Vassar-approved JYA programs require greater scrutiny

Above is the Film and TV School (FAMU) of the Academy of Performing Arts, located in the Staré Město (Old City) area of Prague. Students on the CET Film Production program attended classes led by FAMU professors in this building. Courtesy of Courtesy of Petr Vilgus via Wikimedia Commons.

[CW: This article discusses sexist, ableist and racist speech.]

The teacher—a professional filmmaker in the Czech Republic, a graduate of Prague’s Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts (the fifth-oldest film school in the world) and a professor there for decades—would not stop talking about my classmate’s butt.

As part of the Film Production in Prague curriculum, administered by CET Academic Programs in concert with the school (known as FAMU), my classmates and I attended a lighting course at historic Barrandov Studios in preparation for shooting the short films that would be the capstone projects to our semester abroad. In one exercise, we cast a spotlight on my classmate as she lay prone on a prop bed, but our professor pointed out that we had angled it so as to inadvertently highlight her rear end, drawing attention away from the more important aspects of the shot. We fixed the positioning and all was well. A week later, however, he was still hung up on the episode—which he alone had found hilarious.

Unfortunately, this sexually-charged commentary proved to be the least of the disrespectful rhetoric doled out by professors during my program. After returning from my time away in Fall 2017, I could not forget the inappropriate conduct that my classmates and I experienced on what felt like a daily basis, and I unfortunately failed to adequately report this behavior to my home institution at the time. Thus, before I graduate, I would like to call on Vassar to increase vetting of its approved study-abroad programs, to strengthen its process of collecting student evaluations and to offer increased support to JYA-ers before, during and after their time away— lest someone undergoes an experience so negative that it casts a pall over the rest of their academic career.

The general consensus among my peers in Prague was that the study-abroad program suffered from two main problems: disorganization and offensive, antiquated rhetoric. Having heard from friends who participated in other study-abroad programs, it seems to me that disorganization is a common complaint and often inherent to the nature of Study Away. The latter issue, however, bears further investigation by Vassar (and by all institutions that list the program among their approved options). I wish I had written down each offensive comment I witnessed, but a few loom large in my memory.

The aforementioned cinematography professor would often warn the class, “Girls, don’t listen!” before launching into an off-color anecdote. In one such story, he received a call from a friend who claimed to be at a bar with a couple of gorgeous women, but when my professor arrived, he exclaimed: “What, you mean these witches?!” (This tale was told to illustrate the fact that we can’t always trust what we see in our camera’s viewfinder, because someone else might see it differently.) He was frequently vexed by our lack of knowledge, given that many of us hailed from liberal arts schools that emphasize theory over practice, leaving us with a dearth of technical skills. One day, after a student called out the wrong response to a question, our professor exclaimed in a fit of ableism, “That answer is totally autistic!”

Also notable was the casual racism evinced by some of our should-be mentors, which, given the Czech Republic’s status as one of the most xenophobic nations in the European Union, comes as no surprise (Expats.cz, “New Series of Maps Reflects High Levels of Czech Xenophobia,” 08.16.2017). In our discussion of lighting skin tones during cinematography class, one of my classmates inquired about lighting subjects with complexions darker than white. In response, the repeat-offender professor called out a Black woman in our class, noting that her skin tone would be “no problem” to light, but that we would run into trouble if we had someone darker, like a “Nubian.” In acting class, three Chinese women—all of whom attended the same college consortium—partnered up for an exercise; our professor declared happily, “Oh, the Asian section! I love it!”

As a white, cis, straight woman, I was frustrated by the sexist microaggressions perpetrated by my professors, but my alienation must have been a fraction of that experienced by my classmates whose identities were multiply targeted by their ostensible role models. While I was away, I took advantage of the primary channel for communication between JYA-ers and Vassar—namely contributing to The Miscellany News’ study abroad blog, “Far and Away”—but I largely avoided writing about the problematic aspects of the program. Following the conclusion of the semester, I aired my concerns through the two avenues available to me at that time: an online evaluation administered by CET and one provided by Vassar’s then International Program Specialist Susan Stephens. I was not contacted by Vassar about the content of my evaluation, and I never approached the office staff to follow up. Moreover, I was not warned before my departure about the potential issues with my program, despite the fact that I took part in a mandatory pre-departure workshop. By contrast, my classmates from American University told me that they had signed a waiver acknowledging their awareness of the program’s shortcomings with organization. All in all, the communication channels between the Office of International Programs (OIP) and students participating in Vassar-approved (but not Vassar-administered) programs— at all stages of their experience—offer much room for improvement.

According to an emailed statement by Director of International Programs Kerry Stamp, students are still urged to complete a voluntary program evaluation survey, and these responses are reviewed within a few weeks. In addition, she noted that students can be in contact with the OIP via phone or email while away, or in person after they return through OIP walk-in hours or appointments. Undoubtedly, the OIP makes an effort to be accessible to JYA-ers, and their efforts are not disastrously far behind those of peer schools. According to research I conducted via phone calls when I was employed by the OIP in Fall 2016, Yale disseminates newsletters to abroad students covering a range of topics; Wellesley emails students after departure about what to keep in mind and to ensure that their international contact information is up to date; Brandeis exchanges calls and emails with students while they are away; and Amherst encourages abroad students to share their experiences on the College’s social media and Instagram as well as administering an evaluation. These are all efforts more or less on par with those of Vassar.

Where Vassar can do more, however, is in its programming for returners. Especially for students who may have experienced discrimination or harassment, a supportive forum in which to share and commiserate is invaluable, and preferably one that is more officially established than simply walk-in hours and appointments. This meeting could take the form of a Welcome Back dinner for returners, as is available at Arcadia, Tufts and Loyola Marymount Universities, among others, or a class such as Providence College’s “Crossing Borders,” which (at the time of my research in 2016) offered students a safe space to debrief. Even pre-planned group or individual conferences with OIP staff would be greatly appreciated. This last suggestion would also serve as a more robust method for data collection than the one-off evaluation that I completed and offer an opportunity for the OIP to gain a fuller picture of student experiences. Conversely, it could serve as a forum to unpack concerns raised in the evaluations.

According to Stamp, “In response to information collected [in student evaluations], OIP contacts the student and/or relevant institution/organization abroad to communicate about any concerns and gather additional information within a reasonable amount of time.” While I do not recall the exact content of my evaluation in 2017, I am reasonably sure that I spoke to the inappropriate behavior I observed, which raises the question: What sufficient cause would it take for the OIP to open communication with a student?

All this said, however, there are signs that positive change is afoot. According to Stamp, the office’s new Assistant Director has already conducted research on current best practices of re-entry programming, which will be offered for students returning from abroad at the beginning of the Fall 2019 semester. Moreover, Stamp pointed to a special advisory committee, created in 2018, that contributes to assessing the list of approved programs and makes recommendations to the office’s director. With input from the committee and from academic departments and multidisciplinary programs, the OIP revised its list last year. Yet, it bears noting that CET Film Production remains on the roster of programs approved by Vassar. While the new developments in the OIP are certainly promising, they ought to have come about many years ago as an integral part of the College’s abroad programming rather than as an afterthought.

In this piece, I am sharing my experience with the program not to unequivocally condemn it (although I do wish to warn prospective participants about what they might be getting themselves into); my experience belongs to me alone, and I cannot speak to the opinions of other students. Rather, I urge the OIP to revisit its methods for data collection and communication with JYA students, such that the College might gain a fuller picture of each program it endorses. By doing so, it would be able to offer more comprehensive information and support to students embarking on what may well be the greatest adventure of their college career.

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