Study abroad with the study, sans the GPA boost or bust

By Katie Havranek

Macalester College advertises itself as a liberal arts school with a unique international flavor. The headline of the prospective student website boldly claims, “Global. Rigorous. Inspiring. Education for a world stage.” and boasts of a student population from over 93 countries, 20 percent international or U.S. faculty of color and a overwhelming percent of students who choose to study abroad.When I applied to Macalester, I was particularly attracted to the international emphasis. I unabashedly admit that I dreamed of being a global citizen upon my graduation. I envisioned myself wearing a beret, eating a baguette and screaming “bonjour!” on the crowded streets of Paris; or laying on the beach, dancing in clubs and telling people “yo tengo un gato en mis pantalones” in Mexico; or trekking through the desert, witnessing political violence and learning a strange new alphabet in the heart of the Middle East (although my fantasy was nothing as offensive as Carrie Bradshaw in SATC 2). Not once did I picture myself in a classroom. The world would be my classroom. Citizens of the world would be the professors of my course on LIFE. I had no idea balancing travelling abroad and maintaining high grades would be difficult and, in some cases, counterproductive.

My na’ve and stereotypical notions of the cultures of the world matured during my hours in class and in the library. I learned words like hegemony, read Franz Fanon and Samuel Huntington and discussed Western domination. Most of all, I learned that I know nothing. Instead of going out to see the world I expected, I prepared myself to paint on a blank canvas; fully aware that I would only see only a fraction of whichever culture I set out to observe.

I ended up in Amman, Jordan. I knew not what to expect, but vowed to take every opportunity to push myself out of my comfort zone. I resigned myself to the realities of the classroom and even accepted the fact that I would have to allot some time to.studying. But I was reassured by every study abroad alumni I spoke with that I would receive a 4.0 for the semester with extraordinarily little effort.

I tried not to laugh at my peers stuck in snowy Minnesota, at least not to their faces, I resisted computing my expected post study abroad boost in GPA and chuckled all the way from the United States of America to Jordan.

My smug expression lasted as long as my first three-hour Arabic class and tears appeared when I returned home to my host family with 40 vocabulary words for next class. Anguish set in midway through the semester when I was forced to repeatedly turn down outings with my host sisters to complete my readings and papers.

While I was lamenting the fact that I could not spend more time talking with my host mother, learning about the Lebanese civil war she fled or debating religion with my host father because of the avalanche of homework that hit every night, the other 130 or so students from my program (many of them from Ivy league or prestigious liberal arts schools) gleefully ran around Amman, confident that they would receive a C from our inexplicably strict Jordanian professors. I was further outraged when I spoke with other Macalester students abroad who had little homework and easy professors.

Dear readers, do not question my work ethic. I slaved away for hours over a presentation on a novel only to be berated by my literature professor because I had the audacity to bring up allegory, tone and imagery; topics, she said, that were too difficult for the class to digest. I received a low grade, while students who focused on character motivations were praised for their analysis. This is only one example of many I could share from my horrific classroom experience with Jordanian professors.

Would I change the experience in favor of professors who taught more like my beloved Macalester professors? Absolutely not. I received a deeper understanding of Jordanian culture through my absurd relationships with my professors. I would, however, encourage Macalester to change its policy on study abroad grades; they should not transfer directly into our GPA. No matter how deeply the study abroad office looks into a program to determine its compatibility with Macalester standards, there is no way to get a Macalester education outside of this frozen wasteland. Had I ended up in a program that would have granted me my sought after 4.0, I hope I would have felt guilty for a GPA boost that was undeserved.

This is not to say that my studies in the classroom during my time abroad were not valuable. Nor do I advocate for the abolition of class time abroad. I am thankful for my deeper understanding of Islam, loved the novels I read and can comfortably hold a conversation in Arabic. I mean to say that Macalester has chosen a motivated student body that is committed to their education. We are not a school that has a reputation for outrageous parties or flagrant plagiarizers. Macalester should be confident that their students will go abroad with every intention of developing themselves and cultivating their understanding of foreign cultures. Had I not had my GPA constantly looming over my head, I still would have studied-it would have been impossible not to-but I would have put down the books once in a while to spend more time at my host sisters when their friends came over.

My GPA suffered due to my inability to understand (and I was not alone) the expectations of my Jordanian professors. But I did not get graded on my difficult interactions with cab drivers, speaking with women in polygamist marriages or my spectacular relationship with my host family. I suppose every hour I spent studying for my Arabic exams were my choice, but I hope to go to medical school someday so my GPA is crucial. Should I really have to pick between living in the moment and achieving my post graduation goals?