Mackenzie Stewart ’13 returned from a semester abroad in Valparaiso, Chile disappointed and looking for answers. Student strikes, communication issues among staff and a lackluster program director led her to try to change the program for future students.
“The girls who went to Chile and I took a long time to layout all of our experiences and our criticism, but got no feedback,” she said. “The program was a huge mess.”
Stewart met with Vice President of Language Schools Michael Geisler and even President of the College Ronald D. Liebowitz to express her concerns, but still received no response.
It took the cumulative effect of Stewart’s parents withholding donations and a similar threat from a second family before Geisler acknowledged that the concerns had been brought to the program director’s attention.
“It was six months of nothing,” she said.
Stewart’s abroad experience is certainly extreme. But through numerous interviews, common fundamental concerns surfaced about the study abroad experience of future students.
Middlebury vs. Other Programs
It is widely accepted by both students and faculty members that the 15 Middlebury Schools Abroad are far more academically rigorous than the 40 or more externally sponsored programs to which the College sends students.
“Non-Middlebury programs expect less — it’s as easy as that,” said Ted Netland ’14, who spent the fall at a Middlebury program in Bordeaux, France. “It seems from visiting friends across Europe who studied at non-Middlebury programs that they had it easier [academically].”
But Julia Deutsch ’13 — who studied in Kunming, China — pointed out that the Middlebury programs are all non-English speaking, which makes them naturally more challenging.
“It’s such a hard language [Mandarin] that if you really want to become fluent you will have to spend a certain amount of time studying — there just isn’t really a way around that,” she wrote in an email.
Acting Dean of International Programs and A. Barton Hepburn Professor of History Paul Monod said that the uneven academic playing field between abroad programs is a concern.
“It’s very difficult to level the academic playing field,” he said.
Studying abroad in Australia has become a specific hotbed of criticism from both faculty and some students. Monod said that the study abroad office used to only allow biology and other specific science majors — areas of study in which the country is very strong — to go to Australia. But after interminable student complaints, the restriction was lifted.
One of the problems is that many of the popular programs — such as Australia — offer a wide range of courses, which include many challenging courses, but more often many easy ones.
“Usually, it isn’t hard to find the easy classes,” he said. “We can limit the programs, but we can’t limit the choices.”
One way the College combats the academic disparity is by not, in most cases, extending financial aid to students studying abroad at non-Middlebury programs.
“If a student goes to Australia and decides to waste their time, they’re not wasting my money or your money, they’re wasting their own money,” Monod said.
Another way Monod and his office try to combat the differences is by constantly monitoring externally sponsored study abroad programs.
“If we get a kid who goes abroad with a C average and get’s straight A’s, that’s going to be something that makes us suspicious of a program,” he said. “We have to be very vigilant, and every year we are looking for the weak programs.”
For students who go on SIT (School for International Training) programs and complete final projects, their work is graded by both professors abroad and a College professor.
Integrating faculty into the process is crucial to ensuring high academic standards abroad, according to Monod.
“Faculty need to be more involved,” he said. “If a student comes back and tells their adviser that they didn’t do any work and got straight A’s, we need to know about that.”
But Monod said that there has been improvement in the academic disparity over his tenure at the College.
“When I first got here, it was generally understood that if you went abroad, your GPA would go up. Now it’s thought that if you go abroad, your GPA is going to go down,” he said.
Despite the widely-held belief that studying abroad at a non-Middlebury program is an easy GPA boost, students studying abroad on average got within a third of a grade of what they get at the College, according to studies done by Monod’s department.
But even with the study abroad office’s best efforts, Monod concedes that there is only so much he can do, crafting the problem as a student-choice issue.
“A student who chooses an easy program is saying, ‘I’m not good enough to go to a program that is more demanding,’” he said. “It’s fundamentally sad.”
But Vivian Cowan ’14, who spent the fall semester in Prague, Czech Republic, argued that a less academically rigorous schedule opened up different possibilities.
“The teachers didn’t expect much because a lot of the other students were taking their classes for pass/fail,” she said. “Being able to travel without the stress of worrying about doing work at a hostel or scrambling to find Wi-Fi to submit an essay allowed us to travel more.”
A unique aspect of the College’s abroad programs is that all abroad grades transfer in full. Many institutions simply put “study abroad” without grades, while others put the courses taken abroad on student transcripts but don’t factor them into cumulative GPA.
“We go the whole way here,” said Monod. “It makes us different, but it makes for a more meaningful experience.”
But Stewart said that what makes the College’s programs “different” also makes the academic disparity more important.
“It’s crazy that someone who goes to New Zealand or Prague isn’t doing any work, and you’re in a non-English speaking country doing a lot of work, but both programs grades transfer and are weighed equally,” said Stewart, whose final paper in Chile was 56 pages long. “The equity in the work of a common standard isn’t there.”
Even Liebowitz joined the discussion in a recent interview published in Middlebury Magazine, acknowledging the “mixed emotions” among students about the “potentially frustrating” experience abroad.
“It’s not what you see in the movies: junior-year abroad in Paris, enjoying the finer parts of French culture while still studying in English,” he said in the interview. “For some, the trade-off can be the enjoyment factor. We’re wrestling with this feedback we’re getting from our students.
“They typically attain a far greater degree of linguistic growth and competency than students in other programs, but a number of them, to be honest, will say that their time abroad is not as fun as others.”
Study Abroad Evaluations
When Netland arrived in Bordeaux, he found a different picture than that painted for him by the students he spoke with in a group meeting organized by the study abroad office prior to his departure.
“[The pre-departure meeting] felt censored, like it was run through the administration,” he said. “It didn’t seem that we got to hear all of the experiences, especially the ups and downs.”
An inherent problem with past students who give testimonials or meet with perspective students through the study abroad office is that their experiences are usually all positive.
“The problem is that a student who had a bad time abroad usually isn’t willing to come in and talk to a bunch of perspective students,” said Monod.
While Stewart said that kids need “a fuller picture” of studying abroad, she decided not to give her testimonial to perspective students.
“I didn’t want to go in there and complain,” she said.
Monod agreed that disseminating unbiased information from past students to current perspective students is a challenge.
“We take student evaluations seriously,” he said. “But we need to do more to get information out there to perspective students planning on going abroad.”
Each returning student is given the opportunity to fill out an abroad evaluation, but in many cases, that information never reaches students looking to follow in their footsteps.
For Middlebury programs, the evaluations are on the specific schools’ websites. But upon further investigation, in the area dedicated to “what advice would you give to future participants about the program?” only a fraction of the responses are viewable.
Stewart said that her evaluation was posted on the study abroad website, but that “a lot” of her responses were omitted.
Evaluations on non-Middlebury programs are housed on an external website called “abroad101.” The site has a swath of anonymous student reviews, but lacks any categorization by country.
Could Middkid.com be the Answer?
One possible avenue for circulating anonymous study abroad evaluations is through middkid.com, which has published anonymous course evaluations on their website for the past 13 years.
“Middkid.com is an ideal place for evaluations of schools abroad to be made public,” wrote the site’s campus manager, Thomas Bryenton ’13 in an email. “It’s a terrific idea.”
But Bryenton cautioned that it would take time to implement any new section to the website.
“We recently finished a complete overhaul of the site, so going back in to set up these changes is going to take time,” he wrote. “Realistically, a section of the site devoted to study abroad is still a couple months away.”
Monod cautioned that anonymous study abroad evaluations on middkid.com might give students a slanted picture.
“If that kid who hated their abroad evaluation gets on [middkid.com] and puts a blistering report online, it can give a very wrong impression,” he said.
Both Netland and Stewart said they would hypothetically share their experiences if middkid.com dedicated a section to study abroad evaluations.
“I love the idea of some kind of candid, anonymous review board,” he said. “I would be willing to tell kids exactly my experience, and if that is an online forum, then so be it.”
Read a response by Vice President for Language Schools, Schools Abroad and Graduate Programs MICHAEL E. GEISLER.