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'U' study abroad

Illustration by Alicia Kovalcheck
Illustration by Alicia Kovalcheck Buy this photo

By Alicia Adamczyk, Daily News Editor
Published February 26, 2013

When it comes to academic programs, few other public institutions match the quality of the University’s: The undergraduate business, engineering and political science programs are just a handful of the University’s that rank in the top 10 across the nation, according to U.S. News & World Report rankings.

But there’s one component of the University’s repertoire that may not stand up to the gold — well, maize and blue — standard, at least according to many students: the study abroad programs. While higher education puts more and more of an emphasis on an international perspective — in fact, University President Mary Sue Coleman listed a Global Initiative to expand the study abroad program as one of her major goals in her Five Years Forward address in 2007 — the University’s study abroad program leaves something to be desired, said LSA junior Abigail Cook, who is currently studying abroad in Paris, France through IES Abroad, an independent study abroad agency.

“Overall, I'm extremely disappointed with Michigan's study abroad programs,” Cook said in an e-mail interview. “Most of the Michigan students I know abroad have chosen other programs because Michigan either didn't offer a program or the program was very expensive.”

It makes sense that Cook, an Art History major, would want to study in Paris, a city long famed for its artistic environment. Though the University does offer programs in the City of Light, Cook said she still wasn’t able to find what she was looking for in an overseas program.

“It makes me a little sad because I wish I could be supporting Michigan,” she said.

But that’s not to say the University doesn’t offer a wide range of programs. In fact, there are an overwhelming number of programs, with different study abroad offices stemming from each University college. In the LSA study abroad repertoire, there are currently 70 Michigan Global Academic Programs and Spring/Summer Language Programs in more than 30 countries around the world available to students, and the Center for Global and Intercultural Study — the LSA study abroad office — is constantly expanding and refining the programs.

Two programs — Global Intercultural Experience for Undergraduates and Global Course Connections — also change dramatically every year since University professors apply to lead the specific trips. This year, there were nine GIEU programs and eight GCC programs, in destinations such as Israel, South Korea, Kenya and Ecuador.

According to Rae Yung, a communications specialist for CGIS, of the 1,946 University students who earned academic credit abroad between fall 2010 and summer 2011, 743 went abroad through a CGIS-sponsored program. But this number doesn’t factor in students who went abroad through the programs in other colleges across campus, illustrating the decentralized nature of the University’s study abroad programs.

Multiple departments and colleges around campus have their own study abroad programs and offices. This includes LSA, the School of Art & Design, the College of Engineering, the School of Kinesiology, the School of Nursing, the Ross School of Business and various graduate-level programs. There are Global Health Programs available, as well as options for students in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, the A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning and the Ford School that only students in the respective school can attend.

Because of this decentralized approach, there are no figures available for average program costs, percentage of students who have studied abroad before graduation or comprehensive information on which programs are direct exchange, Yung said.

So, in an undergraduate career at the University, what percentage of students study abroad and through what programs? According to CGIS, the answer is unknown.

“For one thing, a completely unknown number of students go through third-party providers on their own,” she said. “For another, UM doesn't really have a central study abroad office, and each study abroad department reports their numbers slightly differently.”

Comparatively, Joseph Brockington, the associate provost for international programs at Kalamazoo College — which is consistently ranked as having one of the top study abroad programs in the country — wrote in an e-mail that more than half of Kalamazoo College students study abroad through trips sponsored by the school.

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LSA sophomore Katy Gresock plans to study abroad in Barcelona through International Studies Abroad in the fall. Like Cook, she was disappointed with the University’s program offerings.

After visiting the study abroad office for advice on program options for her junior year, Gresock said her adviser handed her numerous pamphlets and program books, and then left her to make a decision.

“(The adviser) told me that transferring credits would be easier through (University) programs, but they tend to be slightly more expensive,” she said. It was the cost that made her look elsewhere.

Independent study abroad agencies, in fact, seem popular among students seeking an alternative to University programs. Cook said she researched IES Abroad based on a recommendation from friend from the University.

“I was considering going through Columbia University and also New York University, but, ultimately, I felt more comfortable choosing a program that someone at Michigan recommended because I knew the credits would transfer,” Cook said.

LSA junior Nicole Karpas is studying abroad in Barcelona through CEA Global Education. She said it was the location that attracted her to her program through CEA, rather than cost. She believes CEA offers the best Barcelona program for undergraduates because of the many perks it offers, including free activities and trips to nearby cities in Spain. So far, she hasn’t experienced any drawbacks with the program.

“I get to meet lots of new people who do not go to the University of Michigan,” Karpas said in an e-mail interview. “My (friends) go to the University of Maryland and take classes through their school, and they are very displeased that they do not meet kids outside of their college.”

Though Gresock is having more success with her Barcelona trip, she said her first international experience wasn’t as well planned. As a freshman, she studied in a language institute in Italy based on the recommendation of her Italian teacher.

“They did not provide extensive information about where I would be living, what the classes were like or much of anything when it came to the safety measures I needed to take before leaving the country,” Gresock said.

It’s just that type of institutional support that Yung, the communications specialist for CGIS, said was one of the benefits of studying abroad through the University.

Yung said the connections the University has with professors and international partners are indispensable assets. CGIS also provides the University’s only department-specific health and safety officer to look after students’ physical and mental health.

“There’s no additional hurdle for students who go abroad through someone else and then have to come back home and sort through all that mess,” Yung said.

As for cost complaints, Yung said students often don’t realize — or use — the funding resources and scholarships available to them. In fact, last year CGIS gave out more than $850,000 in scholarships to LSA students. Every student eligible for an LSA Global Experience Scholarship last year, including students in colleges other than LSA, received one at an average of $6,000 per person.

“Depending on whether a student is in-state or out-of-state, that's a difference of $6,000 to $19,000,” Yung said of the cost discrepancies.
“Another thing to take into account about funding is that 100 percent of need-based financial aid can be applied to study abroad. In some cases, particularly considering the LSA Global Experience Scholarship, it can even be cheaper to study abroad for a semester than to study here in Ann Arbor.”

In some cases, it can even be cheaper to be abroad for a semester than in Ann Arbor.

When students study through a direct University program, they must pay University tuition costs in addition to program costs at the institution abroad.

“Because we are a decentralized university, it’s a little difficult to make students aware of the breadth of opportunities,” she said. “If students would just come in and talk to us, we’d be able to point them in the right direction.”

Yung also said the CGIS office receives little complaint about location options, as there are currently programs offered in North, South and Central America, Africa, Europe, Asia and Australia. Yung said the office is continually improving programming.

“I feel like we do try to pick the programs and pay attention to housing,” she said. “We want students to be able to — if they can’t walk out the front door and see the city — at least walk out the front door and take a bus and see the city.”

While students like Cook used independent agencies, there are also joint programs between the University and independent agencies, such as IES, offered through CGIS. University tuition doesn’t apply on these programs, but students can arrange their participation in the program through the University to ensure their credits will transfer. Additional fees, however, are often imposed by the University when partnering with third-party groups, such as the University’s Winter 2013 program through the Middlebury School in France, which requires a “CGIS Administrative Fee” of $1,200, according to the program’s budget.

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Brockington, the associate provost at Kalamazoo, wrote that the college has developed a superior study abroad program through the implementation of the K-Plan in 1962, in which administration deliberately shaped the curriculum and academic calendar to include space for study abroad in students’ second or third year of study.

“Now 50 years later, and after many curriculum changes and several calendar changes, the curriculum still has a space for study abroad in the third year,” he wrote. “That means that every student from every major can study abroad during the third year.”

A staggering 80 percent of Kalamazoo graduates — including students in the science, technology, engineering and math fields, an anomaly for many study abroad programs — have studied abroad at some point in their collegiate career, which he attributes to the K-Plan.

Michigan State University’s study abroad program has been heralded by U.S. News & World Report in its “Best Colleges 2011” as an “outstanding program designed to foster student success.” According to the MSU study abroad website, approximately 26 percent of its graduating seniors have participated in at least one study abroad experience. In fact, MSU leads the nation in study abroad participation among public universities, a distinction it has held for seven consecutive years.

Yung, however, dismissed rankings, saying the University is much more focused on providing students with a quality education than bragging rights.

“The way that we design programs, the way that we choose programs and choose our portfolio programs, is very much focused on the student experience than focused on any particular abstract ranking,” she said.

Though the quality of programs from school to school is subjective, most agree an international experience is the most important aspect of any study abroad program.

Yung stressed that the office was only created in 2009. “Now we have this office that really tried to incorporate all of the ... disparate study abroad programs and offices and services around LSA, and really try to rebuild with a greater eye to a better student experience.”

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LSA senior Laura Distel studied abroad in Argentina last winter through a joint program of the University and IES, and said she had a great experience.

“The program I thought was excellent,” Distel said. “I’m honestly glad I went with the amount of people from Michigan that I did.”

Distel said besides the location, meeting new people and ensuring her credits would transfer were her main concerns when picking a program, differentiating her from other students focused more on cost or financial aid. This distinction drives home an important point: There is no one-size-fits-all study abroad program.

Some of the many questions to keep in mind when selecting a program include: Is the program through the University or a third party? Is the University working with an independent group? Is University tuition required in addition to the institution abroad? Will credits transfer? What’s included in the program fee (such as excursions, health insurance, etc.)?

But most importantly: Does it go where you want to go and offer courses that suit your field of interest?

Students said the actual study abroad experience is more important than the decision of which institution to travel through.

“I strongly recommend everyone try to study abroad; it's an amazing experience,” Gresock said. “There are so many options with both UM and non-UM programs offered that you are sure to find something that you like and that will benefit you now and into the future.”

“While preparing to study abroad and finding a program can be stressful and a little bit of a pain, I would encourage everyone to participate in some form of study abroad,” Cook said. “It teaches you so much about both yourself and the world. I've only been in Paris for a month, and I already feel like I've learned so much.”

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that all students, regardless of residency status, studying abroad through CGIS programs that require tuition pay in-state tuition costs. For these programs, students who are Non-Michigan residents do pay out-of-state tuition.


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