After chaotic study abroad process, students call for transparency

Three years ago Macalester implemented a single deadline for study abroad applications in order to make the process more cohesive and streamlined. Each year the change has required a balancing process between fall and spring applicants that doesn’t always end well for spring-abroad hopefuls: every year a handful of students have been denied the opportunity to study abroad in the spring as they had hoped to.

Of the 326 students recently approved to study abroad in the 2014-15 academic year, 52 percent (170 students) will go off campus in the spring. An even divide benefits the college, as financial aid provided must balance evenly between the two semesters for the college to be able to send as many students abroad each year as feasible. But the balance didn’t happen naturally; when students submitted their applications at the end of February, 62 percent (just over 200 students) originally selected to study abroad in the spring semester.

According to Director of Academic Programs Ann Minnick, between 43 and 49 spring applicants were switched to study abroad in the fall after the first round of applications. Students were informed of the change via mail, but this decision didn’t necessarily have to be final if applicants read the fine print. For the second time in three years, Minnick organized an appeals process by which students could take one more shot at receiving approval to study abroad in the spring.

Students were not directly informed in their application decisions that they had an option to appeal, but were referred to the student study away handbook in which the process is mentioned. Overall, three-quarters of those switched to the fall appealed their decisions. Roughly half of the reviewed appeals were denied.

When the International Center first implemented the single deadline system in 2011, few hard rules existed regarding the grounds on which appeals would be accepted.

“[Three years ago] we hadn’t been as clear about what our expectations would be for appeal,” Minnick said. “So students said in that round, ‘Well I’ve already made a commitment for housing’ or ‘I already have a job.’ We did take those into consideration that first year because we hadn’t told people upfront ‘you shouldn’t make those commitments until you know the outcome of the decisions, because you may in fact be moved.’”

This time around, housing and employment, as well as non-academic Macalester commitments and financial restrictions, were common reasons that students preferred to study abroad in the spring. Residential Assistants and Orientation Leaders were moved and thus unable to fill the roles they had already been granted, leases were lost, and courses were moved around as a result of denied appeals. As far as Minnick knows, no appeals cited reasons relating to participation in varsity or club athletics.

For Will Theriac ’16, a denied appeal came as an unwelcome surprise. Theriac cited his appointment as an Orientation Leader as well as personal financial matters as reasons to be approved to study abroad in the spring, and he was unimpressed by the process as a whole.

“I was hurt, especially because, trying to be a good community member, I had heard earlier in the week that it had been a very stressful [appeals] process. So I sent [Minnick] an email just saying ‘thank you so much for handling this process, I’ve heard it’s very stressful.’ No response to that at all,” Theriac said. “It was super disappointing because this was the first time Macalester had ever failed me as an institution.”

Housing was also a commonly occurring theme in this year’s appeals process. Jacob Frank ’16 said that, compared to other students, his appeals process was “not the biggest deal in the world.” But he didn’t take it lightly that his denied appeal foiled other students’ living plans for next year.

“I had verbally agreed to sublease a house in the fall along with four other people,” Frank said. “Three of those people were asked to switch semesters, so we ended up making it tough for our friends who actually signed the lease to find people to live there in the fall.”

According to Minnick, these are no longer acceptable grounds on which the Study Away Review Committee (SARC) will approve appeals.

“It was explicit in the application that you weren’t to commit to making any commitments for the fall to housing or employment because we couldn’t take those into consideration, [so] we made our decisions pretty much across the board on academic grounds,” Minnick said. “Because how can we judge one person’s non-academic reasons versus another?”

By SARC’s definition, “academic grounds” includes the availability of a student’s preferred program as well as availability of courses necessary for graduation both on a study abroad program and at Macalester.

But some students insist that they provided sufficient academic reasons and were still denied to study abroad in the spring.

“You make your study abroad schedule with major and minor credits in mind, at least I did,” Frank said. “And then all of a sudden I can’t take any of the classes that I was planning on taking.”

Grace Newton ’16 also ran into academic problems, both with courses offered at Macalester and those available on her program.

“I was planning on taking a Chinese history course in the fall, which is a requirement for my major,” Newton wrote in an email. “Additionally, I would like to have more language study before I partake in an immersion program, so that I can benefit most fully from my study abroad experience. Lastly, one of the courses I was hoping to take in Nanjing is only offered during the spring semester.”

Newton’s first appeal was denied, but she didn’t give up. She spoke with Minnick, who, she says, “inadvertently revealed to me that my application hadn’t been read carefully.”

“[Minnick] told me that I would be overqualified for my program in the spring and the International Center told SARC that it would be bad for me to go then,” Newton wrote. “In my application, though, I had indicated that I wanted to be a part of the advanced program, which required five semesters of Chinese language (which I will have this fall).”

Newton’s appeal was eventually approved, but she knows that the process could have worked better.

“The fact my application was misread created a lot of unnecessary work for myself, the provost, and the International Center,” Newton wrote. “I think that the appeal process needs to be more clearly communicated.”

This point is widely agreed upon, and there is general consensus that the timeline of the entire application process must change in the future. According to Frank the system is impractically timed given than students cannot put their lives on hold while awaiting a study abroad decision.

“During [the application] process they say ‘we might have to switch you’ but then you don’t hear anything about it again, so you continue to make plans,” Frank said. “I personally found housing, picked classes, talked with professors about classes… Students have no choice but to go on with the planning process of their lives for the next year at school, and you can’t assume that you’re going to be switched semesters.”

The importance of balancing finances is not lost on students, and there is no apparent widespread resentment for the single deadline system. But students feel that they deserve more time to plan for the future.

“I understand the reasons that they need to switch [people], semester balance is probably an important thing,” Frank said. “The main thing I would have really valued was to have found out earlier — much earlier, months earlier — that they were going to ask me to switch.”

According to Minnick, SARC is already taking such changes into consideration.

“I heard from Kendrick Brown, who sits on SARC, that they recognize that the decisions are made too late, that students already need to make commitments for the fall by the time those decisions are made,” Minnick said. “So they are planning to move it up.”

Minnick notes with some hesitance, however, that this is a highly interconnected puzzle.

“That’s also troubling, when you think about a sophomore who’s completed three semesters and have to make a decision by the end of their third semester about what major they’re going to go select, what program they want to go on, and all sorts of other things,” she said. “So while I think it’s good to sync those deadlines better, I do think there are some challenges. But nothing’s perfect.”