Next semester I will be going abroad to Paris, leaving Philadelphia behind for what will hopefully be a semester full of on-point Instagram posts, chocolate baguettes, and stories that will almost immediately bore all my friends when I return home. It’s an exciting thought, and as I rush through my preparations, the excitement is of course tinged with sadness. I cannot take my friends, my performing arts group, Bloomers, or my carefully decorated apartment with me. But my excitement is also tinged with a small amount of terror. I am going abroad to Paris, where I will take all of my classes in French. What the hell have I just done to my GPA?
Penn students who study abroad are subject to the pass/fail policies that govern their home schools. For students like me in the College, this means that no courses taken pass/fail can count towards major requirements, minor requirements, Foundational Approach requirements, or Sector requirements.
I believe that this is a policy that greatly limits the feasibility of study abroad for students who are pursuing more than one major or a minor, and undermines GPA as an effective metric at academic success at Penn. It also enables a limited view of what a successful study abroad experience looks like.
Penn should not count courses taken abroad as part of the student’s GPAs. The reasons are simple. First, it is impossible to regulate the academic expectations and rigor of all study abroad programs. Each host institution has its own academic reputation and each study abroad program has its own expectation of students. Although Penn tries to send students to programs that match its academic strength, some students will invariably find that the courses in their program are easier than Penn, while others, most notably those who chose to take study abroad courses in languages other than English, might find their courses to be more difficult.
This places study abroad students and students taking classes at Penn on an unequal playing field. When calculating the GPAs of transfer students, Penn has a simple solution. It doesn’t count the grades received in courses not taken at Penn. This is presumably because our Penn GPAs are reflections of how we have succeeded within the confines of Penn as an institution, and Penn, with its students, its teachers, and its academic reputation, are supposed to be considered when looking at our GPAs. The addition of courses taken outside of Penn into students GPAs adds another variable to the equation. The GPA no longer becomes a useful measure of success at Penn, but masks a hidden set of variables and expectations that might have impacted student performance.
The goal of study abroad should be to encourage intellectual curiosity and experimentation. Study abroad should be seen as a chance for holistic personal and intellectual growth. But the thing about real growth — the kind of growth that comes from pushing ourselves outside our comfort zones — is that it is often difficult, and it is very frequently accompanied by some kind of failure.
All study abroad courses should be taken pass/fail. The need to count grades in the courses that students take abroad reflects a larger failure in the way that we understand academic and intellectual success at Penn. If Penn only trusts students to do well when a class is taken for a grade, then it has a poor estimation of the supposedly bright and intellectually curious students it itself selected. Penn students should be trusted to make the most of their study abroad experiences, both academically and personally, without being limited by the narrow metric of the GPA.
REBECCA ALIFIMOFF is a College sophomore from Fort Wayne, Ind. studying history. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. "Alifimoff's Alley" usually appears every other Wednesday.
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