- The Washington Times - Monday, September 9, 2002

An American college student going to England to study for several weeks or months naturally assumes that, like him, his peers in that country are drawn to using the Internet.
He would, in all likelihood, be wrong, says Tanith Fowler Corsi, assistant director for administration at George Mason University's Center for Global Education. Ms. Corsi is in charge of the institution's Oxford Honors program that last week sent 22 high-achieving undergraduate and graduate students to Oxford University for a semester of study for credit.
"Student expectations of what it will be like there often are different from reality," she says. "I think they will find the Internet and the Web are not as much on the mind of Oxford students."
Beyond the similarity of a common language are cultural differences, Ms. Corsi notes, adding that George Mason, like most area institutions of higher learning, tries to prepare students fully for the adventure but can't instruct them in every facet of the experience.
Sam Bresnahan of Woodbridge, Va., a University of Virginia senior, found to his surprise during a stay at Bath University last year that just one out of five "flats," or apartments, in his residence had a phone line and all of them lacked central heating.
"The whole conception of college is different," Mr. Bresnahan says. "The academic side is less intense. They aren't as strict about class attendance." He also had difficulty getting earned credits transferred.
Such surprises could have been avoided if he had attended preparatory seminars that most campus offices offer in spring prior to a September departure.
American University's World Capitals Program Director Bernard Ross even preps high school junior who are prospective foreign-study students during "get-acquainted" weekends on campus. Especially valuable, say a number of this year's participating students, are opportunities to talk with others who recently have been through the experience.
In addition, Georgetown University, which sends 900 undergraduates to some 30 countries each year, supplies them with numerous printed materials containing general and specific bits of information that include tips on how to use health insurance abroad, travel safety precautions, immunization guidelines (where relevant), U.S. consular and Department of State advice as well as Web sites pertinent to the country where they will be staying. A study abroad planner feature in "Student Travels" magazine highlights 38 programs and major subjects of study with a cross index by country or region.
Also included in the Georgetown packet is a copy of an article on "Culture Shock," and a chapter from the 1993 book, "Education for the Intercultural Experience," titled "Understanding and Coping with Cross-Cultural Adjustment Stress," in which it says an informal estimate of the dropout rate of Peace Corps volunteers is between 30 and 40 percent.
Such articles are a warning not to take too lightly the academic adventure upon which they have embarked especially those who give as one of their motivations the opportunity to have the name of Oxford University or a similarly prestigious institution on their resume.
The Oxford option is just one of several programs available through George Mason, Ms. Corsi says. The university sends abroad as many as 600 students a year for short-term study, she says.
A campus orientation session held in August revealed "a big concern about computer use," Ms. Corsi says. "On the other hand, cell phones are less expensive [in England]. You can spend $20 for one and then pay as you go."
Victoria Troy, for one, took the advice to heart. An older student, the 43-year-old has invested in a laptop computer.
"I'll be paying for that for 10 years," says Ms. Troy, an American Indian employed as a program administrator in the international affairs division of the American Society of Civil Engineers.
Ms. Troy also is boning up when she can on the 41 books that the George Mason students were advised to read in preparation for lectures on British culture and history.
Apart from "putting Oxford on my transcript," she says, her main motivation is to take advantage of Oxford's tutorial system, whereby students meet once or twice weekly with individual tutors in their subjects.
Ms. Troy calls the method "a reciprocal system of learning. I've found Native Americans learn more in the right hemisphere of the brain, developing the intuitive side as opposed to the linear." In addition, she says, "I've heard they have a good weight-loss program; you do a lot of walking. I'm hoping to go over as Vicky Troy and come back as Elizabeth Hurley."
George Mason's Mark Frazier, 27, a finance major with a minor in economics, learned in the orientation session that students need at least an extra $1,000 for expenses beyond housing, tuition and travel costs that are paid through George Mason.
Other specifics that came up in that session, Mr. Frazier says, were "the basics on pickpockets and cabs to make us more savvy travelers, the fact that students use Internet cafes and that some will work and others won't, and some of the cultural differences, such as not to ask too many personal questions" out of respect for traditional British attitudes of reserve.
Of the tutorial system, he says, he found out, happily, that "some tutors like to meet in pubs." He is meeting the restriction on the number of pounds imposed by airlines for luggage by "packing a different outfit for different conditions and then buy what I need ."
George Mason senior Rebekah Tucker, 21, who plans to have an extra pair of prescription eyeglasses in case insurance won't cover them. "We were told to make sure the [health insurance] provider in the U.S. will carry you overseas."
Students are signing up to go abroad in ever greater numbers, say college officials, many of them members of the Association of International Educators. While certain programs mostly have been eliminated especially in Israel out of fear that students' physical safety is at risk new ones are being added.
Mr. Ross, who also teaches in AU's School of Public Affairs, says Australia is one of the newest among 18 regular "sites" that include Prague, Beijing, Brussels and Hong Kong.
"Typically we send in the fall semester to Cairo maybe four or five students; this year, we are sending 10 or 11 and a few to Jordan," says Michael Vande Berg, director of Georgetown's Office of International Programs. "Our exchange programs with two Israeli universities have been suspended since fall 2000."
Even a previously well-traveled student needs guidance. University of Maryland junior Carla Ferris, 20, who will spend the year at the University of Liverpool, had earned two credits in her freshman year studying during a winter term in Belize, but she never had been to Europe. Because of airline restrictions on luggage, her preparatory moves included packing up favorite posters and pictures to ship ahead plus some shopping for wearables and towels.
"My mother's friend says that it is hard to buy nice shoes in Europe, and that I should take few clothes but lots of shoes," she says.
The global society that is today's world does not necessarily mean students have an easy time getting any necessary documentation required beyond a U.S. passport, as Maryland's Valerie Woolston, director of the university's International Education Services office, can attest.
"These days a lot of countries have decided that students need a transit visa when changing planes," she says, noting that even friendly countries such as Italy make demands on how and when a student visa is to be obtained.
Her advice: Plan far ahead when it is necessary to obtain such documents, normally granted only by consulates. Her office follows State Department guidelines when determining whether to proceed with programs.
Before leaving for a year's study in Belgium, Amy Repp, 20, a junior French major at Georgetown University, had to plan with her adviser as well as the dean's office well in advance the classes she could take overseas that would allow her to graduate on time. Only then could she undertake the lengthy rounds authorizing her stay in that country.
"There are very strict requirements posted on the Web," Ms. Repp says. "I needed documents to prove my parents' ability to support me while I am there in addition to bank account statements and tax forms. You also need police clearances from both the District and from my home in Detroit to prove I have no record.
"I started pulling together the documentation in May including letters from my university in Belgium, saying I was enrolled, and another from Georgetown. I got a chest X-ray and a physical. Then I took all these papers to the embassy. It took only three days to get a visa good for one entry in a single three-month period. Within seven days of entering the country, I must register at a city hall to be issued a Belgian identity card."
The visa cost $60. A Metropolitan Police Department clearance cost $20 and $10 extra to get it authenticated.
"Everyone goes through periods about whether they should go or not," Ms. Repp says. "Right after September 11, my class started thinking about study abroad. We had heard some were returning in the class ahead of me. Just after they arrived, we were a little nervous, but as time progressed, this changed. Like everyone else, you can't be too afraid to live life. My parents knew I always wanted to study abroad, and one reason I chose Georgetown was because they are so supportive of this."


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