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University Times: Lost in Translation: Exchange Students Condemn College’s Poor Communication

In collaboration with Phoebe Pascoe.

What do a PPES student in Zurich, an American at home for summer and a girl in the midst of a Moroccan earthquake have in common? They’re all waiting for an email from Trinity’s study abroad office.

Going on a year or semester abroad is supposed to be challenging. Students are expected to ensure that they are fulfilling the requirements of their course while navigating the complexities of living in a new country. However, The University Times has found that students’ lives and degrees are being seriously impacted by College’s handling of its study abroad programme, which is systemically disorganised and uncommunicative.

Trinity students studying at the International University of Rabat in Morocco were not contacted by College for five days following the September 8th earthquake. Tremors from the 6.8 magnitude shock were felt in the city of Rabat, where a number of Trinity students are on exchange. Maria Monteiro, a third year Middle Eastern and European Languages and Cultures (MEELC) student, had to evacuate from a friend’s flat in Rabat due to the earthquake.

“We were in the living room when suddenly everything began to shake back and forth”, Monteiro recounted. “We were all of course in shock.”

In an email seen by this newspaper, a member of Trinity’s department of Global Engagement reached out on September 13th to “check in” with the students in Rabat regarding the earthquake and their welfare. This email assumed that the students had already been contacted by a member of the MEELC department. In actuality, this was the first communication Monteiro and her four coursemates had received from College in the aftermath of the earthquake.

When students did finally receive correspondence from College, therefore, it only highlighted that issues with communication are prevalent within the department as well as with students abroad.

“There was no way Trinity could have known if we, as its study abroad students, were harmed”, Monteiro suggested.

But the stresses of study abroad begin far before one steps on a plane or packs a bag. The first step in applying for an exchange is choosing where to go. The options available vary by course and can change from year to year, so students anticipate information from their departments about which international universities they can apply to in Michaelmas semester of their second year. Sonia Sondheim, a third year Ancient and Medieval History and Culture student at Trinity, said that last year students on her course did not receive a form to apply for study abroad until she emailed the department in mid-November. The department was unaware that none of the students on her course had received the essential documents.

Sondheim did ultimately apply for Erasmus and received an offer from Trinity to study at a foreign university. However, months passed and she didn’t hear from the college she was supposed to be attending. She emailed the Global Room, who said they had only received word a few days earlier about her Erasmus offer, therefore had not contacted her prospective college: “The school that I had gotten into just hadn’t sent anything to me because they hadn’t received any of my information or [received] word that I was approved.” This resulted in her missing due dates for registration at the college.

Overall, she says, “it just felt like the entire thing was kind of rushed and we were all forgotten about. Specifically in our program, we were literally forgotten about”.

Sonia was not alone in this experience. A Joint Honours English and History student told The University Times that despite submitting their Erasmus preferences “well within the deadline” and filling out the form correctly, the History department forgot to nominate them for study abroad.

The student realised something was wrong when their peers were receiving offers for study abroad but they were not, despite having excellent grades. When they emailed the Erasmus department to ask about the situation they responded that although they had received a nomination from the English department for them to go on Erasmus, they had not received one from the History department. Joint Honours students looking to study abroad have to be accredited by both departments to make sure that they can fulfil all their requirements while abroad. The student worried that because of this they “might not get to go at all”.

In communications verified by The University Times, the student contacted the History Erasmus coordinator to ask what was going on. They said they were told: “I don’t know how that’s happened. You should talk to the Erasmus department.” The student had previously been told by the Erasmus department to contact the History Erasmus coordinator.

After that, the matter was resolved and the History department nominated them. Nevertheless, the student deems the entire process “needlessly stressful”. Additionally, they question whether anyone on the Erasmus team or in the History department would have noticed something was not right with their application if the student had not contacted them.

It seems that, in many instances, the onus is completely on the student to ensure that the study abroad department and their subject coordinators are adequately undertaking the administrative work and communications expected of them. Without students realising that something is wrong, things fall through the net and create increasingly stressful consequences.

This occurred again when a student in MEELC didn’t receive crucial documents informing her about Erasmus last academic year. This degree requires its students to spend a semester abroad. However, the student told The University Times that, in January, she was hearing of people in other degrees being accepted onto Erasmus placements while she had not yet been told about hers. When she emailed the head of their department in February, he was under the false impression that the students had been told about their placements a month ago by the Erasmus office.

When this student ran into complications with their learning agreement – an acknowledgement between the home college, host college and student that states the latter is fulfilling all the requirements of their degree while studying abroad – further down the line, she had to email four different people before eventually being redirected to the professor she initially contacted. “I was sent on this wild goose chase that just did not need to happen”, she said.

She is now on her Erasmus, but continues to experience problems communicating with the study abroad team. A recent query about grants was not replied to until over a month later.

“It’s been so stressful and mentally it’s just so draining”, she admits. “There were certain days, especially with the learning agreement, where I would get passed around from department to department”.

Another student, studying English and French, also found that mistakes and a lack of communication within the Erasmus department took a toll on her: “I ended up going to the student counselling services here because the whole thing just stressed me out so bad.”

This student had applied to go on Erasmus and been accepted to study at a French university for the year. She began to grow concerned when her peers were being contacted by their host university about the registration process but she had yet to hear anything. In July, she emailed her Erasmus coordinator but found that they were very slow to reply, if they replied at all. She repeatedly found that she had to follow up on emails a week later saying “please reply to me”.

It took over two months for the Erasmus department, and specifically the French coordinator, to get in touch with her host university. This culminated in early August. In an email seen by The University Times, it was revealed to this student that it was no longer possible for her to enrol in the French university as she had missed all the deadlines. Instead, Trinity offered her the opportunity to go abroad for the second semester only.

The student was told by the coordinator from her host university that she was not the only Trinity student to have this issue with College’s Erasmus department. No apology from the Erasmus department was ever issued, or even a direct reply to her email in which she asked if there was any way they could help her go away for the whole year.

A month before the start of the year, this student found herself scrambling to enrol for Michaelmas semester. She had issues meeting her requirements for both of her subjects and most of the modules she needed to be in were full. She had to petition her course coordinator to add more places to certain modules.

Of the overall situation, she said: “it really messed with my head”. Throughout the whole process, she claims, “it felt like no one was on my side”.

Other students have found that the study abroad experiences they were offered never materialised.

One student studying Drama and Theatre spent eight months believing that she would be spending a semester at University of Southern California (USC) the following year. “I was telling everyone”, she said. She claims that her application was “approved twice” by two different members of staff. It was only in July – when she saw online that her course was not available at USC and emailed the study abroad team querying this – that she was told, in an email seen by this paper, that the exchange was not possible.

A PPES student was also under the impression that he would be spending a semester abroad. He had been in Zurich for almost a week – and was ready to start university in a matter of days – when he received an email from College with a survey asking if he had been approved to frontload or backload his modules by his exchange coordinator. Front or backloading is when Joint Honours students take more credits in a single subject during one semester and then fewer the following semester, or vice versa.

“I had not really heard those terms before”, he said – “my exchange coordinator hadn’t mentioned them”. This is despite him having emailed in July to ask whether modules on his course were compatible with the exchange.

When he contacted his course administrator on September 7th, he was told to email the study abroad coordinator. In emails seen by The University Times, he was in turn instructed to contact the Sociology coordinator. In an unfamiliar country where he knew no one and classes were about to begin, he recalls thinking: “I can try and figure this out with these people who aren’t responding to my emails or I can just play it safe, try and get a refund on my accommodation in Zurich and just take my chances with housing in Dublin”.

He describes spending the day emailing various people at Trinity who directed him in myriad directions: “I couldn’t get any clear responses”.

All of the sources who spoke with this newspaper confirmed experiencing a lack of communication and information from College whilst applying or preparing for study abroad. Multiple students expressed feeling unsupported by Trinity throughout the process: “it was just like fumbling in the dark, where I was just trying to figure out what I was supposed to be doing and hearing different things from different people”.

This lack of organisation and clarity made many of the students feel unnecessary pressure and strain. “I feel like I’m going crazy”, Sondheim said of her experience.

Another student stated: “I was definitely very stressed out. I’m lucky to have a very supportive family who was able to help me out throughout all of this but if I didn’t have that sort of support system I probably just would have given up on it from the get go.”

Trinity’s mismanagement has left multiple students vulnerable, confused and alone in countries they have little knowledge of. It has also affected the mental health of their students closer to home.

The stress of being uninformed, the potential financial impacts when plans have to be rearranged and the time students have to take to communicate with College staff all serve as barriers to students considering applying for this opportunity.

In response to the claims made in this article, Trinity Global Office said: “We recognise that there have been some administrative issues including the examples that you have provided. The extensive Trinity community involved in operationalising global mobility opportunities at Trinity is working together to address this with a focus on the lived student experience.”

They also highlighted that in 2022-2023 more students than ever undertook study abroad at College: “Supporting the movement of over 2,500 students around the world across various programmes is not without its complexities and on every occasion we do our best to assist students that run into challenges.”

“Trinity Global has overseen a restructure of the area between June-September 2023, with five reimagined professional roles directly related to student mobility currently advertised. The Trinity community will continue to work towards improving the student experience for all students undertaking an international experience.”

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