Editorial: A Study of Study Away
The process Oberlin students go through in preparation to study abroad is often a learn-as-you-go experience. Useful information comes from a variety of offices, personalities and sources while important details are lost in the cracks. If you are determined to study somewhere out of Oberlin, Ohio — the rewards of which far exceed the petty frustrations of the Oberlin preparation process — be aware that hassles do exist.
The journey begins in the Office of Study Away. The workers there are very helpful when it comes to directing you to the printed sheets of paper that circle the room or the giant binders stuffed with student evaluations of various programs. The general consent is that if your program is an Oberlin program (for example, the London Program) or an Oberlin-affiliated program, you encounter few problems, merely fill out the appropriate forms and get on a plane. If, however, you are not interested in Oberlin-affiliated programs — however friendly the helpers in the office are — they are not prepared to offer advice. You are left on your own flipping through the evaluation books (one or two students may have evaluated a non-affiliated program that interests you in the past), Googling the first half of your semester away, calling program representatives for cost and logistics information as well as e-mailing past students of programs. One would think that after years of working in a study abroad office, or even just talking with students who have studied abroad, study abroad staff would accumulate a wealth of stories and advice regarding specific programs and places, but for whatever reason (the feel in the office is often distracted), these are not generously shared.
It is rumored that Director of International Study Ellen Sayles offers very good advice surrounding the study abroad search; however, few seem to know to go to her for information.
Part of the application for study abroad process involves collecting signatures from department heads that signify “Yes, this course will transfer as three credits to my department.” The process has you traipsing around campus in search of faculty you may have never met.
But these precious signatures have proven over and over again to be futile. Many students have applied to multiple programs, not yet knowing which they will attend, most times not yet knowing which classes are offered and even less likely, which classes they will take. It is worthless to bother professors for signatures of classes you won’t be taking. Apparently, this semester will see attempted tweaking of this process. This is not the end, though.
Upon returning to Oberlin you need to once again bother department heads to ask for approval of the courses you ended up taking. The criteria for deciding how many Oberlin credits they are worth varies from department to department, suggesting inconsistency from the College. Some departments merely check that you have a passing grade on your abroad transcript, while other departments — for an abroad class to even be considered for credit, let alone full credit — a description of the class is required, along with the class’ syllabus, course work, tests, papers and a letter to the department head, among other things. Most of these essential documents get left behind in order to make space for all those souvenirs, which, if you have never been abroad before, seems perfectly acceptable. The sometimes-difficult and convoluted process of getting credit seems ludicrous when you consider that your grade won’t even matter.
In fact, no grades received abroad will affect your Oberlin GPA. So unless you plan on sending a copy of your abroad transcript to grad school, waste no time abroad doing any work that does not satisfy you. You must only pass with a C-. Actually, it is not even clear whether students need to pass the classes they take abroad. The rule is that you must transfer at least 12 credits from classes abroad to be considered a full-time enrolled student for the semester. Responses from relevant staff members to the question, “What happens if I don’t pass a class or don’t transfer at least 12 credits?” were as follows: “I really have only heard of a handful who have actually been put on academic probation,” “It’s decided on a case-by-case basis,” “It’s then a financial issue…” and “You can’t do that.” So, the consequences for failing a class while away are clear as mud.
Note that the Study Away Fair is useful to learn about non-affiliated study abroad programs and to talk to representatives directly. Also note that it is dangerous to ask too many questions in the transfer office in Carnegie. The environment is not welcoming. Ask questions to somebody else. The most useful, clarifying part of the study abroad process is upon return, at the study abroad reflection meeting at the start of the semester, headed by Ellen Sayles, where one is asked to give input and Sayles answers questions.
Despite all the rigmarole on campus about studying away, keep the end goal in mind. Once you’ve been through it all, you’ll have a semester (or even a year) to soak in your new surroundings, be they in Canada, Argentina, China, Botswana or wherever your program of choice leads you.