DecemberFeaturesMagazine

Why studying abroad is not a simple feat

Susie Muncner, a biological-sciences and chemistry double major, embarked on a 10-month exchange program to Lille, France in her second year. After returning, she had to wait for her fall transcript to be sent to the University of Alberta. Ultimately, she was waiting to see if she received credit for all the courses taken abroad and if she needed to retake courses required for her degree.

“It’s really frustrating because I took some important courses for my degree,” she says. “I got an A in organic chemistry in French. I wanted that credit so I didn’t have to take it again here. I paid for it, I should get the credit.”

She tried contacting Université Catholique de Lille, the Education Abroad office at the U of A as well as the Faculty of Science, but she wasn’t receiving the assistance she hoped for.

“I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s ever gone to Lille with a science degree, or maybe I am and now I can air my grievances to anyone else who wants to go there,” Muncner says.

Her transcript finally arrived a year and a half later. But her chemistry credit (CHEM 261’s equivalent) wasn’t there. Now Muncner must retake the class (a prerequisite for many higher-level chemistry classes) back in Edmonton before completing her degree.


Studying abroad in England, Japan, Italy, or Australia can be an exciting opportunity, but it can also be rather frustrating and overwhelming if you don’t know where to start.

I was fortunate enough to study at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia in my fourth year. But my eagerness and impatience caused me to fabricate a fast-track, idealist representation of how I thought my experience abroad, and the several months preceding it, should go. And with that, I became overwhelmed with questions I had, questions I had yet to discover I had, and ultimately I became frustrated with the answers, or lack thereof.

As it turns out, I’m not the only one. The Education Abroad office offers students incredible opportunities to see the world, gain cultural insights, and learn about themselves while working toward a degree. Beyond just going to classes, these can include participating in an internship, or volunteering abroad. But students looking to go abroad should be made aware of some inefficiencies and potential problems other students faced, not as discouragement from going abroad, but as preparation.

The exchange program, which included 100 students in the 2014/2015 academic year, is affiliated with 79 universities in 34 countries. This particular program provides students with an opportunity to travel while earning credits toward their degrees. But unfortunately, it’s not as simple as it sounds.

Understandably, every institution and every one of those 34 countries may have different forms of instruction, grade distribution, and credit allocation. And with these come a potential problem: credits are not guaranteed.

After students apply through Ed Abroad and fill out a permission to participate form for their faculty to approve, it’s time to choose courses. Students are responsible for finding courses that are potentially offered at their host institution and which closely resemble a course at the U of A for optimal credit transfer. But they do so nearly a year in advance, when course selections aren’t scheduled yet. Therefore, there’s no guarantee those courses will actually be offered when it comes time for these students to go abroad.

Faculty advisors can pre-approve course selections by looking through students’ degree requirements, courses they’ve previously taken, and the host institutions’ course descriptions students have chosen in order to determine how well the proposed courses will fit into their degrees. But if those classes aren’t offered the semester those students are abroad, or if they simply change their minds, then the faculty pre-approval is futile, and students may feel a little more panicked and a little less excited when they step off the plane in their host country. After all, students won’t know for certain if they’ll receive credit until after they return home with their transcripts. Let me repeat that: credits are not determined until after students return home, so students better cross their fingers and hope the classes they’ve chosen to take abroad will actually be recognized.

Doug Weir, the Executive Director of Student Programs and Services, acknowledges that this is a challenge for students. “I think credit transfer is sometimes the surprise barrier that they didn’t think about,” he says.

Another misconception I was unaware of during my exchange, which could have been more problematic than I initially anticipated, is that if courses taken abroad do transfer, they are credited on as pass/fail basis. But that’s not entirely true. Associate Director of Education Abroad Programs and former manager of the Cortona program Trevor Buckle says the standard University of Alberta transfer credit policy is actually a C- or better, and not 50 per cent like the “pass/fail” notion implies.

But for some students, earning credits for courses taken abroad isn’t as important as the premise of simply being abroad and travelling somewhere new. Political science student Cole Forster focused more on the experience and less on the educational component; he worried less about his courses and more about making the most of his time in France. But for others like political science honours student Christina Caouette and Muncner, studying abroad isn’t cheap, and the expectation is that a student’s time, money, and efforts spent taking a course in one of those 34 affiliated countries should result in credit recognition.

Muncner felt as though preparing to study abroad was a DIY project. Her course pre-approval fell through because none of the courses were offered that year, and she was uninformed about the differences in class structure and hours of instruction. As it turns out, she didn’t end up receiving credit for the required chemistry class, not because her marks weren’t good enough, but because it transferred as a 1.5 credit course and the duration of teaching hours differed from the three hours per week required at the U of A.

Caouette had a similar experience during one of her three times studying abroad. After paying extra to partake in French conversation, an addition to the course, she never ended up receiving credit.

“I’m disappointed because I made sure that I tried really hard in all the classes and I didn’t have any absences,” she says. “I got an A in my French course, but then it didn’t transfer over at all.”

Forster also didn’t receive full credit after coming home from a full year in Lille. Some courses transferred back as generic 300-levels, but none translated into exact courses offered at the U of A.

“There’s no semblance of organization in credit allocation, but it evened out, so I was happy,” Forster says. He also expressed that he would go abroad again even if it meant not receiving any credit.

Alternatively, both Jordan Clark Marcichiw, who has now graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in psychology and sociology, and I completed our degree requirements in Australia with no credit transfer issues, which was surprising considering both of us needed specific courses in order to meet our degree requirements. In fact, I was on the brink of reaching the maximum amount of courses I could take for my major, and even though one of the courses I took abroad technically shouldn’t have counted, it transferred back as a different subject, so luckily I received credit.

Although it’s undeniable that students going abroad will have enjoyable and memorable cultural experiences, the uncertainty surrounding credits can impede the hype.

“We know that this is a space that needs to be improved if we’re going to get more students to go abroad,” Weir says. “We should be building programs that students can get credit for because they’re here to be students and they’re here to get a degree, so this should enhance that degree, not delay it.”

An alternative that Caouette recommends is taking faculty-lead programs abroad, like the Faculty of Arts’ Cortona program. There is guaranteed organization, instructional similarities, and, best of all, credit.

The difference with a program like Cortona, Buckle explains, is that it’s “offering U of A courses, they’re timetabled on Beartracks, and they’re either using U of A profs who fly to Italy, or they’re hiring local sessionals . . . then the grades show up on the transcript.”

The program offers a unique opportunity for students to advance their degrees and enhance their learning by participating in an educational course in a city with a long history and well-known culture.

Ted Bishop, an English and creative writing professor at the U of A, previously taught Shakespeare and travel writing in Cortona. He raves about the sense of community, creativity, atmosphere, and field trips like the one to Perugia’s chocolate festival.

“The physical space of being in those old buildings and always walking everywhere, it made the writers write differently, and … it made them think differently,” Bishop says. “You actually feel it in your bones because you’re walking on cobblestones and you realize you’re on the same cobblestones somebody tripped on in the 17th Century.”

As with each exchange destination, students are given the opportunity to learn about academic subjects in a different environment. And sometimes these differences can be largely beneficial for students and their degrees.

“I stress in narrative non-fiction you want to engage all the senses, and, aside from having people lick the railings in HUB mall and eat French fries, there isn’t as much opportunity (here in Edmonton),” Bishop says.

For students looking for a cultural learning experience that will guarantee credit and enhance their education, faculty-lead programs like Cortona might be the best option. However, if Italy isn’t quite what they’re looking for, another program Weir and Buckle propose is e3, which offers courses in Berlin, Brazil, Washington, D.C., and France (starting next year) that guarantee UAlberta credits. In addition, there are language components offered in the former two (and France), as well as an internship option. But unfortunately, these programs seem to have their own problems.

Summer 2016 was the first year for e3 D.C. So naturally, there were bugs to work out. For three people, their summers didn’t quite go as planned.

Nathan Fung signed up in January to participate in both the internship and academic course components of the e3 D.C. program. After four interviews for potential intern positions, Ed Abroad informed him that the fourth opportunity would be his last, so he either had to settle for a position not in journalism or political science like he hoped, or drop the internship component altogether. He took the internship with his sights set on the INT D 325: Media and Social Change course in August. But after being in D.C. for nearly a week, he received an email from Ed Abroad informing him that due to low enrolment, the course was cancelled. Once again, he had an ultimatum: either switch classes or go back home after the internship.

“I felt disappointed, but I also felt a little angry because I’d been looking forward to that class so much because it aligned a lot with my journalistic interests,” Fung says. “It felt like my ambitions were being stepped on.”

But Fung and the other two students weren’t the only ones who were disappointed with the outcome. Professor Russell Cobb, who was scheduled to teach the interdisciplinary studies media course in D.C., was also looking forward to exploring what the course could offer in the epicentre of America during an election year.

“D.C. is a hive of international policy making. The U of A is in the heart of it all, at the Smithsonian Institution on the National Mall,” Cobb says. “It’s a great opportunity to network and learn how decisions get made.”

Cobb described the highlights of the course and what could have been: trips to National Public Radio and the Washington Post, visits from major figures in the national media scene, and the opportunity to cover Congress or the Supreme Court.

“Experiential learning extends beyond the classroom and required texts,” Cobb says. “When you are in a city like D.C., learning is happening all the time — when you’re on the Metro (or) walking around the National Mall.”

Although the course sounded promising and the description was listed in detail on the website along with a YouTube video advertising the course, Buckle was concerned with how the course was marketed.

“I’m not sure if a lot of people know what interdisciplinary studies means,” Buckle says. “There’s a major called political science or there’s a minor called political science, (but) it isn’t the same with inter d (INT D), so I think that may be one of the big issues for that particular class.”

Another reason people like Fung landed in Washington before knowing about the course cancellation is technically the course is a U of A summer term course and therefore students had until the beginning of July (a little over a month after the internships began and Fung landed in D.C.) to drop the course.

“Because it’s a course that’s on Beartracks, we follow the university regulations when it comes to what is the add/delete deadline for a course,” Buckle says. “We’re re-examining that because clearly unlike taking a class here on campus, when you’re looking at a study abroad program there are other ramifications.”

Ed Abroad has since improved upon this problem, however, as they switched the course and internship component around. For the summer of 2017, the academic course will run from May 15 to 31, and the internship will commence as soon as June 1 roughly until August 25, depending on the internship host organization. Cobb’s INT D 325: Media and Social Change is not offered this upcoming summer.

Like Bishop, Cobb recognizes the importance of students broadening the scope of their academic goals and encourages students to study abroad.

“The big thing I would like to stress is that international education should become something that every student … should do with the support of the U of A,” Cobb says.

Such support that Cobb talks about is also something that Weir emphasizes.

“There is some funding available and I think that is often the first barrier that students perceive they’re going to have when they go abroad,”  Weir explains. “In a typical year, it’s upwards of a million dollars that we’re awarding in education abroad funding for students to go abroad, so students should know that there is funding available to help.”

Additional support in the form of institutional information and other resources are a future goal for Ed Abroad. They recently upgraded to a new web platform where Student Stories in the form of blog posts are available to prospective study abroad students. Also, under “Find a Program,” students can click on various host institutions, read about the universities and their programs, look at dates to study abroad, find course information, and view completed Student Feedback Reports with details about such institutions’ grading systems, support services, housing and visa information, and tips from others when they went abroad. In addition, Ed Abroad hopes to provide information online about courses other students have taken at various institutions during their times abroad in order to help future students with course selection and pre-approval processes.

So for those interested in going abroad, don’t be deterred from applying. The experiences abroad and the knowledge to be gained is worth it. Advisors are available to answer questions and address concerns, funding is available and it’s encouraged that students apply for it, and, with the help of the future virtual library, other students’ records abroad will also be available to provide more insight into various host countries and institutions.

Besides, the mandatory pre-departure course before going abroad in addition to a risk assessment and a risk litigation plan aim to prepare students for their abroad experiences. Clark Marcichiw encourages others to attend the course because it gave her the opportunity to talk to people who had gone to the same university, or at least the same country, and learn little tips that made the process less daunting. And Weir stresses the importance of the latter two elements because they help students anticipate and prepare for challenges that may arise.

Both Buckle and Weir acknowledge other benefits of studying abroad, and thus encourage U of A students to apply. It’s an opportunity to gain cultural insights and even acquire new appreciations for one’s own culture. Additionally, Weir recognizes how valuable global awareness and experience can actually be in developing personal skills like problem solving, critical thinking, flexibility, and adaptability as well as networking for future employment.

“Students need to be aware, engaged, with the world — they need to be aware of their opportunities in the world, they need to be confident in their competencies to interact in a global world,” he says. “We think that the opportunity for studying abroad is one that gives students a really good opportunity to develop those skills.”


Read more: Ed Abroad screwed over my summer

One Comment

  1. Each year, close to 1,000 undergraduate students pursue education
    abroad experiences that range from academic opportunities to
    internships, allowing them to gain new skills and global perspectives –
    not to mention building lifelong connections to friends in another part
    of the world.

    That being said, challenges can arise and we
    appreciate the concerns brought forth in the article “Why Studying
    Abroad is not a Simple Feat.”

    Transfer credit is one key area that we have been working hard to address, which is why we are pleased to share the new online Credit Transfer Guide on the Go Abroad website at
    https://www.ualberta.ca/why-ualberta/international/go-abroad/how-to-apply/credit-transfer-guide

    Thisis one new initiative to help improve students experience when they
    study abroad. We have also introduced a new program management software
    that will make it easier for students to submit new courses for transfer
    credit approval.

    If students have questions, the Education Abroad Office staff is here to help. Please contact goabroad@ualberta.ca

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