Struggle to balance study abroad continues

By April DeJarlais

I’m probably going to study abroad in the spring of my junior year is a refrain often repeated among Macalester students, but is beginning to worry some administrators.Study abroad coordinator Paul Nelson calls the spring of junior year the “default study abroad semester” for many students, often times because they procrastinate on deciding where to study and applying.

Macalester’s study abroad limit for next year is 250 students. The cap has not been hit since three years ago, and in the past two years about 230 students have gone. Studying abroad has a 5 to 10 percent attrition rate of students who are accepted but then choose not to go.

Typically about 90 to 95 students go abroad in the fall and 130 to 140 in the spring. There are 155 students away this semester, while 73 were abroad in the fall – a 25 percent drop from last fall.

“That [drop] was a bit of a shock,” Nelson said.

Macalester administration hopes to even out the numbers between fall and spring in order to balance the loss of housing and meal-plan revenue, as well to avoid the decreased sense of community when students leave. Class sizes are also made uneven by study abroad disparities between semesters.

The diminished sense of community is a large factor in students’ decisions for going abroad in the spring – since friends are abroad, students figure they might as well leave. Other reasons for going abroad in the spring are the opportunity to travel in the summer after studying, Macalester sports schedules, class offerings, and leaving Minnesota winters behind, a reason Nelson claims is one of the largest.

“It would be odd coming back in the middle of the year,” said Amy Fitzgerald ’12. “With studying abroad in the spring, you miss some stuff, but when you come back . it’s not such a strange transition.”

Some study abroad programs, including Macalester’s Germany, Maastricht, and South Africa programs, are available only in the spring (or mandatory both semesters, in the case of Maastricht). Students who study abroad for both semesters use two of the 250 available study abroad spots.

Nelson urges students to consider studying abroad in the fall of junior or even senior year so as not to be denied in the spring. Twenty students (sophomores and juniors) were denied four years ago, and “it was very painful,” he said.

Study abroad applications are judged on their own merits, but if the applications were to exceed the limit, then the decision process would become more competitive. Students not required by their major to go abroad would be less likely to be accepted.

“No one desires that [competition], it’s not what we do,” Nelson said.

Macalester’s study abroad budget has grown in the last 10 years from $1.9 million to $3.4 million.

“Our goal is to make it possible for even more students to have a study away experience without the budget continuing to grow at the pace it has grown in the last decade,” Provost Kathleen Murray said in an e-mail.

Nelson emphasized that “it is in students’ hands” to stop any changes in application deadlines and to prevent an overflow of the study abroad quota in the spring.

“Stop procrastinating,” he said. “Fall [study abroad] is a great time.”

Applications for studying abroad in Fall 2010 are due March 5th. For more information visit the Study Abroad section of Macalester’s International Center web site.