Fleeced by the FSPs

Barcelona, a popular study abroad location

Barcelona, a popular study abroad location

The mere mention of the words “FSP” or “LSA” conjures images of the Champs-Elysees and St. Peter’s Basilica in the minds of Dartmouth students. These off-campus programs are some of the most culturally and intellectually engaging opportunities offered by the College, giving students access to some of the greatest monuments of human advancement and richest collections of human spirit. Professor Laurence Hooper – who is the faculty director for The Honorable Frank J. Guarini NIAF Italian LSA+ in Fall 2016 – stated that off campus programs are “meant to be the best experience of your time here [at Dartmouth], and a lot of people say that’s how they remember it.” Yet these programs are somewhat slow to adapt to students’ needs and are not equally accessible to students of all fields and interests. The College’s off campus programs are a key component of the Dartmouth experience and should be more responsive to the needs of the student body to ensure that all can access this enriching experience.

The strongest elements of Dartmouth’s unique off-campus programs are their integration of Dartmouth faculty, specialized curriculum, and their successful use of local resources to provide a comprehensive experience for students. Professor Hooper emphasized the distinctive structure of Dartmouth’s study abroad programs, which stems from the College’s unique academic calendar. Due to the discrepancies between Dartmouth’s academic calendar and those of nearly all of its peer institutions, “Dartmouth does everything by itself,” explains Hooper, “a lot of other [colleges] will share programs with other institutions, or will send students to foreign institutions.” Another distinguishing feature of Dartmouth’s off-campus offerings is the constant presence of a Dartmouth faculty member. Many peer institutions offer courses exclusively through outside professors, but nearly every FSP and LSA offers at least one course taught by a Dartmouth professor. Professor Hooper explained that this connection creates “continuity with Dartmouth…It’s supposed to feel like you’re on campus and off campus at the same time.” This integration offers the “classic kind of Dartmouth-style, liberal arts course that will introduce you to something with some breadth, but with a little bit of depth as well.” This sentiment is shared by Professor Joseph Aguado, the faculty director of the Fall 2016 Spanish FSP, whose intimate knowledge of Madrid allows him to provide his students with the best possible introduction to the city. In fact, he explained that “one of the marvelous ‘challenges’ of Madrid” is “the difficulty of having to choose from such a wide array of activities on a particular day.” Another strong proponent of Dartmouth’s foreign programs is John Tansey, Executive Director of Dartmouth’s Frank  J. Guarini Institute for International Education. Mr. Tansey praises the “strong tie to faculty and the academic departments” seen in not only the programs themselves but in their planning, development and oversight. Mr. Tansey also emphasized the College’s drive to maximize the use of “resources available locally.” He highlights that “the history of London course is, I think a good example, using London as the classroom” to bring the course to life.

The aforementioned Guarini Institute does not often come into conversation on campus, but it plays a key role in creating the off campus experience for which Dartmouth is so well known. Mr. Tansey explained the responsibilities of the organization, saying “We work in collaboration with the departments, it’s really a team approach. A lot of the administrative and logistical aspects of a program, in particular, are where we’re most involved. We’ll work in program design to some extent, but [more so] the enrollment process, the mechanics of it, the online application, managing the website, collecting the information and distributing it out to the faculty, so that they can review and make decisions….Once programs are set in terms of participation, we work with the faculty on all of the pre-departure stuff: the forms, the orientation, the enrollment management piece. Parallel to that are the conversations about program logistics – the contracts, the leases, the homestays, the budget, the onsite setting-up of courses, scheduling for excursions or activities, looking at health safety, interacting with our partners on site…there’s two tracks, one is the enrollment and pre-departure management, and the other is the business side of running programs and working with faculty, and doing as much of [the faculty-related business] so that [the faculty] really stay as  focused on the curricular aspects and working with students.” This wide range of duties illustrates the key role the Guarini Institute plays in ensuring that Dartmouth faculty can focus on the academic components of the the success of Dartmouth’s study abroad programs.

One of the Institute’s most important responsibilities is to work with academic departments and to foster the development of new foreign programs. Upholding the centrality of Dartmouth’s faculty to its foreign programs, Mr. Tansey emphasizes that all new “programs are initiated by an academic department…even exchange programs have a link back to an academic department.” Yet the Guarini Institute is still heavily involved, working with their direct superiors at the Dean of Faculty’s Office and academic colleagues at the faculty Committee on Off-Campus Activities. Mr. Tansey walked through the development process for a new program: “We’ll work with the faculty in a department to develop a new program proposal, and then there’s a committee approval process. It’ll go from the department to their divisional council – the humanities divisional council, if it’s a humanities program –then potentially, depending on its courses, it could go to the Committee on Instruction, the Committee on Off-Campus Activities and then it goes eventually to the Committee of Chairs for approval.” While one can see the value in faculty oversight and a strong pipeline through which to create new programs, it may be somewhat more efficient to use fewer committees. A faster process for new development and change would certainly help to further build on Dartmouth’s success in study abroad programs.

The Guarini Institute and its partners have been making positive steps to continue improving programs. Mr. Tansey reported that over his tenure as Executive Director of the Guarini Institute, “I’ve seen certainly the expansion in the number of programs, both on FSP, LSA, and exchange programs. I think we’re seeing a wider geographic distribution of programs; many of the newer programs have been outside of Western Europe. I think that there’s been a lot of research done on outcomes of study abroad in terms of what actual types of learning are happening on our programs. I think that there are other values and benefits associated with our programs…like increased intercultural competence, hopefully a broader perspective on the U.S. [and/or a student’s] home country’s position in the world.” Mr. Tansey is also studying “ways that students might interact more with the community or the location.” The internal review system for these programs, however, operates on a slow cycle. Programs are reviewed every 1, 3, or 5 years “according to schedule…by the faculty committee [Committee on Off-Campus Activities].” They do provide “an opportunity not only for [the Guarini Institute]…but peers of the faculty leading these programs, to look in and review student evaluations, feedback from the program, and ask questions.” Increasing the frequency of these program reviews should foster more responsive changes to student needs.

Nowhere is such speedy change needed more than the application process for off campus programs. Currently, admissions for nearly every off campus program involves two components: a general questionnaire and application developed by the Guarini Institute, and a more in-depth, specialized application developed independently by each department. The former section has drawn some complaint from certain students, who feel that the formatting of certain questions makes them vague and redundant. Professor Hooper showed support for such sentiments, saying of the general questionnaire, “[the questions] are fine, but there is an awful lot of information in there…I wouldn’t have any problem with having a form half as long” and that “it does seem like it’s going more for quantity than quality.” Mr. Tansey was very receptive to student concerns and reiterated several times that he welcomes any recommendations. We at The Review encourage all of our readers who have experienced the foreign study program application and have suggestions to contact the Guarini Institute at off.campus.programs@dartmouth.edu. The latter component of the application is actually quite effective, reflecting the criteria of each unique program and faculty director. For instance, Professor Aguado considers the “personal statement…of utmost importance” when selecting candidates for his Madrid FSP. He believes that “The most successful student is the one who is really open to challenging her/his preconceived ideas about how other countries and cultures strive to care and develop the life of its citizens.” He stresses that “studying abroad is not another way of tourism,” and searches for students that clearly demonstrate a desire to engage intellectually with a new and different culture and environment. On the other hand, the stringent language requirement of the Italian LSA+ means that Professor Hooper already knows most of the applicants. For him, the process “has more to do with getting to know people before they apply,” and developing a strong feeling for the applicant through their previous experiences, rather than poring over written applications. The downside of the language requirements of the Italian LSA+ is that it has a small applicant pool, meaning that even though “it’s as open as [they] can possibly make it,” it is difficult to fill all of the spots. In fact, Professor Hooper extended the application deadline for the coming fall, winter and spring programs two months after the original date.

The difficulty Mr. Hooper faces in finding enough candidates highlights what is likely the most pressing concern among off-campus programs: the disparity in opportunities available to students in various fields. While some programs draw a small number of applications, others have more open requirements and are highly competitive, accepting fewer than one in three applicants. Study abroad programs in popular humanities majors such as economics, government, and history are often marked with this problem, while many hard science departments (e.g. biology and chemistry) offer no off campus programs at all. These issues are even more acute when it comes to Dartmouth’s exchange programs. For instance, the exchange program with Oxford University is a common talking point during tours and is widely touted to prospective students, but only allows 4 students to participate annually.  Even worse, many students in exchange programs have had difficulty with transferring credits from other colleges and are forced to pay Dartmouth tuition, a figure often astronomically more expensive than if the student had applied to the program through another college. For instance, the students attending the UCL economics program will have to pay almost $15,000 more than they would have had to otherwise. On top of already exorbitant tuition costs, students are forced to pay an additional transfer fee to Dartmouth during the and winter and spring terms, where fewer students are on campus than in the fall.

Thankfully, Dartmouth has been taking steps to address some of the problems associated with its study abroad programs. Mr. Tansey highlights the growth of the economics exchange program with Bocconi University and that the College is “putting-in place a second exchange program with University College London, that’ll start next year,” providing more opportunities within the popular major. Mr. Tansey also points to the success of “embedded programs,” which provide a full Dartmouth course on campus in the fall term and followed by foreign study during winter break. The most notable example is ECON 70, which focuses on developing economies and allows students to visit either Peru or Poland as part of a case study.  Mr. Tansey noted that “[the Economics department] has done that now once, and then there’re other departments contemplating offering those types of experiences.” He praised the initiative of Professor Charles Wheelan, whom the Review recently featured as part of our “Best Professors” series, for pioneering such alternative foreign study programs. Mr. Tansey concluded by hopefully stating that “there may be other models of study abroad that are emerging, breaking away from the traditional FSP/LSA.” We at the Review certainly hope that such programs continue to expand and that the College administration will continue to improve foreign study opportunities. Ultimately, every student should have the opportunity to study abroad if they wish.