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Down and out during Study Abroad

SFU students share their experiences, good and bad, about their time abroad

Image Credits: Alexa Tarrayo, Pixabay

Not all students going on exchange are prepared for the road ahead.

After stumbling into SFU’s Study Abroad program, it wasn’t long until I knew I wanted to go on exchange and get the study abroad experience, clichés and all. But what is the process for SFU students wanting to take part in this kind of adventure? For me, it was mostly paperwork followed by a great trip with little complaints, but that hasn’t been everyone’s experience.

The ups and downs of a semester abroad beg the question: what can students expect abroad?

The pre-departure excitement and paperwork

There are many factors to consider when going on exchange: cost of living, transferable class credits, and housing availability just to name a few. Talking with Kris Torno, manager of International Mobility at International Services for Students (ISS), she laid out the expectations for students preparing to go overseas.

“The application process itself is intentionally rigorous. The reason for that is it’s an introduction for students to the huge variety of considerations and planning that they’re going to have to be responsible for if they’re selected. It’s an introduction to the exchange experience.”

Grace Rose, a fourth-year communication student who went on exchange in England, found ISS helpful when it came time for her application. “After I was nominated for exchange, I had to submit an additional application to my host university and that required a few extra pieces that I had no idea about.

“However, the ISS proved to be incredibly helpful in terms of figuring out those pieces that I was clueless on,” she said.

The pre-departure sessions were also another plus for Rose, who was able to connect with SFU students who had gone to the host university in previous years, as well as meet current students going to the same school as her. “The exchange ambassadors were able to give me advice that came from personal experience, and not just through online research,” she said.

“As for the people I met going to Sussex too, we became fast friends and helped each other out in the time leading up to leaving. And we still keep in touch.”

When life overseas gets complicated

But what happens when the system falls short for students? Emily Della Mattia, an SFU student, went on exchange to France only to find that the university had no idea who she was.

“I arrived at Sciences Po in France and the secretary knew who I was, but the school in its official capacity didn’t. I didn’t have a student number, I wasn’t officially enrolled in school, [and] I didn’t have a place to live.  The housing application had been submitted with everything else, but it had never been completed on the school’s part,” she said.

“Mostly, I relied on the support of my friend who was already [attending classes] there. I wasn’t on the school’s mailing list, so she told me what to do. She told me when orientation was for the new students, so I showed up to that and they told us about the school, and passed around an attendance sheet, and my name wasn’t on it,” Della Mattia added.

“I didn’t have a student number. I wasn’t officially enrolled in school. I didn’t have a place to live.” – Emily Della Mattia, SFU student

“So I just wrote in my name and started attending classes. Still with no official status at this school.”

Della Mattia even slept on her friend’s dorm room floor until the issue was resolved, a process, she said, that took three weeks. “Residence monitors would come around and do random checks to make sure people weren’t living there who weren’t supposed to, so every day in the morning I’d pack up my things and the air mattress and hide them above the door, and every night take it all down again. That was a stressful period,” she said.

This isn’t what dreams are made of

When asked about partner school accountability, Torno explained that ISS meets annually to discuss with each of their partner schools. They exchange information over what had happened in the previous year, and any major changes to immigration regulation and global affairs. A process, she said, that is standard among all university exchange programs. That annual review ensures that SFU’s partners still comply with travel and safety guidelines, and if they don’t, the relationship is halted for the coming year.

“Relationship management is really important with exchange. So, we get to know our partners. We always have clear and open lines of communication with them,” said Torno. “When mistakes happen, it’s often due to a miscommunication, a staffing shortage, or a change in procedure on their side.”

ISS may have communication measures in place, but where is the line drawn when the student’s livelihood suffers due to a mistake? “If it’s a one-time thing we understand, and it’s something we would monitor in the future,” Torno said. “If it’s something that is more of a systemic issue, or ongoing challenge, we would raise it with the partner so they’re aware it’s a concern and explain the impact it has on the student and the exchange partnership. That itself might not cause us to discontinue what is otherwise a fruitful partnership.”

Looking back, Della Mattia believes that what happened to her was a miscommunication between the two schools. “When I was applying, my friend knew what was coming, so she told me what had happened with her, and that Sciences Po hadn’t sent the application package for a really long time. So when it got down to the deadline, ISS’ solution was to send her the old package.”

When she mentioned this previous occurrence to ISS, and asked about submitting the old package because of the time restraints, they assured her the new package would be coming soon. Weeks later, when it was down to the deadline, she sent ISS another reminder. They agreed to her submitting the old package, a month and a half after her initial suggestion.

“It wasn’t until early December that Sciences Po finally contacted me and ISS at the same time, finally giving me the new application package. At that point I talked to ISS and said, ‘I’ve done this right? They have this?’ ISS said yes, and that the application process was complete. In retrospect I think it’s possible there was a mix up there; I was supposed to do the new forms.”

Della Mattia’s overall experience abroad was still positive, and she found ISS diligent regarding other issues while she was in France. Torno mentioned that students are registered with the SFU travel safety database, and have access to SOS international. ISS monitors Canada’s global affairs reports on a daily basis, as well as the SOS international reports and the news. If anything happens in a region with SFU students, they are notified by ISS and depending on the situation the students may be required to check in with them directly.

“I was in France when the Charlie Hebdo attacks happened. ISS was good with checking in with everyone to make sure we were okay, along with updated security warnings,” said Della Mattia.

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The long road home

One of the most stressful and important aspects for students going on exchange is the credits they receive upon their return to SFU. “We want students to be happy with the credit they receive for their work abroad; it’s a fundamental piece of the exchange program,” said Torno.

The standard credit timeline and exchange credit system is posted for each university on the ISS website, and Torno says that the average course review process (if a course hasn’t previously been assigned a transfer) is 10 to 12 weeks. If the student is applying for them after their exchange, it can take a few months.

A student who studied at Sciences Po in Paris, who requested to remain anonymous, was one such individual. She didn’t apply until her exchange was over, but had a long conflict with ISS in order to get her exchange credits.

“I applied for exchange credits for all of my classes on May 30. I got a response on June 15 with follow up questions, and we emailed for a couple days and sorted out any logistics. I then heard nothing and followed up on August 5 with no update. I contacted ISS again on September 13 and was told that they would check in the morning, and was then asked a bunch more questions which I had already answered or were clear from my application,” she said.

“This led me to believe it was just forgotten about, so I don’t think anything was even submitted until September. I followed up October 28 and finally got the final confirmation.”

For students who deal with a prolonged credit transfer, it can be extremely problematic for graduation, or cause issues for the next semester. “The biggest issue was my transcript said I had 60 credits, when really I had 75 (fifteen from exchange). So I was unable to apply for fourth-year courses, which have a minimum requirement of 75 units. It really messed up my schedule.

“I also had a really late enrolment date, even though my GPA is above 3.5, and had a lot of trouble getting into even third year classes.[…] But the fact of the matter is I didn’t get credits until we were almost in finals the entire semester after which is ridiculous. I applied in May and got them October 28.”

“We don’t want students to be surprised by things. We try to make as much information as possible available throughout the entire process. Whether on our website, students’ timelines, or handouts, so they can access that info. But that being said, things come up,” said Torno.

Logistically, credits are less likely to be expedited when the units haven’t previously been assigned to an SFU equivalent, or if the host university does not supply sufficient information. “France is particularly problematic for syllabi, because it’s not a standard thing that’s done in their classrooms,” she said.

In regards to credit ratio, Torno says that there’s a very established way of determining value. “It’s not an art; it’s definitely a science,” she said. “But, if a student raises a concern, we’ll look into it, and if we think it should be re-examined, we will. That’s something we do regularly, and if a system has changed their credit ratio, we want students getting all the credits they’ve worked to complete overseas.”

When the system leaves students hanging

Adam Thompson is a student who studied at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China. Despite having taken eleven courses over eight months, he will only receive half of the appropriate credits due to a low credit ratio. “It’s preventing me from graduating this year. I’ve been told that another exchange credit evaluation is taking place, but I’m not convinced it’s going to yield different results.  I have support from the director of my faculty, so I’m certain my claim has merit,” he said.

As of now, Thompson’s case is still unresolved and he mentions pushback from other parts of SFU’s administration. Torno says that ISS doesn’t actually determine the credit ratio, but that it’s SFU admissions who has the authority over that field. “We don’t make determinations about how a course comes back, it’s the academic units who are responsible for that. But we will advocate for students and their timelines, especially when there’s a particular crunch for graduation,” she said.

Thompson isn’t as sure. “I’ve been battling for attention for over three months now. The administration needs to change its policies so that students like myself can commit to exchange terms.  It really is an incredible experience, and poor credit ratios spoil that opportunity.”

Moving Forward

It is clear by the wide range of experience that SFU’s Study Abroad program is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Many students, including myself, find ISS to be a positive representative of student success. However, it is important for any student taking such a big step in their life to consider the difficulties that they might face. ISS shows that they care, and has developed a comprehensive program for students to participate in.

The most common issue, it appears, is not with ISS itself, but the complicated network of relations that it holds to necessarily operate the exchange program. And while some things won’t always always be perfect, just as one can expect when transitioning to a new home abroad with different cultural norms, ISS has the students in mind.

“We try to advocate for students to the greatest degree that we can,” said Torno. “Because we want our partnerships to be successful, we want our students to be successful. That’s why we all come into work everyday.”

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