Exchanges benefit students: most don’t take advantage

She is on her way to becoming a diplomat,” says Frederick Francis. “Right now she is in Moscow, as the deputy first secretary. She wants to come back and do a Master’s in international affairs at either John Hopkin’s University or at Princeton.”

She was a commerce student who went to Gothenburg, Sweden in 1991-1992 on a student exchange, to experience a new culture and learn a new language. After returning from Sweden, Mary Coulter worked at Revenue Canada and later joined the Canadian Foreign Service in 1995. By 1996 Coulter was in Hong Kong working as the deputy program manager of immigration and was eventually sent to Russia in 1999.

“I have no doubt that the exchange helped her on her way to where she is now,” says Francis, who is the deputy director of the Centre for International Academic Co-operation (CIAC) at Concordia University. “Going on an exchange shows employers that you are adaptable and are able to work in various environments,” says Francis.

Exchange students benefit from having that kind of competitive edge and from getting a different perspective on another culture and learning a new language, says Francis.

Concordia has 28,000 undergraduate students and in the 2001-2002 academic year 84 students went on exchanges, whereas Concordia received 382 exchange students, from all over the world. This is an improvement over 2000-2001, when only 46 Concordia students went on an exchange. The benefits are obvious, so why are Concordia students not taking advantage of an opportunity?

Going on an exchange is not easy. Students need months of preparation and they need to do most of the leg-work themselves.

Mitra Thompson, a third-year journalism student at Concordia, says it took her about two-and-half-months to prepare for her one-year stay at City University in London, this year. “I had to make numerous phone calls to get course equivalences because the course descriptions on the web site were five years old,” she says.

Thompson sent numerous e-mails to officials at City and the replies were either not helpful or had conflicting responses. “I had to get on the phone and call City,” she says. “There was no sense of continuity and some people did not have the information that I needed. I was lucky I reached the right person at City University for the course descriptions.”

Geraldine Ford, program assistant counsellor at the CIAC, says that in order to take courses at other universities, students need to find classes that are similar in scope to those offered at Concordia and a faculty advisor must approve these course selections. Course equivalences are part of the application.

“Most students, when they arrive at their destinations, must register on the spot,” says Ford. “Sometimes the course the student was planning on taking is full and they have to scramble to find another course.” Even if students need to find another course, a faculty advisor must approve it in order for the student to get credit for that course.

Francis says one of the obstacles to going on an exchange is the lack of flexibility for course equivalences. “In Europe they are much more flexible and it makes it easier for students wanting to come to Concordia.”

Finding equivalent courses was not the only obstacle facing Thompson. “I had to get a lot of financial information,” she says.

Finances play a crucial role in studying abroad, says Francis. “It’s very expensive to go on exchanges.” Students must pay for everything, including airfare, housing, food and books, as well as, their tuition to Concordia while at the host university.

Ford says the minimum average a student needs to study abroad is about $1,500 a month, but some destinations exceed that.

In addition to the standard requirements of marks and letters of recommendation, an affidavit of finances is required.

Thompson’s budget for her eight to nine month stay in London is $29,000 and this includes housing, food, books, spending money and her tuition at Concordia. “I had to get my parents to get letters from their employers saying what their salaries were and then I had my dad’s bank write a letter saying he was a client in good standing.”

In the fall of 2000, Quebec’s Ministry of Education eager to promote student mobility, set aside $30 million in bursaries or $10 million a year for three years. Concordia has received $1.2 million for the first year. This bursary is the only one of its kind in North America.

The program gives students, who are Quebec residents, $750 to $1,000 a month while on the exchange, but the amount depends on where the student is studying. It is more expensive for those studying in Western Europe and the U.S., than in Eastern Europe, South America and Asia.

“That was a God-send,” says Francis. “It does not seem a whole lot, but every little bit helps. More students have been applying with the student mobility bursary, but we still receive more students by about four to one.”

Luckily for Thompson, she will be getting $1,000 per month for her stay in London.

Others have not had such an easy time.

Joanna Potapowicz, a fourth-year finance student who wants to do a minor in international business, faced many challenges before being able to go on her exchange.

Potapowicz, originally from Poland, decided to go on an exchange to her native country for one semester. She will be going to Poland’s top school, Warsaw’s School of Economics (SGH). Before Potapowicz initiated an exchange with the business school there was no exchange agreement between Concordia and the school. She went to Poland to visit the school and the agreement between the school and Concordia’s CIAC was signed, but it was not recognized by the John Molson school of business (JMSB) at Concordia.

“I think the JMSB got upset that I did not go to them first to ask about the agreement,” says Potapowicz. “Right now the JMSB is trying to distance themselves from Concordia and they are in the process of restructuring the exchange program. That is why they did not want to sign the agreement. Now they are trying to cut schools on the exchange program.”

Potapowicz is unfazed by this obstacle, but she will not go as an exchange student. She will be a visiting student, which means she must take care of her own arrangements and must pay her fees to the host university or school. As a visiting student, she will get credit for studying in Poland, but if she runs into problems while on her exchange she is on her own. Even though Potapowicz is a visiting student she is still eligible to apply for Quebec’s bursary.

In terms of financing Potapowicz is still uncertain how much money she will need for her stay. She is waiting for an answer from the Polish Embassy. Having a dual citizenship gives her access to the Polish education system, but also as a Canadian she is uncertain whether she will have to pay international fees.

International fees at SGH are $4,000 U. S. per semester, not including food, books or housing. “If I have to pay the international fees then I will not go to study at SGH,” says Potapowicz. If I only have to pay for the examination fees, which are $150 U. S. per course, then I will go to the school.”

It is all about the number of students.

A third reason, according to Francis, why students find it difficult to study abroad is the fact that most programs at Concordia last three years, whereas in Europe many programs are four years long, giving students more time to prepare for an exchange. Also, Europeans promote continent wide exchanges by funding their students.

“Many European schools make exchanges mandatory and out of their 3,000 students, 2,500 will go on an exchange,” says Francis.

The CIAC organized a fair in order to recruit more students for exchanges this semester. It attracted 1,000 students says Francis.

“More and more deans of faculties such as the JMSB and the arts and science faculty are promoting internationalization of their programs and students,” says Ford.

In the end it is all about the students themselves and what they want to accomplish.

Potapowicz wants to eventually work in Europe. “I don’t want to only work in Canada,” says Potapowicz. “The main reason I am going on an exchange to Poland is so that I can work there after I finish my semester. Also, I want to work in Germany and France.”

Her dream is to become an international business consultant and to be able to work in various countries. Potapowicz speaks English, French, Polish and German and she thinks that after her exchange she will be ready for the “increasingly international world.”


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