Study abroad: What does the coordinator of internationalization say?

Stacey Donofrio earned a BA in psychology and art history from New York University. After working for a couple of years in New York in marketing and branding, she went on the ultimate exchange: moving to the Netherlands. What was meant to be a 2-year adventure turned into 15+ years. She earned her master’s degree in psychology and her doctoral degree from the faculty of medicine, both at University of Groningen. Dr. Donofrio has been lecturing at the psychology department since the inception of the international program – the first of a number of positions in the Netherlands where she gets to speak her native language. She coordinates study abroad for the psychology department, in addition to coordinating the skills courses in the international bachelor.

To open the second round of the exchange week here on Mindwise, we asked Stacey Donofrio to tell us about her personal view on studying abroad. In addition, she answered a choice of frequently asked questions regarding the exchange procedure.

Every university designs their programs differently. Certain courses are offered everywhere, such as Introduction to Psychology, but each department’s strengths and specific areas of expertise determine which courses are offered. As you advance in your study, you gain freedom to choose what interests you and fits your plans for your future career. Our department has a long list of stimulating courses to choose from in your third year to help you specialize in a specific direction for your master.

It is also possible to spend a semester at a different university. There are myriad academic reasons for choosing to study abroad. It might be that your interests are not entirely aligned with the areas on offer at our department. You might want to experience different forms of teaching, e.g., smaller classrooms, mixed assessment methods. You might want to experience living on a true campus. The faculty believes these are strong reasons to trade Groningen for a new city for one semester.

“It’s a wonderful way to take your study to a higher level.”

In addition to the ways in which studying abroad augments your academic experience, it also enriches you personally. It offers the opportunity to become immersed in a different culture, to meet new people, see new places. One of the reasons I chose to study psychology was to understand behavior better. Culture shapes behavior and dipping your feet in a new culture offers new perspectives and insights into behavior. It’s a wonderful way to take your study to a higher level.

As the psychology department’s coordinator for study abroad, I enjoy hearing students’ motivation for going abroad. I find it challenging to select the best candidate for each partner university and dislike having to disappoint students when they are not chosen for their first destination choice. In my experience, however, everything works out for the best (an effect of cognitive dissonance?). The best part of this job is hearing students talk about their adventures. I think it is wonderful that the Mindwise blog now offers a forum for students to share their experience with a larger audience.


 

What do you regard as important criteria for choosing a host university? How important is it that the university’s reputation is really good?

In my opinion, the most important criteria in choosing a host university are:

  1. Do I speak the host university’s language fluently enough to follow lectures, read textbooks and write essays in that language?
  2. Do the courses they offer match my interests/academic goals?

The courses you take will be listed on your University of Groningen transcript and count toward your degree here. In theory, the host university’s reputation does not affect your academic CV. However, if you want to list your time abroad as an apart item on your CV, then you might consider the university’s ranking. Keep in mind that rankings are based on research output and not quality of education. A university with an excellent program that does not produce many publications will be ranked lower than a university who does not invest in education, but in research.

What are my chances to go to a university of my choice if my grades are not that good? Is my motivation more important?

In my selection, I consider motivation primarily. Partner universities trust that we select excellent students to spend a semester with them. All of our students went through a selection procedure to enter our program. The prerequisites for going abroad are that you have passed the entire first year and all of the second year courses taught in the semester you will be away. Meeting these requirements mean that you are a good student. Therefore, I consider your reasons for wanting to study at that partner. My aim is to find the best match between partner university and our student.

When a 3rd year student applies for going abroad (i.e., they would go in their 4th year), they are given lower priority in the selection procedure.

You can summarize the selection procedure as: actual GPA does not weigh as heavily as academic motivation, but students who go through the program nominally are ranked higher than those who have a delay.

Being in the honours program is a wonderful enrichment to your transcript and academic CV. However, it does not give you priority over other students in the selection procedure.

I would like to go abroad for two semesters. Is that possible? And can I then write my bachelor thesis abroad?

In theory, it is possible. However, it is very tricky to do this. This is not only because you have to find a Bachelor thesis supervisor both here and there, but also because the programs need to match.

You are allowed to do one semester as a free “minor”, which means that you can choose courses that are not linked to your specialization. The other semester of your third year is meant for your specialization courses. If you stay abroad for an additional semester, you must follow courses that exactly match courses in our program so the examinations committee will grant you credits for the corresponding course in our program. For example, if you want to specialize in I/O psychology, then you need to find I/O courses at the partner university that are exactly the same as those taught here.

If you succeed in matching courses, you might be able to study abroad for an additional semester. Then you need to find a faculty member willing to supervise your bachelor thesis. As you will be gathering data while abroad, you must find a supervisor at the host university willing to support your research, as well as help you gain approval from their Ethical Committee.

Can you give me any advice for going abroad as a free-mover? Will I receive any support from the RUG?

If you want to spend a semester at a university with which we do not have an agreement, contact them and ask them if they would accept you as a free mover. Some universities do this, but many do not. Especially universities outside of Europe will require you to enrol there for a semester and pay their tuition fees.

Free movers are not eligible for financial support from the RUG. See http://myuniversity.rug.nl/infonet/studenten/studeren-buitenland/financiering for more information. You might be able to find outside funding.


Note: Image by fdecomite, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Stacey Donofrio earned a BA in psychology and art history from New York University. After working for a couple of years in New York in marketing and branding, she went on the ultimate exchange: moving to the Netherlands. What was meant to be a 2-year adventure turned into 15+ years. She earned her master’s degree in psychology and her doctoral degree from the faculty of medicine, both at University of Groningen. Dr. Donofrio has been lecturing at the psychology department since the inception of the international program – the first of a number of positions in the Netherlands where she gets to speak her native language. She coordinates study abroad for the psychology department, in addition to coordinating the skills courses in the international bachelor.


 


Select publications:


Gazendam-Donofrio S.M., Hoekstra H.J., van der Graaf W.T.A., van der Wiel H.B.M., Huizinga G.A., Visser A., Hoekstra-Weebers J.E.H.M. (2011) Adolescents’ emotional reactions to parental cancer: effect on emotional and behavioral problems, Journal of Pediatric Psychology 36(3), 346-59


Donofrio S.M. (2011) Samenhang tussen het gezinsklimaat en het functioneren van adolescenten in gezinnen geconfronteerd met kanker bij een ouder Psychologie & Gezondheid 39(1), 48


Tuinman MA, Gazendam-Donofrio S.M., Hoekstra-Weebers J.E.H.M. (2008) Screening and referral for psychosocial distress in oncologic practice: use of the distress thermometer Cancer 113(4), 870-879


Gazendam-Donofrio S.M. , Hoekstra H.J., van der Graaf W.T.A., van de Wiel H.B.M., Visser A., Huizinga G.A., Hoekstra-Weebers J.E.H.M (2009) Family members’ functioning and communication patterns during the first year after a parent’s cancer diagnosis Cancer 115(18), 4227-37


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