When Julie Greiner ’15 was accepted to her study abroad program in Denmark, it was at first a dream come true. But it was cut short when the Center for International Programs (CIP) issued an ultimatum.
Greiner was not taking care of her physical health while trying to adjust to a new country, and she asked the CIP for some leniency with her class load.
“I was struggling. I was trying to get help from the CIP,” said Greiner. “It got to the point where they [were] more willing to pull me from the program than give me the leeway that I wanted.”
To prevent herself from being sent home, Greiner enlisted the help of her parents and their attorney to save her spot in Denmark, and found the CIP to be less than helpful.
“They were just so rude [to me] and rude to my parents, too. It shouldn’t have been that I needed to get legal action, it shouldn’t have had to be like that,” she said.
Greiner is not alone. Several other students experienced difficulties with the CIP being unsupportive or unreachable while abroad.
“It shouldn’t have been that I needed to get legal action, it shouldn’t have had to be like that.”
Kaeli Peach ’16 said she did not receive the same support abroad as she did before her departure to Denmark.
“Before I left for Denmark, the CIP was incredibly supportive,” Peach said. “[They] made me feel like they had my back, but as soon as I was no longer at Kalamazoo College I hardly heard from them.”
Peach expected e-mail check-ins or updates from the college occasionally.
Director of the CIP Joe Brockington attributed these situations to the CIP trying to give students more freedom while abroad.
“[Students think,] ‘I’m leaving on this big adventure where I’m trying to prove my place in the world, and do I really want big brother CIP holding my hand as I go through all this?’” he said. “We want to be there in a respectful, supporting nature, but we’re not going to jump in on you.”
Brockington also attributed this feeling to the CIP’s first reaction, which is to send students to the Resident Director of the program, or someone the campus hires to help students in their location.
“When students say the CIP doesn’t help them, it’s because we have told the students [that their] best source of information of anything is from someone who knows the city, knows the university, knows the country, and can step in,” Brockington said.
Sarah Stack ’15 enjoyed her resident director in Strasbourg, but does not attribute any of her study abroad success to the college.
“I really enjoyed studying abroad, but the CIP just made it really difficult and stressful,” Stack said. “If I had an actual problem while I was abroad I would not have contacted the CIP.”
This is a problem that Brockington said perpetuates the lack of communication between students and the CIP.
“We’re not sitting here with the lights out telling people to go away, we’re genuinely concerned in making the experience better for all concerned,” he said.
Miscommunication is one of the larger issues while abroad, as most contact between students and the College is through email. While Brockington’s staff is pushed to reply to all e-mails within 24 hours to at least acknowledge it has been received, some do fall through the cracks.
Stack had issues with her plane tickets not being ordered after the CIP assured they would be. Stack thought the response from the CIP was unprofessional.
“After I called them out on the air ticket they just never responded,” said Stack. “They never apologized.”
Another issue of miscommunication was between the policies of the CIP and what happened to Peach.
According to Brockington, “We have learned that if a student is injured or sick, we are far better off making the student call home than to call home ourselves.”
After Peach made an appointment with a doctor to change her medications, she received a call from her mother in response to news she had received from the college that her daughter had been taken out of class and sent to the emergency room.
“K doesn’t have my permission to call my mom on anything. They did, they told her straight-up lies,” Peach said.
Although the information sent from the Denmark Resident Director was correct, there was a disconnect in the conversation between Kalamazoo and Peach’s mother.
The CIP never responded to that email.
Brockington, after hearing that students were feeling cut-off, plans to remind his staff to respond to emails in a timely manner.
“They were like, ‘if you really want to do this, then you should transfer to a school that gives credit for it.’”
While Stack’s and Peach’s problems did not have lasting effects, others did. Shannon Haupt ’16 applied for a petition program which was canceled at the last minute, and she felt that the CIP knew the whole time the program would not go through.
“They knew from the start that it wasn’t going to follow through, but they humored me and let me do it,” Haupt said. “At one point I was having a conversation with someone at the CIP and they were like, if you really want to do this, then you should transfer to a school that gives credit for it.”
Brockington said that the CIP is meant to work with students. “If somebody wants it, then we will provide information and materials. We will provide whatever anyone asks for, within reason.”
Haupt felt that if the CIP was more open and honest with her, she may be abroad right now instead of on campus.
“If I had known how it was going to end, I would be in Thailand right now. That’s really hard to grapple with,” she said.
Brockington realizes that there were problems in the communication between students and the CIP, especially with the terrorist attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya last year.
Students studying in Nairobi felt helpless and ignored, according to Hannah Heenan. Her host cousin was a hostage in the situation, and her host parents were out of town, so Heenan spent the first few hours of the crisis alone. She wanted to hear something from the college.
“Simply an e-mail saying hey, we are aware of the situation. Even just hearing someone back here [would have been beneficial],” she said.
Heenan and the other students in Kenya did not receive this e-mail response until 48 hours after the attack, even after Hennan made two unanswered calls to the emergency 24 hour line.
“If I had been in the mall, that would have been an imperative phone call to pick up,” Heenan said.
When she did finally get in contact with the CIP, she was not happy with the response she received.
“She made the comparison to Chicago shootings and said maybe if we had lived in areas where there was more violence [it would not be as frightening] and said that it was important we treated this as a learning experience.” Heenan said. “I think a terrorist attack is not a learning experience.”
The entire group was given the ultimatum a few hours later of whether to stay in Nairobi, or go home. They had 24 hours to respond.
“I think a terrorist attack is not a learning experience.”
“It’s a very short amount of time, especially after four days in lockdown and being very stressed and anxious. And we didn’t have the opportunity to discuss with each other,” Heenan said.
She ultimately decided to come home and had four days to find a place to live, register for classes, and overcome the culture shock, without the help of the college.
However, after completing the quarter, she was told that because she did not finish her study abroad experience, she could not finish her International Area Studies major.
After fighting the school for two quarters, Heenan eventually had to withdraw from the college and enroll at Western Michigan University, something she does not regret.
“They have been super accommodating thus far with my major. I plan on studying abroad next year,” she said.
Heenan said the CIP did not handle the situation in a timely or appropriate manner.
“They failed to demonstrate they were able to handle an emergency situation, in the sense that they didn’t contact us, they didn’t contact our parents, they didn’t have a uniform plan,” Heenan said.
Since that instance, Brockington has changed his policy on how to interact with students abroad.
“Now I know that whatever happens, we need to reach out,” he said.
He also wants students to know that the CIP is here for students and wants to hear their concerns.
“Come talk to me [and] the peer advisors. Give us some input,” he said. “Tell us how we can do things better in a way that the students will recognize and accept.”
While several students agree with Brockington that the CIP does not have malicious intent, they do feel that there can be improvements in the system.
“I think they mean well, but until they really take into account students experiences [of] really going through this process and provide more support, they won’t be able to accommodate us,” Haupt said.