International students struggle to study abroad

By Diego Ruiz

International Studies major Honza Cervenka ’13 hopes to study abroad next year, as 60 percent of Macalester students do. But he likely won’t be able to afford it, or use his financial aid, without a change in policy.The problem: he’s from the Czech Republic.

Cervenka is in a situation in which many international students who wish to study abroad find themselves: unable to take advantage of study away opportunities because of how the International Center decides to use its limited study abroad budget.

International students like Cervenka and members of MCSG’s Academic Affairs Commission are lobbying to change the current policy. But those who run the study abroad program say they cannot balance their budget without more resources if the policy changes.

Domestic students can use their financial aid to pay for their off-campus study program, but international students cannot, unless they major in one of the nine departments that require a semester abroad.

This is part of the reason 60 percent of domestic students study abroad for full semesters, while only 20 percent of international students do.

And while International Studies requires a semester abroad, for international students, their time at Macalester qualifies-meaning International Studies majors like Cervenka cannot get financial aid for a semester abroad.

While Cervenka says he could patch together his United World College scholarship and loans to help finance a semester abroad, there is still a $2,300 gap he can’t pay without Macalester financial aid.

“The worst thing for me was hitting the wall,” Cervenka said. “People were like, I hope it works out for you to go, but there’s nothing I can do. This is how it’s always been.”

“The idea was that 60 percent of students study abroad, it’s so easy,” he added. “No one tells us the little footnote that you would have to pay for study abroad.”

Many international students and members of student government’s Academic Affairs commission call the policy “unfair” and “discriminatory” toward international students.

“International students should have the same rights as domestic students,” said Taren Kingser ’11, the chair of the Academic Affairs Commission. “This is the big question: why is it the status quo?”

Adam van der Sluis, a senior MCSG representative and member of the AAC, said he has been unable to find anyone who knows when the original policy was put in place or why it has persisted.

“Nobody really knows. Everyone we talk to says ‘I wasn’t here when this policy was here, so I don’t know why,’ ” said van der Sluis.

In an MCSG survey that 525 students replied to, 63 percent of students supported allowing international students to use their financial aid to study abroad, 23 percent said they did not support it, and 14 percent had no opinion.

However, Michael Monahan, the director of the International Center, says the policy plays a vital role in keeping Macalester’s study abroad program within its budget.

“Fundamentally, it’s a financial issue and not an academic issue,” Monahan said.

When students study abroad, he saidtheir financial aid goes with them. Since international students tend to get more financial aid from Macalester, having more of them study abroad would send more financial aid overseas, leaving a hole in the study abroad budget.

“We have to make choices about how best to invest limited resources,” Monahan said. “If the goal is to further internationalize the student body, probably the best thing to do is put limited resources into US students.”

Allowing international students to use their financial aid would also likely increase competition for a limited number of spots, making the process to be approved for study away more competitive than it currently is.

Without more resources specifically targeted toward international students, Monahan said, the policy is likely to stay the same.

Monahan said he hopes to offer more opportunities to allow international students to study abroad, such as considering how much international experience students have had before Macalester-regardless of a student’s domestic or international status.

“The nuances are important, and it’s something we’re working on,” Monahan said.

But Monahan said he did not agree with students who said the policy was unfair.

“It’s not a fairness question. This college is enormously generous to international students.” Monahan said. “All international students are studying abroad, and they happened to choose the US.”

This frustrates students like Shahar Eberzon ’12, an international student from Israel majoring in International Studies and Sociology.

She said it felt like “a slap in the face,” when she learned that her financial aid wouldn’t transfer to study abroad like domestic students.

Although she plans to study abroad next semester, her experience demonstrates the many hoops through which international students have to jump that domestic students do not.

She applied for Macalester’s Maastricht program in the Netherlands, which is one of the few programs that allows Macalester’s international students to use their financial aid. But only one other student applied, so the program was cancelled this year.

Because of this unforeseen cancellation, Eberzon will be able to use her financial aid to directly enroll in classes at the Dutch university next semester.

But there are still difficulties. Direct-enrollment at Maastricht costs $1,500 more than a semester at Macalester, so Eberzon will have to pay for that.

She said that Maastricht is “not her first choice,” and coming up with the additional money will be difficult. But she felt that she had exhausted all her options.

“I actually tried to find loopholes, scholarships to fund myself to go abroad, but there’s not support for international students to study abroad,” said Eberzon.

“Why not let me do direct-enrollment in a place that’s cheaper?” she said. “This is the only higher education experience I’ve got. I would love to have the same opportunity to experience other higher education institutions as other students.”

Cervenka said the current policy can lead some international students to even go as far as declaring a major that requires them study abroad, with no intention of completing it upon their return.

“If you really, really want to go and you really can’t, that’s the way,” said Cervenka. “Is that really the way we want students to go abroad? By having a fake major?”

Paul Nelson, a study away coordinator, said this was a “plausible, but unproven” rumor he had heard since he started working at Macalester in 2007.

“I never saw any evidence of it until I did a study of the class of 2010,” said Nelson. “I did see a few cases of international students who studied abroad and then did not complete their major for which they went abroad.”

However, Nelson says this cannot be definitely linked to the policy, as other circumstances can result in changing majors.

Macalester’s student government has filed a motion to encourage a change in the policy. Kingser and Van der Sluis of the Academic Affairs Committee said they were meeting with the administration to discuss changing the policy.

Van der Sluis said he hoped that a policy change could be in place quick enough to affect this year’s sophomores.

Monahan said he hoped that new reciprocal-exchange programs being developed could help offer more opportunities to allow international students to study abroad.

“There’s not really a silver bullet to solve this issue,” Monahan said.