From the Desk of the Study Abroad Coordinator

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As I begin my eighth year at Macalester, I’ve been directly responsible for sending 1,143 Macalester students abroad for a semester or longer. I’ve read, heaven help me, every single proposal, personally advised the majority of those students and served as liaison to various iterations of the Study Away Review Committee, which actually makes the decisions. As such, I feel uniquely qualified to shed some light on the recent questions of transparency and quality in Study Abroad. I have heard it said that Macalester makes it “too hard” to study abroad, or “looks for nitpicky reasons” to deny students for study abroad. In practice, though, the Study Away Review Committee members look for ways to admit as many students as possible; after all, if they work at Mac, the chances are high that they believe in and have witnessed the transformative educational power of off-campus study.

Naturally, the high demand for study abroad at Mac forces the Committee scrutinize each proposal carefully, but only about half of denied students are turned down because of the study abroad cap. Every semester, there are some students who simply do not meet the standards for approvability, and who would not have been approved even if Mac had the resources.

What does approvability mean? First, it means a completed proposal on the deadline, with all the required essays, supporting forms and an official transcript. This might seem nit-picky, but submitting a study abroad proposal should be viewed in the same light as submitting a job application.

Approvability also means a well-reasoned proposal; picking a program that is “likely” to be a good fit is not enough! Students’ essays must demonstrate that they know that study abroad is about the studying and not just about “being there.” Each student absolutely must track down information on regularly offered courses (with my help, of course) and discuss, one course at a time, how each relates to his or her prior coursework and academic goals (thus demonstrating “…a rich and deep connection to the individual’s educational trajectory.”).

Failure to adequately discuss how specific course offerings mesh with your trajectory will persuade the Study Away Review Committee that you are, to put it kindly, more suited for non-credit-bearing international experiences, such as work abroad, independent travel or volunteering abroad.

Finally, a quality proposal takes account of the reasons why the College has a list of recommended programs. The recommended list exists not because of simple precedent or cronyism, but because the College has selected 70-some partners who meet standards of excellence in the following areas: academic quality of host institution or curriculum, substantial integration into the host culture, quality of fellow students and of non-academic staff and advisors, adherence to professional ethics and standards of higher education, and adequate safety and security standards–and we check up on these partners regularly.

Unlike many other colleges, however, Mac also actively seeks to allow our students to select a specialized program in Arctic Biology or Chemistry of Color without having to wait 12 months while some committee decides whether to augment the recommended list.

Because educational quality is a hard thing for a non-professional to judge (and because quality in study abroad is more than just academic rankings), students who are contemplating going “off-list” are asked to seek advising earlier and to complete an additional essay. The extra advising allows students to find out (from me), for example, about the 12 programs in Italy that haven’t delivered the goods for previous Mac students or the new Vulcanology program at the University of Auckland. The extra essay is designed to be easy to complete for students who have a demonstrated educational trajectory in line with an unusual area of study and harder for students whose educational trajectory is already, in the Committee’s eyes, met by one of our recommended program partners.

In summation, I offer an answer to the burning question: “How many students does the College turn down, anyway? Over the last four academic years, the Study Away Review Committee has turned down exactly 45 students, and has approved around 1,260. That works out to a 3.5 percent rate of denial.

Of those 45 students; 14 were sophomores who were lower priority than juniors and seniors, 13 were asked to bring up their GPA first, two were turned down because of severe political unrest in their chosen country, 10 submitted proposals that were in some way incomplete, and six were unsuccessful in persuading the Committee that the program they selected was the best one that matched their educational trajectory. All of those students were offered the opportunity to study abroad in subsequent semesters, and 90 percent of those from previous years’ cohorts of non-approved students studied abroad prior to leaving the college.

Katherine Yngve is the Study Abroad Coordinator. Contact her at [email protected]