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January 26, 2012 6:53 AM   Subscribe

How I effectively complain to my university administration/international program about a totally incompetent study abroad adviser?

I'm studying abroad on exchange in Europe from my university in Canada, and have become increasingly frustrated with the (only) study abroad adviser at the university. She (let's call her Kim for the purpose of my question) has been, in my opinion, extremely unprofessional, unresponsive in her job to support students abroad at my university.

I'm taking a bit of a unique study program while abroad (master's courses that will count towards my undergad) and have needed more clarification and support to make sure my credit transfer works out for my degree. Fair enough that I'm a bit more complicated than normal. Kim is the first person I'm supposed to talk to about ANYTHING course related or if I want to make changes.

Problem: I am having an impossible time getting the support and confirmation that I need regarding my study plan while overseas, to the point where it may impact my ability to graduate on time in the fall. Multiple emails I send her go unanswered, voice mails are not returned. It takes weeks or months to get a hold of her, and then my questions are not adequately addressed or outright ignored. I've been patient, and tried to be understanding. At this point, I'm doing most of the work (contacting people, paperwork, research, confirming things) myself. My main problem is that this was outlined to me in my study abroad contract as HER job, which I payed $350 as a placement fee for support from this person, which I feel I am failing to get.

I'm at a loss for what to do next. I need paperwork sorted for the university here by tomorrow. I sent it to Kim a month ago with adequate warning about what it would mean for me, and that I needed it done. It requires a signature, and phone call to confirm things (which I can't do). Without this paperwork to take an extra class into overload here this semester, I will not be able to graduate as I planned in September and will be stuck coming back to the university in the fall for ONE CLASS (costing me $1200 for the credit. I can take it here in Norway for free). I've left 3 emails, two voice mails in the past week alone, and am angry about the lack of response on this. I think I might have managed to figure it out today from the university here, but am really frustrated with it all and this is the icing on the cake.

So question, I want to complain. Loud and clear that I am unhappy and want at least my emails addressed and returned!! However, I have no idea how to do this in an effective manner. Should I write the department a letter? Complain to Kim first? Her boss? What would be the proper chain of complaint here? I'm generally a polite person who doesn't like to complain because of my anxiety. Would you say doing something in this situation is warranted? Or am I overacting for what it is? Advice is much appreciated!!
posted by snowysoul to Education (8 answers total)
You could email Kim again, letting her know that the deadline is imminent - make sure you attach the earlier email from a month ago - but this time, CC the director of the study abroad program, and your department head. If you get no response within a day or so, follow up with a call to the director.
posted by HopperFan at 7:00 AM on January 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

In academic settings, complaining up the chain of command tends to be crucial (if you leapfrog, it will simply get bounced back to whomever you should have contacted in the first place). So: complain to Kim --> her immediate supervisor --> their supervisor --> etc.

Try wording your letter firmly, but factually (X needed to happen; you did not do X, although you agreed in the contract to do so; I expect X to happen in the future). If there's no response, keep doing the same as you go up, making it clear that you've already communicated with Kim and received no satisfactory reply. Don't succumb to the temptation to call your adviser an idiot, a liar, or anything else along those lines, as it will simply get not only her back up, but everyone else's.

On preview, Hopperfan also has a good idea, as the power of CC is not to be underestimated.
posted by thomas j wise at 7:02 AM on January 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you were not abroad and trying to take a course at a different college and wanted to make sure the credits transferred, who would you talk to at your college? I'm assuming there's a dean or major advisor who handles these things.

Put all the data into an email; email "Kim" and cc the director of the study abroad program. Then send a separate email to the dean/majors advisor and ask them about these courses you want to take.

I did a semester abroad and had a reasonable amount of trouble getting the courses I took in my (science) major to be accepted by my department. Not only that but the grading abroad was quite different (read NO GRADE INFLATION! which is a good thing) and they did exciting things to determine the equivalent grades in the inflated system. Excitement!

Good luck.
posted by sciencegeek at 7:05 AM on January 26, 2012

I agree with the CC'ing the director, but I would also make sure you have a log of when you sent paperwork or important emails to Kim, with dates and times. These can come in handy when talking to a director/supervisor to show them that she has been unresponsive and less than helpful to you as a student who is paying for an education.
posted by bleachandink at 7:51 AM on January 26, 2012

Another "yes" to emailing up the chain of command.

Something to keep in mind, if you haven't done this before: it might be tempting to write an email that's all "This is an outrage! You fuckwads are costing me thousands of dollars! I'm disgusted! I'm furious! You oughta be ashamed of yourselves!" in order to make sure you're getting attention. But in a business-type setting like this — and if you're dealing with college staff and not professors, you're definitely in a "business-type setting" — that can actually be counterproductive, because it lets Kim paint you as the one who's being unreasonable.

Anyway, it's not going to be necessary. Simply by adding Kim's supervisor's name to the CC list, you're sending a very clear signal that says "Kim isn't doing her job. Please take care of this."

So you can write the message itself in a pretty level tone. All you need to say is "As I informed you on $DATE, I need $PAPERWORK by $DEADLINE. So far I have received no response. Please advise what the next step is to make sure we meet this deadline." Kim's boss will, if anything, take that message much more seriously than something ranty and irate-sounding.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:05 AM on January 26, 2012 [9 favorites]

Anyway, it's not going to be necessary. Simply by adding Kim's supervisor's name to the CC list, you're sending a very clear signal that says "Kim isn't doing her job. Please take care of this."

QFT. When I contact my client's hosting company (I'm fully authorised to talk to them on behalf of the client) my emails go frequently ignored - fairly critical issues sometimes, for months. I cc in my client and I get a near instant response.

Is Kim in europe with you or back in Canada? If she is in europe and she has an office I would go see her in person. If she's in Canada, do you have a friend that can corner her on your behalf? If you need this paperwork tomorrow then this is too urgent for emails. Do you have a phone number for her supervisor? If possible phone them.
posted by missmagenta at 8:16 AM on January 26, 2012

Bear in mind that academic advisors and their supervisors see a fairly high volume of unreasonable, inappropriate, rude, and entitled emails from university students. I am not saying that your communications have been any of those things, just that when you cc Kim's supervisor, and when you email other people at your university, the more level-headed and factual you can be, the better. Although ideally these people are here to help you and provide the services for which they are employed, it's hard for them to see angry student e-mails and not lump them in with the ones that are rude and childish--even if the student's anger is entirely justified.

This wording from nebulawindphone is ideal: "As I informed you on $DATE, I need $PAPERWORK by $DEADLINE. So far I have received no response. Please advise what the next step is to make sure we meet this deadline." Resist the urge to be directly critical of Kim in an email (though cc'ing her boss does send a message).

The time to be directly and specifically critical of Kim is, after you've calmly emailed your way up the chain, made phone calls as needed, and gotten your situation resolved, then you schedule a meeting with Kim's supervisor and, in person, discuss your disappointment and frustration with Kim's failure to do her job. Bring documentation to back up your claims, and try to remain unemotional, but this is an appropriate time to say, "Kim's job was X, she failed to do it and that caused me Y and Z significant problems. I'd like to know what you're going to do to ensure that she does not continue to cause problems for students in this study abroad program."
posted by Meg_Murry at 8:46 AM on January 26, 2012

I am a study abroad advisor, although I hasten to add that I am not Kim. Generally we tend to be a bit more hands-off for graduate students, assuming that they are more self-reliant than your typical undergrad (which you have been, good for you!). And I have to admit that we get burnout on the "needier" students. But yes, it's unprofessional for her not to even acknowledge you, much less take care of your matters. The answers above to cc Kim's supervisor (this would probably be the director of the International Center or an academic dean, most likely) are spot-on.

It's not quite clear to me whether the major urgency right now is with the school in Norway or your home school. If the urgency is that your host school needs your home school's OK of your taking a certain class, you do need to get a response out of Kim or her immediate supervisor. If the urgency is that you are currently enrolled in a critical course and you need to make sure it will transfer, then you can probably relax a tiny bit. It has always been my experience that just about anything can be done after the fact, if you show that you've made a good faith effort and if you get the right person to sign the right piece of paper. Her silence may very well be a (implied) signal that things will work out just fine for you in the end.

Keep and organize all your attempts to contact Kim. Take the class that you need. Get a sealed copy of your grade record in Norway at the end of the semester and hang onto it, without opening it. If, by the time you get back you still haven't gotten it all straightened out, head straight to the supervisor with your documents and present your case.

Good luck!
posted by Liesl at 8:50 AM on January 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

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