Claire Autruong: Augmenting the Study Abroad Office

I am really looking forward to that happy time when I get to start dealing with embassies, consulates and the federal government to get my student visa to study abroad. Obscure regulations, paperwork and countless phone calls to confusing departments? Don’t worry, I’m a pro now, and at least the embassies aren’t charging me more than $18,000 for the pleasure of dealing with their red tape.

GW students study abroad in increasing numbers each fall and spring semester, and the study abroad program is touted as popular and successful. Both when I took a tour as a prospective student and when I gave tours last summer, one of the major selling points was the popularity of study abroad and the great experiences students bring back with them, enriching the culture of GW’s community. One of the major draws for me was studying abroad, and I couldn’t wait to get started.

Then along came ‘the process,’ as the painful procedure of preparing to go abroad is ominously termed. I began early, making sure that I was eligible to go, identifying a program of choice and asking professors to write my recommendations. But wait, my program was not on GW’s approved list. Not to worry, I was told. Just fill out a petition and you’ll be fine. This is true if you don’t mind that the petition is as long as the program application itself, with adviser approvals, paragraphs to write and multiple deadlines. And it takes about a month.

The Office of Study Abroad Web site has a wealth of information, but one has to know where to look, and the resources provided are mostly general and not program-specific. There are several deadlines for individual programs and for GW Study Abroad, making students feeling that there is always another unknown deadline looming around the corner.

In early March, with my petition finally approved and my application in, I was ready to move on with the process. However, nothing happens until the Pre-Departure Orientation sessions are held in the first week of April. At the session, which is the one element of the Study Abroad process that is extremely well-organized, officials provide students with an structured slide-show and presentation of materials.

They also give you a well-organized folder chock full of forms. Some need to be signed by advisers, some by your dean, some need to be notarized – you get the idea. And all this during the most stressful part of the semester, even though some programs have not yet even informed students if they are accepted.

After students have gone through all the red tape and the paperwork, there is still one more crowning moment awaiting them – the tuition bill. Yes, the GW tuition bill for the semester that you will not be spending at GW. The Study Abroad Web site lists a 2007-2008 charge of $18,200 for tuition, a $300 study abroad fee and various housing and meal plan charges depending on your program’s situation. Yes, GW also charges students for housing and meal plans that it is not providing. I am not sure what defensible rationale there could possibly be for such a policy.

Simply put, the Study Abroad program at GW needs to be overhauled. It needs to be streamlined, so students do not have to go to a dozen different places for information and to get forms signed. Departments should get together and create a comprehensive, consistent policy for course approval and see if they can combine the half-dozen forms into as few as possible.

Also, the Office of Study Abroad needs to be expanded so that it can better address its dual roles. While there are often complaints that the staff at OSA is unhelpful, OSA is simply understaffed. There is not enough staff to hold information sessions, events, counsel students, answer emails and phone calls, process pre-departure paperwork quickly and deal with transferring credit upon students’ return.

If GW is going to charge students the more expensive GW tuition to go abroad, why not put some of the difference toward getting the OSA a larger, more accessible office with more staff and the means to actually carry out its dual mission of providing information and services?

Until then, I look forward to dealing with the federal government, embassies and consulates. I think I’m ready for a real bureaucratic challenge after honing my skills in the red tape that is GW’s Study Abroad process.

-The author, a sophomore majoring in history and international affairs, is Hatchet copy editor.

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