Academic Curveballs (Preparing to Be an Exchange Student)
Possible degree progress problems that arise when attending foreign universities
VCUQ curriculum & credits compared to VCU-Richmond
Registration process at VCUQ for exchange students
The possibility of cross-registration
The importance of planning ahead while accepting the curveballs
How I felt taking less credits than usual & being forced out of my comfort zone
I have a fondness for sticky notes and an obsession with planning. Here is just one example of when the two come together.
Alright, this article is especially for Richmond students planning to study in Doha through the VCUarts Departmental Exchange Program.
Why is this article only for those lucky blokes? Because it’s about the “study” part of “study abroad”. You know, technical junk, the university junk . . . Classes. Credits. Electives. Degree progress. I know college is all about “the experience”, but all that student debt you’re accumulating has got to be in the name of more than just an experience, right? The point of going to college is to eventually graduate, right?
Now, the path to graduation in the 21st business that is American uni is pretty straightforward. Programs like DegreeWorks shows students exactly what classes they've taken, what classes they still need, and the exact percentage of degree progress they accumulate with every passing semester. Thing is, studying abroad can sometimes screw up that degree progress. A class overseas may not be worth the same number of credits your American class is worth, or sometimes the class you take may not even have an American equivalent period. Sometimes registration is different, sometimes the entire academic calendar is different, and sometimes getting your applicable classes transferred over is just flat out a pain in the ass.
So, what was my academic planning process like as a VCUQ exchange student?
I’ll lay out the basics for you.
Registration & Credits
One of many Doha prep lists. This one lists my class options for cross-registration . . . as well as my homework due next week.
Regarding credit transfers, the exchange program was 100% smooth sailing. VCUQ offers most of the same classes as VCU-Richmond, so you don’t have to worry about wonky credit transfers and class applicability. The classes that are different—like Islamic Art and the West, a class that has never been offered at VCU-Richmond—still apply to your degree progress like any other elective.
Classes at VCUQ don't start before 9am. There is also a lunch break between 12pm and 2pm (for prayer), and every class is wrapped up by 5pm.
Though the curriculum at VCUQ is the same as VCU-Richmond, it just so happened that the Painting department was in the middle of establishing a new curriculum. I entered PAPR (Painting and Printmaking) in Fall of 2016, the same semester the new classes and degree requirements were introduced. It was a learning curve for students and faculty alike at VCU-Richmond, and by 2018 we were only just getting into the swing of it all. What I didn’t realize, though, was that VCUQ was not yet using the new PAPR curriculum, so the classes I was registering for didn’t have an exact counterpart to the new classes I now needed to graduate. Sure the old classes could still be applied toward my degree, but it would take some fandangling in the form of DegreeWorks overrides to make it happen. Lucky for me, however, I was taking senior PAPR courses, essentially the only classes that remained the same within the new curriculum, so I was able to avoid the headache I could have had dealing with outdated courses.
This is where planning ahead came in handy. I scheduled to take all my PAPR electives in Richmond so that I could take exclusively senior classes and extra electives while in Doha.
Some elective classes outside of PAPR still weren’t worth the same number of credits they would have been worth at VCU-Richmond. Whereas I needed four credits in an arts studio elective, some of the studio electives at VCUQ were only worth three credits.
How did I get around it? While in Richmond the semester prior to my exchange program, I took a 1-credit arts elective. The following semester in Doha I took that 3-credit arts elective. 1 credit + 3 credits = 4 credits. Tah-dah.
You as an exchange student don’t register for your own classes (a fact I wish I had known early because it would have saved me weeks of “what if the class gets full” panic). Instead of registering yourself, you simply fill out some basic paperwork indicating what classes you want to be in (the paperwork is sent to you from VCUQ once you get accepted into the program). The folks at VCUQ will add you to the class and if there’s any classes you need to change later, all you’ve got to do is update VCUQ via email. In some cases, you don’t even need to have taken the pre-requisites.
Cross-registration at other universities in Education City is a thing, but I couldn’t figure out the process. I filled out the paperwork and I contacted as many people as I could find, but the whole process resulted in nothing but crickets.
The VCUQ 2017-2018 academic calendar was more or less the same as VCU-Richmond’s. As a general rule, VCUQ ran was slightly earlier than VCU-Richmond, but only by a couple of days (meaning that you could graduate in Doha, hop on a plane, sleep for a day, and re-graduate in Richmond if that suited your fancy). Additionally, the Qatari work/school week spans Sunday – Thursday, so naturally the VCUQ calendar will always be a bit off compared to VCU-Richmond. For the most part, however, everything was as expected; Spring Break, Finals Week, and a handful of holidays (like Sports Day) came and went like normal.
Planning ahead & dealing with curve balls
I plan obsessively and my first instinct is to fight any curveballs that come my way.
I started planning for my 2018 semester abroad way back in June of 2017. Note, the application for exchange wouldn’t open until October, and I wouldn’t be notified if I was even going until late November, but I was determined to have everything planned out to a T in the case I did get accepted.
And you know what? It was so worth it. On a scale from 1 – 10, my obsessive pre-planning process resulted in a 7/10 when it comes to well-timed academic progress, and 9/10 when it comes to peace of mind.
I met with an education abroad advisor, I spoke to my academic advisor, and I pestered some VCUQ people via email. I was that student blowing up everybody’s inboxes, wanting to make sure I understood everything in its entirety. Something else that helped was that I could view VCUQ classes offered in previous semesters via eServices. Viewing these old classes allowed me to get a feel for what might be offered in future semesters. This came in handy when planning my Fall 2017 classes because I could base them off what I thought might be offered in Doha for Spring 2018, months before those classes would be posted.
Remember when I described the academic progress as a 7/10, though? Even with all the preparation and strategic moves, there were still times when things didn’t work out as I had hoped. There was one class I couldn’t take simply because there was no faculty member available to teach it. Another elective wasn’t being offered that semester (for the first time in three years), and all my emails about cross-registration at other universities went unread, so it seemed. However, one VCU-Richmond teacher was a godsend because she allowed me to do an elective with her online while I was in Doha.
So, what’s the moral to to all these stories? Plan to the best of your ability because it will probably save you a lot of future stress, but expect some curve balls. Some of them will be out of your control and you’ll just have to adapt, but other surprise problems will be tweakable. Just talk to teachers, schedule meetings, and email people—plead your case—because chances are there’s no one out there in an academic setting who wants to see you fail or flounder.
Less credits might have been a good thing
Yet another example of my Doha course planning. I had to have made at least a dozen different versions of schedules, classes, and credit counts.
In order to graduate when I wanted to, in May 2018 (a year ahead of schedule), I needed to take 17 credits. That task posed no problem for me; every semester thus far had been between 17 and 19 credits every semester (19 being the max number of credits students can take). However, a series of events resulted in me only taking 14 credits in Doha, which at the time was hella frustrating. After all, those three credits I was missing—that one class—made it so that I would have an extra class to take the summer after returning to America. An extra class meant an extra expense, and the time I’d be in class meant time I wouldn’t be at work (and work was how I was making money to pay for the classes I was trying to take).
Like I said, frustrating.
Thing is, not having a full schedule was probably one of the best accidents of my study abroad experience. I realized that the time I wasn’t physically in class, thinking about said class, planning for said class, and doing homework for said class gave me time to breathe. For the first time in my entire college career I had ample time to breathe and that breathing room came at the perfect moment. Remember, I had to adapt to an entirely new environment; new people, new food, new languages, a new school, a new apartment, a new city, a new country. It was a lot to deal with, more than I expected, and having the time to process all that was happening to me helped me get through it. It also gave me time to experience the new environment—to participate in the “abroad” part of study abroad—and I was able to meet new people, spend time with them, and see more of VCUQ, Education City, and Doha. By having just one class removed, I was able to do more than just study, a perk I didn’t see the value in until I reflected on it a few months later.
I was forced out of my comfort zone
I had a habit of slapping neon green reminders on my sock drawer every week even though they were already listed in my phone.
I was uptight. I was practical. I was a realist borderline pessimist, and I was an overachiever with hyper focus whose Google Calendar terrified people because of its multicolored, jam-packed, obsessively scheduled glory. I was that girl who took a full class schedule every semester because it was her default, I was that girl whose GPA never dropped below a 3.2—not even in high school—and I was that girl who graduated Magna Cum Laude essentially a year early.
Academically I was on a roll and the only way I would have ever stopped rolling at full speed was if some cosmic force intervened. That cosmic force came in the form of having no choice but to take 14 credits while studying abroad, and though I was initially opposed to the situation, it proved to be healthy. I learned that I could still accomplish my over-the-top goals while also experiencing the experience and—for the first time—I began to scratch the surface of what it meant to take care of myself (mentally, physically, and emotionally) because I had time to do it.
So yeah, college, credits, classes, and degrees are important if that’s what you’re pursuing, but don’t let it overshadow a once in a lifetime experience abroad. And hey, practice giving yourself the same attention you give your academics; if right now you're accomplishing everything at 50% health, just imagine what could happen if you reach 100%.