Resolution on Studying Abroad and International Student Representation
April 1, 2001
The Undergraduate Assembly calls upon the University to re-evaluate its policy regarding the treatment of grades earned abroad, the cost of studying abroad, the location of the Office of International Programs, and the lack of International student representation in the decision-making process at Penn.
Each year, hundreds of students flood the Office of International Programs with requests to travel and study around the globe. Some students opt to live with families, some travel through Europe on the weekends, and others attempt total cultural immersion, but all come back more culturally aware and with a deeper understanding of life and education in a foreign country. While learning is the primary goal of Penn's abroad program, students are equally concerned with their academic performance while away. To our dismay, under the current grading structure, certain students are unfairly encouraged to study abroad while others are unfairly discouraged.
Topping the list of reasons to study abroad is that students believe that abroad classes are easier and those who go abroad receive higher grades. This system unfairly benefits those who choose to study abroad, where programs often offer less challenging classes than those at Penn.
Conversely, Penn's study abroad grading policies can penalize students who study abroad and discourage others from participating in abroad programs. The University attempts to "translate" grades earned abroad into American grades when classes are not taught based on the American grading system.
Given the variety of grading paradigms around the world, this practice seems imprecise and inaccurate. Students in the Argentina program receive grades on a 10-point scale. Those studying in the United Kingdom were surprised to discover that teachers rarely award students with As. Students may be discouraged to study in programs that employ such unorthodox grading policies:
The UA is deeply concerned with the possibility that University policy may have an unintentional effect of discouraging study abroad opportunities and penalizing those who do study abroad in countries with different grading structures.
Unlike our peer institutions, students who choose to study abroad "remain registered at Penn andpay regular Penn tuition and the study abroad fee for the semester or year." It comes as a surprise to some, including the UA, that students have not sought to change Penn's practices in this regard.
In order for Penn to include grades and count credits earned abroad on a student's academic record, students must apply to a Penn-affiliated program. While Penn students may find a program organized at one of our peer institutions to be more academically and culturally enriching--and oftentimes cheaper--they are forced to enroll in Penn-sponsored programs if they wish to receive academic credit and grades for their studies. Students, however, do not mind paying more than any other school in our peer group to go abroad because they know that:
Penn should act immediately to lower the costs of studying abroad by requiring students to pay only the tuition of the foreign school to which they are attending and a fee to compensate OIP for assistance with respect to advising Penn students about abroad options. Students studying abroad should not pay Penn tuition, as no one should be forced to pay for services that they are not capable of using.
In bold letters, the OIP website exclaims: "Petitions for study on non-affiliated programs are not routinely approved." This includes abroad programs organized by Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and other peer institutions. Aside from lowering the barriers to non-affiliated study abroad programs, Penn should also expand the opportunities it affords students within our own programs. Currently, students who wish to study abroad are only allowed to apply to one program. Certain programs are so popular that only a small percentage of qualified students receive admittance. If, for example, students were able to select a first, second, and third choice, those who are currently denied from their preferred program may be able to find open space on other programs.
Spanish-speaking students who are denied a space in the Madrid program, for example, may find open space on a program in Latin America. Similar to the credence given to an early application to Penn, a student's abroad program selection could be weighted based on the order in which it appears on his or her list of preferred programs.
Penn's peer institutions grant credit by departmental petition to students who study through programs organized by other universities. Penn stands alone in refusing to grant such transfer credit. Incongruously, Penn students may receive transfer credit by petition for courses taken at other institutions in the U.S., many of which pale academically to the programs our peer institutions offer abroad. Penn, therefore, engages in sending students to programs that--in theory and practice--are not always the most affordable nor the most appropriate. The University should take steps to allow students to receive credit for classes taken abroad on programs organized by other U.S. institutions, as long as the student is able to meet Penn's standards for going abroad.
Penn also differs from each of its peers in declining to grant credit for students who enroll directly to their abroad institutions. It stands to reason that if a Penn student is denied admission to a Penn-affiliated program that he or she should still be able to apply directly to that program and receive credit for classes taken there. If, for example, there are only 20 spaces open at a Penn-sponsored program at a given University in Asia, students who meet Penn's standards for going abroad but are not allotted one of the 20 spots should be able to receive transfer credit if they find another means by which they can enroll in classes at that University. By calling a program Penn-approved but only allowing students to apply to it through OIP makes it appear as if Penn truly engages in selling credits and grades.
As noted in the recent report released by the International Programs Committee of the University Council, "Space limitations greatly dampen the otherwise welcoming atmosphere in OIP. There is insufficient office space, an inadequate reception area, and there are no facilities to host activities of Internationally oriented scholar groups." The UA agrees with the committee's observations and believes that international students, students interested in studying abroad, and the entire Penn community would benefit from a more centrally-located, resource-rich center for International Programs. The UA--again agreeing with the International Programs Committee--also believes that the University should create an International Student Center to unite and provide resources for the International community at Penn.
With over 800 students from 89 countries, Penn has the largest percentage of international undergraduates in the Ivy League. Unfortunately, the interests of the international community at Penn are often fragmented. While umbrella organizations exist on campus to unite the myriad of ethnic and cultural student groups, there is no central organization that speaks for the entire community of international students. As such, the interests of international students as a whole often go unnoticed by the Administration, as well as the Undergraduate Assembly.
Recently it came to our attention that next year's Winter Break is one week shorter than every other year in recent memory. While the University compensated for this reduction by adding one week to Summer Recess, international students on campus were disproportionally affected by this change.
Penn's diverse campus includes many students from distant countries who rely on Winter Break as a chance to return home. A great deal of international students use this break as their one opportunity to travel home during the year, as many opt to take summer internships in the United States which traditionally pay substantially higher salaries than internships in foreign countries. Having a shorter break means that International students who choose not to spend their summers at home have considerably less time to spend with their friends and family.
Furthermore, when one takes into account the time spent traveling home, the time required to recover from jetlag, and the cost of flying, International students spend substantially less time and incur proportionally higher costs when visiting their families and relaxing before the start of the Spring Semester. It is certain that some students will simply not travel home next year because it is not worth the financial investment for such a short visit.
Almanac, Vol. 47, No. 29, April 10, 2001