, it is also is not really the fault of the study abroad program. Whether or not credits transfer is up to each department.

“If I could have every class that students take abroad count towards their major and minors, I would. However it is not up to the study abroad office. It’s unfortunate that some departmental policies demand a tighter sequence of credits than others, but that’s just the nature of some majors,” Roy said.

However, Roy also vouched for the school, stating that the departments try to make the credits work as much as possible, while keeping in mind that there must be some consistency in order to maintain the integrity of degree programs. With all of the different combinations of majors and double majors, and then the additional variables created by minors, credit transfers become complicated and difficult.

Financing?

Another great confusion that students have with the study abroad program is rooted in the financial aspect of their program. Word travels fast at such a small school and facts often get jumbled and misconstrued. There seems to be particular confusion with aid—how much, if any, aid applies to study abroad? We met with Maggie Mittuch, who works in financial aid, to clarify how students are expected to pay for study abroad.

We are currently on the fourth year of a newly implemented financial aid policy for study abroad. Before 2011, when the new policy took effect, a student had three options to study abroad: choose an affiliated program by Puget Sound, and pay standard tuition room and board with their awarded merit and need-based aid package  (Puget Sound was responsible for covering the program cost paid to the external program organizer), choose to “un-enroll” from Puget Sound and just pay the program fee (Puget Sound would sign an agreement with the program directly to have the student’s federal loans and grants transferred for their abroad program), or a student could choose to go on a subsidized Puget Sound sponsored/affiliate program (such as Dijon, France or Pac Rim), where they paid regular tuition room and board and all of their financial aid award applied to their costs.

The trend was such that intelligent Puget Sound students were savvy consumers, and tried to arrange their abroad plans by paying the least amount possible. Students who received a significant amount of financial aid through Puget Sound would choose an approved program, and pay the standard tuition fees as they would if they had stayed on campus. Puget Sound was not only giving students the generous merit aid, but it was also responsible for paying the specific program fee. Students who received little aid chose to “un-enroll” from Puget Sound and pay the less expensive program fee. Puget Sound lost the tuition from these students, despite their status as full time students. For the University, study abroad became a costly endeavor, and in the mid-2000s, it put together a work group to try to control study abroad costs yet still allow a robust study abroad program.

The work group spent a few years comparing our study abroad structure to other similar colleges, and eventually decided on a happy medium between giving aid to students, while also receiving enough money to keep our study abroad program running within its budget. The juniors in 2011 (class of 2012) were the first class to experience the new system. Currently, students will receive financial aid toward study abroad up to their demonstrated need. The intent is to not restrict any students from studying abroad due to financial reasons.

However, the University recognizes that some students may not be able to afford going abroad, even though they cannot demonstrate through the FAFSA that they need financial aid. To mitigate this possibility, the University created other avenues that make study abroad more accessible to these students.

Students have the option to directly enroll in summer study abroad, which also gives science and music majors (which have relatively strict curricula) the chance to study abroad when they might have been too confined to their programs to do so during the academic year. The direct enrollment over the summer serves somewhat as a trial run, and with study abroad numbers plummeting in the past few years (possibly due to the recession, but also possibly due to the new financial aid structure), the University may again take up the discussion about the best way to organize our study abroad program cost and financial aid structure.

As a result of the original restructuring, the University no longer has as great a financial burden from study abroad, and has funds to use in support of extended field study courses such as the Indonesia course last spring, the Cuba course last fall, and the Borneo course currently happening. In some ways, these courses are more beneficial—students are able to learn with a small group of their peers plus a faculty member for an entire semester, and apply a very focused knowledge base to the fieldwork at the end of the course. After the course officially ends, students are able to stay after and travel within the region, conduct research, or participate in service work.

When To Study Abroad

Lastly, we wanted to address the time frame a student can study abroad. When looking into studying abroad earlier this year, we both heard that it was uncommon for seniors to go abroad.  Ron confirmed this assumption, stating that most students are juniors and at most only five seniors per term go abroad.

“I just heard it was a bad idea,” sophomore Marcella Heineke said. She considered going abroad senior year, but has since decided against it.

Many other students we asked were in agreement, believing that it was a bad idea to go abroad senior year. When we pressed them about what made it a bad idea, most could not come up with an answer. A few, however, said that they thought they needed their eight credits to be on campus, or that the programs were oriented more towards juniors and therefore the credits earned might not fill the gaps that they expected to close their senior year.

We asked Roy if there was an institutional reason that only about five seniors go abroad per year. He said that it is possible that students would want or need to work on their senior thesis or take an upper division class that is only offered once a year, making them unable to be abroad during that year. But in most cases it most likely is something else.

“I think that students tend to romanticize their senior year. They want to be here on campus to experience those ‘last times’ with friends. But our campus is actually different than most in that it allows students to go abroad their last semester if they want,” Roy said.

Most schools require a student’s last eight credits to be completed on campus, but Puget Sound is unique in that a student is able to do their last semester abroad. We will even let students walk during their graduation ceremony, but push back their official date of graduation to allow them to go abroad the summer after their senior year.

Students have validity in voicing their complaints about study abroad. It is true that Puget Sound’s study abroad program may be difficult for some students to schedule into their degree plan, and it can be difficult to sort through all of the information or misinformation on campus. The information about the program is constantly changing, but that is because those running the program are trying to change the program for the better. Study abroad offers opportunities for new experiences and a new way to learn. Ideally, students would receive more financial aid to study abroad, but like any other scenario, it’s difficult to please everybody and our current structure is our best attempt at a happy medium.

 

 

 

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