Invisible barriers to international exchange

The ins and outs of enrolling abroad

Program course requirements can be a barrier to students looking to go on exchange.

As 10,678 Arts and Science students begin their semester in Kingston every year, around 600 of their classmates prepare to complete an international exchange at one of Queen’s partner universities from around the globe.

Considered both a rewarding and challenging experience, a vast majority of students don’t get to take part in exchange. Although the Queen’s International Centre posted a blog post in 2015 that tried to dispel the “Six Silly Excuses for Choosing to Not Go On Exchange,” obstacles such as cost, curriculum, culture and circumstance still stand in the way of people’s decision to forgo this opportunity. 

But for every positive story you hear about students who go on exchange, there are others who had a dreadful experience.

And that’s for those who even get to go. 

In Engineering — a faculty with 3,065 students for 2017-18 — only 40 to 50 of them go on exchange each year. Due to the rigid structure of their degree plans, most engineers aren’t afforded this opportunity. 

For Daniel De Santis, Eng ’19, the idea of going on a third-year exchange seemed impossible after a guest speaker told his engineering chemistry class that no one in their program had ever done it. 

“The main problem is this one third-year lab course,” De Santis said. “Other universities have differently combined chemistry components. So for us to go, we’d have to add an entire other year onto our degree.”

“I wanted to go on exchange. It would’ve been a great experience,” De Santis said of his third year. “I see everyone’s photos on Instagram and think, ‘that could’ve been me.’”

According to De Santis, rectifying the inaccessibility might be as simple as re-formatting the way lab courses are presented in full-year format, or searching for a partner university that has a similar third-year curriculum. None of the 31 partner universities listed on the Engineering exchange website offer an equivalent lab course to the one offered at Queen’s.

This inaccessibility isn’t only felt in one faculty. A lot of students studying science face similar barriers to Engineering students. These obstacles are often based on long lists of required courses, some of which don’t have equivalents offered at any partner university.

The resource for Arts and Science students — the International Programs Office (IPO) — has a detailed website that outlines step-by-step instructions for the application and admissions process. They also include their own list of suggested partner universities based on people’s individual programs.

While some people do find their own perfect match through the IPO, others don’t have this luxury.  

According to Maggie Newport, ArtSci ’17, the list provided by the IPO didn’t accurately set her up for a successful exchange experience. While she told The Journal going on exchange to the University of Leeds was the best year of her life, she said there were a number of communication issues within the system.

“There is no communication between Queen’s and the host university,”  Newport said. “I had to do everything myself.”

Unknown to her, the biochemistry program at Leeds is shorter than the program offered at Queen’s. Due to this discrepancy, Leeds enrolled Newport in all final year courses — equivalent to fourth year Queen’s credits — when she was only in third year. 

“In reality, [Leeds] wasn’t that compatible with my program. It was really misadvertised,” Newport said.

“[The department] told me that the courses they put me in would be too hard,” Newport said. After she contacted Leeds herself to see if it could be changed, they said she wasn’t eligible to take any other courses. “It got to the point where [Queen’s] just told me to go, have a good time and we’d sort it out when I got back.”

According to Newport, she got full credit for electives but only one upper-year requirement was fulfilled instead of the full courseload she anticipated. As a result, Newport had to add a full semester onto her degree. 

“In hindsight, I completely regret following [the department’s] advice,”  Newport said.

The process of selecting and applying to a host university isn’t always straightforward, and the guidelines put in place to help aren’t helpful for students coming from all programs.

“The IPO emphasizes the importance of student research in undertaking any mobility program,” Laura Esford, IPO manager, told The Journal via email.  “[It] also retains a credit transfer bank which students are welcome to consult along with a document entitled ‘Where to Go by Degree Concentration’ which is continuously updated.”

In regards to students having to unexpectedly add time onto their degree, Esford said they don’t see this scenario very often.

Students in humanities-based programs also reported issues with both enrolment and communication between universities abroad. 

Jaedie Sansom, ArtSci ’18, left for her exchange semester last winter and by the time she arrived at her host university, Glasgow, she wasn’t enrolled in a single course. When the first week of classes rolled around, her situation persisted, in spite of her constant efforts to contact her host university.

“The International Office [in Glasgow] couldn’t do anything about it. They’d contact different department heads and get no response, then some departments would be really responsive.”

Sansom’s major is drama, one of the main driving factors that led her to choose her host university in the UK. “When I actually got to enroll, they told me I wasn’t eligible to take drama courses there.” 

Some host universities only allow exchange students to enroll in elective classes, some or most of which might be outside that student’s major.

“I understand that the host university’s priority is not exchange students. The problem is that they just don’t do anything,” Sansom said. 

While she experienced some resistance when trying to enroll in courses abroad, Sansom said she can’t speak highly enough of the IPO. “They tell you when to contact your undergraduate chair, and when to enroll in courses,” Sansom said, “The problem [for me] was that I had no courses when I left.”

According to the Universities Canada Internationalization Surveys, only 3.1 per cent of undergraduate students in Canada complete an international exchange. As of last year, Queen’s Faculty of Arts and Science is ahead of the national average, at 5.2 per cent of students completing an international exchange.  

While certain programs have much higher exchange rates — 85 per cent of commerce students go on an exchange in their third year — this is due in part to the robust integration of the global perspective into the Bachelor of Commerce degree.

“In fact, many commerce students tell us that the exchange program was one of their reasons for choosing to come to Queen’s,” Alison Darling, associate director of international programs and projects at the Smith School of Business, said via email with The Journal. 

Darling explained through their network of 120 partner institutions in 37 countries, they have the capacity to send every third-year student on an exchange. She also “passionately believes that exchange can be beneficial to all students, regardless of major, especially in today’s global world.”

While the experience is considered one of the most valuable additions to one’s education, the exchange experience remains inaccessible to many non-commerce students at Queen’s and poses significant program-related barriers.

Esford reiterated that the Faculty of Arts and Science has unique disciplinary diversity and students with wide range of curricular needs, making the exchange process more complicated.

“One of the many things the Smith School does well is ensuring that incoming Queen’s students are aware of the exchange opportunities from the very beginning of their time at Queen’s,” Esford wrote. “The Faculty of Art and Science is committed to likewise making sure students know about the educational and personal value of the these experiences.”

According to Esford, the Faculty of Arts and Science is committed to “increasing student participation in exchange programs” by 2023.

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