Concerns persist with study abroad

By Ari Ofsevit

Kramer Gillin ’07 just returned from a semester in Muscat, Oman, one of only 74 Macalester students to study away fall semester.
“I didn’t want it to immediately be my senior year [upon returning],” he said of his decision to leave St. Paul for the fall semester, more evenly splitting his time at Macalester.
While there are pros and cons to leaving campus in both fall and spring, many more sophomores will have to employ Gillin’s logic if they wish to study abroad during their junior year.

In one week, current sophomores will have to decide on much of their future. Next Friday, all students in the class of 2008 will have to sign an “intent to study away” letter, even if they will not be leaving Macalester until next spring—and they still don’t know how a 115 student-per-semester cap will affect their decision.

The letter explaining the Mat. 10 date was sent out at the beginning of the semester to all current sophomores by the Provost, Diane Michelfelder.

“I got that letter and I got nervous and I went in [to the International Center] and told them I wanted to fill out a letter of intent,” Amy Hutchinson ’08 said. But when she told them she wanted to study away in the spring, they said not to worry about it yet. She plans to go back this week but said she was flummoxed by the strong wording in Michelfelder’s letter contrasted with the nonchalant attitude at the International Center.

Some of the confusion regarding the letters of intent have been in the process of filling them out. Katherine Yngve, the director of the International Center, said that while the process is not mandatory, it is highly recommended.

“I think the committee would not turn down a student who hadn’t sent in [a letter of intent], although it is a possibility, “she said. A physical letter is not necessary, students can simply email their name to [email protected]

This contrasts with the strong wording in Michelfelder’s letter, which implored students to physically go into the International Center.
“They make it too difficult, complicated and confusing for kids who are trying to deal with life at the same time…which is really sad because it shouldn’t have to be that much of a process. It doesn’t have to be as difficult as they make it,” Hutchinson said.

International students, who already face many obstacles to study abroad, fear that they will face even more scrutiny. Petra Norlund ’08, who is from Sweden, wants to go to China, but will push her semester abroad to her senior year in order to go at a time when there may be more slots open.

Still, she is not optimistic about her chances. “I think international students are screwed,” she said. “I’m going to do my best and show that it is necessary for my major, but otherwise I might just take a semester off and make sure I can get credit for [enrollment abroad],” a strategy several students are considering, and one which is frowned upon by college administration.

Curran Hughes ’07, currently a junior and a Russian Major, plans to study abroad next year, although he has had problems finding out if the college will approve a non-sponsored program.

“I think it is ridiculous that it is so difficult to apply to programs that will allow students to apply their specific interests—all the Russian programs that are recommended are to Moscow or other major cities, but if you want to study something like the former Soviet Union you can’t.” Hughes already took a year off and wants to study in one of the former Soviet Republics, where Macalester does not have recommended programs.

“I understand wanting to know if non-listed programs are worth it, but I think it is ridiculous how [the International Center] does it,” Hughes said. “I know they don’t want to send people on ‘Jose’s Mexican Experience,’ but…even if they know the program, if no one has gone on it recently it is a ‘bad program.'”
Much of the onus of researching the program has fallen on Hughes’ back, including finding out specifics such as health care provided on the trip, he said. “The International Center should [be able] to research the programs on their own.”

As a member of the class of 2007, Hughes is grandfathered into the old study abroad payment system where the student pays the cost of the program, whether it is higher or lower than Macalester’s tuition.

Cost is, of course, much of the reason for these changes and the cap, despite large increases in the study abroad budget.

The new system, in which students pay the college full tuition (prorated for financial aid) and the college then pays the program, is not saving as much as anticipated, according to David Wheaton, the Treasurer and Vice President of Administration.

So far, Yngve said that she has advised about 100 students wishing to study next fall, and she expects another twenty or so will apply without advising, resulting in a number around the 115-student cap. She has yet to compile the numbers of letters of intent for next spring.

Yngve said that some schools, particularly Beloit and Brown, require letters of intent to study away by Feb. 1 of their students’ sophomore year. She said that it is not the intention of the committee to prioritize people by whether they turned in a letter, but that there is some precedent among Macalester’s peer group.

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Correction added: The original article mistakenly said that the college pays the cost of a student’s study abroad program, regardless of whether the cost is higher than Macalester tuition. For programs more expensive than Macalester, students pay the excess.