Path of most resistance: Applying for independent study abroad programs

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I stared at the pink paperwork in front of me, confused out of my mind. Nothing on the page was particularly incoherent, per se. The steps were outlined thoroughly enough — all 13 of them. The pages that came after, the countless forms and policies, were in English. I’m an English and linguistics double major, which means I was twice as sure as I’d be otherwise.

So that was about 70% sure.

But something, something about this packet of instructions and those policies and this website and that information and these timelines and those deadlines — something about it all just made me short-circuit for a good minute.

This was me in spring 2018, trying to get all the necessary approvals to participate in an independent study abroad program. Maybe it had to do with the fact that, as a double major intending to minor, I had a total of three different advisors (not including my study abroad advisor) who I needed to discuss my study abroad plans with. Or maybe there’s an app to simplify this whole procedure that I’ve just conveniently never heard of. But personally, the process of just getting my foot in the door of going abroad with an outside program was so full of hoops that I decided after I’d successfully gone abroad and lived to tell the tale, I’d write a piece compiling my experiences into something more consolidated than what I’ve had to dig around for myself.

And if this pseudo-guidebook recounting of my time ends up being less comprehensive than I’d hoped, at least it’s one more resource to shed light on the independent program process, told by someone who’s gone through it herself. So, without making claims of knowing any more about this process than what I’ve personally experienced, here goes nothing.

First, a definition is needed. From UC Berkeley’s “Independent Study Abroad Guide”: “Independent Study Abroad programs … are not affiliated with the University of California and are typically administered by another university, institution, or organization.” The term applies even to programs that might list UC Berkeley as part of their consortium. The two main differences between choosing a program affiliated with the UC system and choosing one independent of it are as follows:

  1.     You’re responsible for getting the program approved by the Central Evaluation Unit, or CEU, and filing a Planned Leave of Absence Form.
  2.     Any federal-, state-, UC system- or UC Berkeley-provided financial aid you might currently have cannot be applied to cover program costs.

Both of these broad differences necessitate even more small steps that can make embarking on an independent program route quite different from taking the UC-affiliated track. In short, an independent study abroad program is not the path of least resistance.

In short, an independent study abroad program is not the path of least resistance.

So, if you’re like me, and you’ve set your hopeful heart on a program that speaks to your very soul, this realization is a bit of a bummer.

Personally, I decided early on that I wanted to study abroad as a tangible step forward in the decidedly intangible career path of becoming a novelist. I love studying the English language, both in a literary and a scientific manner, but what I really wanted to do was create. With this in mind, I cast a net out for creative writing study abroad programs and found the Institute for the International Education of Students, or IES Abroad, and its writers program in Dublin, Ireland.

The program satisfied several of the things I was looking for, including its acceptance of college sophomores to enroll as opposed to the junior or senior standing most semester programs require. And even though my ever-patient and thoroughly helpful study abroad advisor sent me an entire list of UC Education Abroad Program creative writing courses I could alternatively (and much more easily) apply to, I had stubbornly made my decision. The writers program, with its amazing curriculum, Writers Retreat and in-house style of teaching, was where I wanted to be.

My next step was to get the courses I wanted to take approved by the CEU. This involved sending an email to my study abroad advisor linking the courses and their syllabi, as well as listing out some information about the program to get it checked off for credit transferability. Seemed simple enough — except it took three months to be evaluated, as the unit was, at the time, prioritizing summer and fall 2018 requests over my spring 2019 request. That was of course understandable, but it also meant every step I took during those 11 weeks of uncertainty was hypothetical.

For any study abroad program, it seems department advisors can’t guarantee content credit (which is different from transfer credit approval; content credit determines whether courses can be used to satisfy department requirements) until after the course is taken. That meant my meetings with advisors were just a smidge awkward, as I was told after each question that they couldn’t give me a straight answer until after the fact. I understand this need, but it only contributed to the state of limbo I was already in. 

For the department advisors who could give more guidance than an apologetic shrug, their preapproval was contingent on the CEU approving the transferability of the credits in the first place. Thus closed the infinite loop of uncertainty that went on for months, as I tried to figure out just what my spring 2019 would look like. Would I spend another semester holed up in the Unit 3 residence halls, swimming in work? Or would I do basically the same thing except in a country 5,000 miles away? Only the CEU knew.

Another obstacle, as I tried to line up the affairs of transfer and content credit approval, was that many department advisors were not well-versed with independent programs. They would offer me advice or provide conditions for approval that simply didn’t apply to independent programs. They were used to UC-affiliated study abroad programs or transfer credit from other U.S. campuses that would be specified on the Transfer Credit Report as upper or lower division, with the exact course title and letter grade listed. 

Would I spend another semester holed up in the Unit 3 residence halls, swimming in work? Or would I do basically the same thing except in a country 5,000 miles away?

What I would get on my Transfer Credit Report, on the other hand, would only be the total units I’d earned, with no details on upper or lower division, course titles or letter grades. In fact, since IES doesn’t separate between upper and lower division courses, upper division consideration was an entirely separate process with the CEU that I only went through after I returned from studying abroad. Still, despite these mismatching accounts of what to expect, as long as I kept track of the information with my own copy of my transcript, the program materials and the documentation of CEU decisions, I would be logistically in the clear. 

When, in May 2018, I finally did get my CEU transferability approval, it was a real relief — at least until I remembered that this was just the process of getting the program on the map for me. I still had to apply to the program itself. Once I got accepted, I’d also have to prepare for clearance to leave. This was another thrilling ride full of paperwork, medical checkups, paperwork and more paperwork. At the same time, I also had to tackle the looming issue that was financial aid. 

During this crucial step, I made a substantial mistake that leaves this section of my journey painfully short: I started applying for scholarships too late in the game. I still applied to about 13 different scholarships throughout fall 2018, but many of these were not legitimate or up to date. As a result, I only managed to scrounge up financial aid from two sources: the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship and IES Abroad itself.

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Because of my status as a Gilman scholar, IES offered an additional grant, so I was able to cover about a third of my total expenses through financial aid. That’s 100% better than nothing, but I also missed 100% of the scholarships that had their application windows closed before I even started looking. 

Take this as a word of warning: Start scholarship research early. Earlier than early. Find the notable, legitimate ones and bookmark them. These will usually have no application fee, require some amount of essay writing and have an updated page of scholarship recipients. That last point is quite important, as I sent more than a couple of essays into the void before I realized certain application pages were a direct copy and paste from the prior year, with most recent awardees from 2016 or before. 

So once I had my credits evaluated, my advisors up to date with my major and minor plans, my UC Berkeley and IES paperwork filed, my financial aid in place and my Planned Leave of Absence Form sent in, I could finally, finally rest easy. Smooth sailing all the way to the Aran Islands, right? 

That is, of course, until I returned and my outside transcript was missent. Then resent. Then received some time in July. Then, after countless calls to Cal Student Central, vague answers once I finally got a hold of someone and an in-person visit to the registrar, I was finally informed that I’d have my Transfer Credit Report updated by mid-October.

And this isn’t even mentioning the late appointment time I received for fall 2019 enrollment when I was in Dublin. I was still in the middle of my program, but since this was not a UC-affiliated program, I was officially marked as taking a “Planned Leave of Absence” rather than attending a semester elsewhere. Thus, according to the reply I received for a case I opened with Cal Student Central, I was indicated as having been in attendance for one less term than I actually had been. This translated to a later enrollment time, which translated to full classes, which translated to me thinking (and not for the first time) that there has to be some better way of doing this — or at least someone to tell me beforehand that this was how things were going to go down.

So this is me, hopefully fulfilling that role for you and maybe even serving as encouragement for you to go for that independent program you’re interested in. Because if there’s something I can say for sure, it’s that the program I chose made a world of difference to my study abroad experience. And despite all the confusion and paperwork, I’d go through this entire frustratingly unclear process again just to make it possible.

Contact Sean Tseng at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @STWeekender24.