February 13, 2019
I was one of three Columbia students to study abroad this past fall and in both my preparation for my semester abroad and the five months I spent living in the Czech Republic, I learned first-hand what it feels like to live and study in another country. While it a great privilege to be able to study at a seminary outside of your home country, it is also filled with endless challenges. From language to food to transpiration to paperwork to long distance relationships with those back home to the many unspoken cultural customs, being an exchange student is filled with challenges that domestic students do not face.
As an international student in Prague, I was grateful to have an International Programs Office at the seminary. I often had questions that fell outside of the categories outlined in the “strategic realignments.” If the seminary I studied was operating under the proposed model, I would have been overwhelmed and ashamed when I didn’t know who to talk to. Cross-cultural relationships take time to form and the idea of having to build four relationships (with already overworked, busy staff members) just to meet my basic needs as an international student is extremely frustrating.
My own experience with CTS’ International Programs office was mixed and before I left, I wasn't sure that the office had offered the support I would have liked in advance of my time abroad. However, when I spoke with numerous students in Europe who had studied at CTS, they all had the same thing to say—story after story of what Rev. Kim LeVert did to make them feel at home at CTS. I had no idea how the lengths that Kim went to so that international students would have the support and care that they needed at Prague. Without exception, they had glowing praise for the hospitality of CTS’ International Programs Office. Through these conversations and my experience as an international student, I realized that my previous opinion of the International Program Office came from my expectation of what the office “should” be doing rather than listening to what is most important to the international students at CTS.
It seems to me this is exactly what the administration is doing today—telling international students that they know what is best for them, rather than actually listening to the needs that international students actually have. If the administration were to listen to international students, they would hear that having a dedicated office space and full-time staff member are essential. The support that Kim LeVert (and Drs. Azumah and Park) provided that ultimately made the difference between surviving and thriving at CTS will not be replicated under the proposed staffing realignment.
Furthermore, if CTS wants to continue its relationship with sister seminaries around the world, we cannot overlook the importance of interpersonal relationships. If the study abroad coordinators at foreign seminaries have to coordinate with 4 different CTS staff members to ensure that their students will have a positive experience, will they trust that their students will be set up for success? I believe the lack of a dedicated office will cause foreign seminaries to have a more difficult time sending seminaries, leading to a decrease in the number of international students who come to study at CTS.
Budget cuts are always going to be painful, but it is possible for them to be equitable and just. These proposed changes almost exclusively negatively impact international students with little impact on domestic students. For international students to bear the brunt of these budget cuts is neither equitable nor just. It is imperative for the health of the international students, for the support of domestic students studying abroad, and for the culture of Beloved Community that Columbia seeks to foster that we listen to the needs and desires of international students and re-hire a full-time International Programs Director.