Op-ed: Leaving with a sour taste and no degree

Dear Tufts,

You welcomed me on your hill, a bright-eyed first-year 7,605 miles from home. From sharing life stories in Global Orientation to the illumination ceremony, from eating my first Sunday sundae at Dewick to jamming to “It Wasn’t Me” by Shaggy, from sunset picnics at the docks to joining my favorite clubs, I fell in love with the people, traditions and communities I found.

I remember when your Admissions officer, Jennifer Simmons, came to my high school. I asked two questions: “As a Tufts student, can I do Semester at Sea (SAS)?” and “As an international student, do I place out of the language requirement?” Simmons said that if I could get the courses approved by Tufts professors, I could do SAS. Additionally, because I took Hindi, my first language, in high school, I could place out.

As my time with you comes to an end, those two questions remain unanswered.

I became actively involved in my communities to do my best to lead the International Club as president, vice president and senior advisor; serve as a host advisor for the Global Orientation program; lead TEDxTufts as its curator and executive organizer; become an Honos Civicus inductee; and receive the Oliver Chapman Leadership and Community Service Award.

You had become an exciting part of my life-path, but I had been dreaming to sail around the world since I was 12. SAS is a highly ranked, accredited study abroad program, where 500+ college students visit 11 countries across four continents, taking classes taught by renowned faculty. As an international relations (IR) major, I was excited to wake up in a new country every week and immerse myself in its culture.

My (then) dean, Joe Waranyuwat, reaffirmed: “It doesn’t matter if you’re studying on a mountain in Nepal, as long as professors approve you for credit on SIS, you’re fine!”

I applied for transfer of credits from the IR, Film and Media Studies and Entrepreneurial Leadership Studies departments. They approved my courses on Tufts Student Information System (SIS), and I was accepted into SAS! But then, I was asked to set up a meeting with Stephen Hall, the foreign study advisor. I left his office crying uncontrollably. He told me there was a “long-standing rule established by a faculty committee” that met God knows when that didn’t approve of this specific program. How was I supposed to know this unwritten rule?

Professors on my voyage included Stanford Professor of the Year Armin Rosencranz, Nobel-Laureate Desmond Tutu, the Busia sisters (daughters of the ex-prime minister of Ghana) and U.S. diplomats. Previous voyages included lecturers like Indira Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela. My film class was at the “Game of Thrones” set in Girona, Spain. I got to see the world’s first camera, not just read about it. My social ventures class was in low-income schools in Ghana and Myanmar. My courses were real, my professors were better and my classroom was the world. How does a school that touts its IR curriculum not accept SAS? If Harvard, Cornell and numerous other institutions see the value in such a program, why don’t you? I wasn’t going to let you get in the way of my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. So, I went.

I felt more liberated on a confined ship in the Atlantic Ocean than I ever did here. I wasn’t the only one. I found Samay Bansal, a former Tufts student who transferred to Cornell where his SAS credits were accepted, and Saherish Surani, a sophomore who also received approval for her SAS classes. Will you shatter her dreams too?

You refused credit for my courses, while your money-making scheme in the form of the “residency requirement” made sure that I would pay $15,000 of that semester’s lost tuition back to you for five summer classes (which students can pay for, withdraw from and still receive residency).

I have more credits than I ever needed to graduate. But, I’m still not graduating.

As for the second question I asked Simmons, I again found what she said to be true. Students can place out of languages by taking exams during Orientation Week. Since you don’t offer courses in Hindi, I was encouraged to schedule a one-on-one test.

In the fall of my sophomore year, you introduced a new language evaluation system. Since I was told that I could take the test anytime, I reached out to do so after SAS. Turns out I could no longer take the Tufts administered exam, but as a native speaker with an Academic Award in Hindi, I wasn’t worried. The new University of Pennsylvania exam was long and complex, and I only placed out of six semesters worth of classes, which wasn’t enough to fulfill the IR language requirement. I retook it spring of my senior year and placed into level 121, or seven semesters worth. If you gave me a similar-styled English exam within that time limit, I doubt I could achieve the same level.

Current seniors Shivika Khanna, Akshat Jain and Sidhant Chadha took the Tufts exam, after the UPenn one was introduced. Former Tufts Community Union President Gauri Seth (LA ’17) took the UPenn exam her senior year, didn’t get the desired result, and was then given the option to take the Tufts-administered test through which she graduated. In fact, Khanna even told me that she placed out of six semesters. After declaring an IR major, she didn’t even take an exam for the eight-semester exemption. After hearing stories like this from my friends who will be receiving their degrees, I was hoping that you, would be as understanding with me, as you were with them.

Maybe you think your new policy is better for new students, but it didn’t exist when I matriculated at Tufts. I admit I should’ve done something sooner; I didn’t dream this would happen. You have a history of throwing new policies onto us, like the new-credit system which made it hard for upperclassmen to have recent classes weigh as much as older ones. I remember, how I caught an error in the GPA calculation system. I had to fight for months to correct my GPA. For a school that takes “academic integrity” so seriously, it’s not fair that we’ve to adjust to policies so arbitrarily. Shouldn’t these policies grandfather students in? I write to you, caught in the crossfire, with the empty hope that someone will read this and help. I write so that people who invest their time, money and effort in making you a better place know the systemic barriers you raise to keep students from becoming proud alumni. As everyone around me celebrates their degrees, I’ll celebrate the people I met, the clubs I joined and some of the memories I made here with you. At least, you gave me that.

I’m not sure what I’m going to do or who I’m going to ask for help. You, Tufts, have given me great options: waiting until next spring to take an upper-level Hindi class at Middlebury or taking a class at an Indian university and petitioning for its transfer. I’d have to base plans for my future off this decision and decline my job offer in Singapore. It should be as embarrassing for you as it is for me to answer the question: “So, why aren’t you graduating?” My response is because you, Tufts, don’t believe that traveling the world “meshes well” with international relations, and, that I can’t prove to you that I speak my first language well enough.

With a sour taste and no degree,

Akshat Rajan (LA ’19?)