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Online system, travel agency among changes to off campus study

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Recently, there have been changes made to the off-campus study program that have affected students’ experiences. Some of these changes include the use of a single travel agency to book tickets for travel and a new system to calculate credit from studying abroad, the latter of which has the most impact on students, especially those seeking credit for off campus study. Pat Martin, director of the Off-Campus Study Office, estimates that over 50 percent of students have study abroad experiences for credit.

According to an e-mail from Martin, other changes include a new domestic off-campus study program, Semester in Hawaii, at the University of Hawaii. In addition to the new domestic option, students studying abroad receive a budget that covers living costs during break periods if their programs or universities do not provide them accommodations during those times.

In that e-mail, Martin also noted that starting last semester, students with a “demonstrated high level of financial need” are able to apply to the Dean’s Office emergency fund if they have uncovered costs such as visas and immunizations but are subject to the emergency fund’s rules.

All of these changes are relevant to the entire off-campus study program, which includes all international student trips, Lang Center-sponsored activities, conferences, debates, athletic competitions, and externships. However, the new changes most prominently affect students who are studying abroad for credit. Students who receive off-campus credit typically do so through end-of-semester courses that have an international field component, summer courses, and a fall or spring semester abroad.

In terms of receiving credit for studying abroad, there is a new online credit evaluation system built by ITS. Students who will study abroad next semester will use this system.

Martin explained that the previous system required that students “go from department to department” to get signatures on a piece of paper in order for their study abroad program to be approved. The new system also replaces a similar “paper-based” system that applied to students who sought credit after returning to campus.

The benefits of the new system, Martin explained, are that it allows all parties involved in the process of transferring and approving credit to see where courses are in the approval process and that students are now able to utilize the system to ask for additional courses to be approved while abroad.

In spring of 2017, a new change was added that guarantees students four credits for “successful completion of coursework that was pre-estimated for at least four Swarthmore credits” during a semester abroad. Before this change, it was possible for students to receive fewer than four credits for that work because the credits were determined by departments.

Molly Murphy ’18 detailed her study abroad experience in the summer of 2016 in Beijing through a Harvard program. Because it was a language-intensive program, she exclusively interacted with the Chinese section at Swarthmore.

“Getting credit coming back was a bit of a process because first, I had to submit all of my study materials  — like my homework, tests, and papers and my textbook and my transcript — to the department office in Chinese. Then I figured they were just going to forward it to the registrar, but they didn’t, and it was getting towards the end of semester, and [the registrar’s office] didn’t receive my transcript … so I had to order a new transcript,” she explained.

She noted that when she studied abroad, the credits were approved by various departments, and the department heads chose what courses counted and for how many credits.

“I didn’t really utilize the study abroad office,” Murphy added. “I thought that [my study abroad program] wasn’t the kind that they deal with … but I was wrong about that, because they do follow up with students going abroad over the summer, especially if they’re intending to get credit, even if it’s not formally through [Swat].”

Professor Jeremy Lefkowitz, who is the faculty advisor for students who will study abroad, says that despite the new online system, students will still have to bring back every paper from their study abroad trip, like Murphy described.

“The important part is that students still have to keep everything that they get, all the work they do. … [It] should come back,” he said.

This requirement exists because students must upload their work to the new system when they return from abroad in order to determine how much credit they have earned.

Lefkowitz also explained the previous process for receiving credit abroad and how the new system from ITS is making that easier.

“Students would have to go around and get signatures from specific departments related to the coursework they plan to do abroad. They have to get signatures before they go, and they have to get signatures when they get back to show that all the work will get credit. And now all that can be done electronically.”

Lefkowitz also said that students abroad this semester are still using the old system. The new system is currently being implemented, so students returning to campus this fall or next spring are still using the old system. The effects of the new system will be clear in fall 2018, when the students abroad during this spring semester return.

Jamie Starr ’19, who is studying in Greece next semester, is using the new online system. She explained that she has uploaded a list of all of the classes she’s interested in taking abroad as well as the syllabi.

“The study abroad office has given me an estimate of how many credits I will likely get for each class,” Starr said.

She then added that once she returns, she will have to upload the work she’s done in order to get approval for the credits by each department.

Though the new system is paperless and intended to ameliorate the process of applying and receiving credits, there are potentially some unintended consequences.

Lefkowitz expressed concern that there might be some problems because there will be less opportunity for students and professors to speak face-to-face.

“[Getting forms signed] meant that, at the very least, there’s a moment of a student and professor talking about the experience. Now, I worry that the moment is threatened,” he said.

He said that though his worry does not outweigh the benefits of a paperless and more streamlined process, his concern of an “unfortunate side effect” still remains.

“I hope that it’s not going to lead to less personal interaction between faculty and students who study abroad,” he said. “It’s not meant to lead to less interaction. It’s meant to save paper and make the process smoother. … It’s not meant to take the place of mentoring.”

However, Valerie Blakeslee ’19, who is planning on studying abroad in Milan next semester, doesn’t think that the lack of interaction is an issue. She belieces that in person communication with the professor is not crucial unless it is important to a student’s particular circumstance, such as if the student is trying to ensure that they receive four credits from studying abroad. Four credits count as “full credit,” and all students who go abroad must get full credit.

“Just recently, [the off-campus study office] finally, officially switched to the electronic system but since I was petitioning for my program, I had to know if I would receive credit in advance. So I had to use the handwritten way of doing things by going to different heads of the departments and getting them to sign off on things,” she said.

She added that the process of going to individual professors was troublesome, mainly because of the schedule conflicts between the college and the program abroad. She noted that using an electronic system probably would have been easier.

“When I had to do the paper version, I had to e-mail all the heads of those departments and have a brief meeting with them, which is kind of a hassle. But with the online system, the heads of the departments are just notified by e-mail.”

Another change that has occurred is that students can now book their travel through Key Travel, a travel agency in Philadelphia. Prior to this semester, students were given an allowance in order to arrange their own flight but did not have a travel agent.

Starr said that students are required to contact someone from the agency once they are accepted into the study abroad program and have completed parts of the study abroad application. Students give information about the dates of the program to the travel agency, which then responds with options for travel and will book the flight with the student’s approval.

Starr also noted that Swarthmore pays for the flights as long as the cost doesn’t exceed the price of a flight from Philadelphia to the final destination.

According to Lefkowitz, it can be expensive if students wait to buy plane tickets, so having the booking centralized through a travel agency can minimize the cost.

“[Booking] was pretty easy for me because I looked at specific flights beforehand,” Starr said. “But I have a few friends who had some issues because they were put on some flights where the timing didn’t work for them.”

While explaining the role of the travel agent, Lefkowitz said, “It’s probably going to save money, but we don’t know yet. There’s kind of a hope that it streamlines things and makes things easier to manage. … Pat Martin put a lot of thought and time into this, and she’s been trying to get it to be something we can do for years.”

However, at this point in the implementation of both the online system from ITS and the travel agent, it is still unclear what the consequences will be in fall 2018 and beyond.

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