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GPAs from overseas examined

Katie Stuhldreher | Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Senior Eileen Nutting spent last year studying at the University of Oxford in England with only five other Notre Dame students. Though there was no language barrier, Nutting said that the course load was so challenging that the Grade Point Averages (GPA) of the students dropped.

“In fact, of the six of us over there I’m pretty sure all six returned with lower GPAs,” Nutting said. “Granted I don’t think they dropped too badly – a few hundredths of a point – but nonetheless, they went down.”

While the University is very encouraging of students wishing to study abroad, students often wonder how challenging, or unchallenging, their courses abroad will be and what effect that will have on their GPAs.

“Our campus is in South Bend, but our classroom is the world,” said Julia Douthwaite, assistant provost for international studies, of the University’s efforts to promote studying abroad.

Many Notre Dame students choose to venture away from the Golden Dome for a semester or year to continue their course of study in a foreign country, Douthwaite said, but many worry that what they may gain culturally will cost them academically.

Study in a foreign school system – especially programs conducted in a foreign language – coupled with the challenges of adjusting to a new cultural setting is a daunting task for many students.

Tom Bogenschild, director of international and off-campus programs, said that while there has been no empirical study of students’ ability to maintain their GPAs while abroad, foreign study will always come with inherent challenges.

“I think the point is not that study abroad is necessarily ‘easier’ or ‘harder’ compared to ND, but rather that it is totally different in terms of the way knowledge is passed on, assimilated and assessed,” Bogenschild said.

However, the many distractions abroad – whether host families, travel itineraries or meeting foreign students – can easily shift priorities away from study, said Cailin Shannon, who is studying in Rome.

“I think I realize, as I hope everyone abroad learns, that this year should not be focused on tests and grades and GPAs,” said Shannon, a junior architecture major. “I don’t fear that my GPA will suffer at all, but if I did, I still do not think that would keep me from going out and tasting a bit of Roma.”

The difficultly level of the classes and general experience vary from program to program. Many students said that non-Notre Dame programs and programs conducted in non-English speaking countries are more rigorous than others due to the fact that one’s course of linguistic study is constant in a foreign environment.

“It is difficult to assess the academic course load here in Moscow, or even the time I spend studying, because each and every moment seems to require that I remember a word or speak the language: when I am talking with my host mother, listening to the radio or reading signs at the metro,” said Jaci Wilkening, a junior political science and Russian double major studying in Moscow.

Lance Chapman, a junior who spent the spring 2005 semester in Spain, agreed.

“Although classes in Toledo were definitely ‘watered-down’ relative to Notre Dame classes, the language barrier in itself was the challenging part,” Chapman said.

Lionel Jensen, chair of the East Asian Languages Department, said that the challenges of language barriers are the whole point of studying abroad, and even tend to improve students’ grades.

“I don’t think there is a problem with GPAs abroad in non-English speaking countries,” Jensen said. “This brings about students’ learning so much better and they develop a much more secure grasp of the language as they use it constantly while in China or Japan, and I think that this confidence is reflected in their grades.”

Many students said that the frequent distractions as well as foreign education systems make it easy for GPAs to take some hits while abroad. However, some study abroad programs take into account these challenges when deciding the students’ final grades upon return.

“Notre Dame encourages us to take a course load that is larger than the typical students at University of Western Australia (UWA), so that also plays into how hard things appear,” said Andy Blanford, a junior engineering major studying in Perth. “On the other hand, once UWA decides our grades, ND will go back and recompare our grades with students here and at ND and reassess our grade that will be factored into our GPA, which works to our advantage.”

In addition, some students reported that cultural differences pervading the classroom can work in favor of maintaining high GPAs while abroad.

“It wasn’t as difficult in Egypt because the professors were more laid back. Over there, high GPAs don’t really factor into getting a good job. It’s more about who you know and your parents’ connections, so there wasn’t as much of an emphasis on grades,” Anne Morrison, a senior anthropology and peace studies major who spent last semester in Cairo, said.

Some students said that the professors abroad play a role in the difficulty of each particular course.

“I would say that abroad programs aren’t as academically challenging as courses on campus. I really think that the professors in the abroad programs are interested in our cultural education in a foreign country as much as what we learn that translates into our GPA,” said Tedd Hawks, an English and Film, Television, and Theatre double major studying in London.

Even with these added advantages, many students said that one still needs to maintain a good work ethic while abroad.

“If you are wondering if study abroad is a way to schedule yourself a ‘gut’ semester, I assure you that students can and do fail courses in programs all around the world, on occasion,” Douthwaite said. “If that is the grade they earned, we certainly back up our partner institutions. We support firm grading policies and adhere to the same strong commitment to academics in our international study programs as we do here on campus.”

While students and faculty may disagree about whether or not study abroad is more challenging than study at Notre Dame, most said that the experience of study abroad is worthwhile.

“If I haven’t been challenged as much academically here, I still have been given an opportunity to see an entirely different side of the world and have learned a lot of things that are more practical, like learning how to set up travel arrangements and live on my own,” Hawks said. “I’ve learned a lot about different cultures and gotten a more liberal view of how our global society works.”