A Degree By Any Other Name

July 17, 2002

To say you are "taking a course in history" means one thing in America but quite another in Britain. In the United Kingdom, a "course" is a major. And the differences in the two systems reach far beyond definitions of academic terms. 
Administrators from American colleges charged with helping their best and brightest students find study abroad and postgraduate opportunities often have wished for expert translators when trying to decipher academic phrases and programs in "prospectuses" from across "the pond" -- as the British refer to the Atlantic Ocean. 
Elizabeth Vardaman, an associate dean in Baylor's College of Arts and Sciences, is one of those American administrators trying to understand the differences in terminology so she can counsel students. She also is a member of the executive council of the National Association of Fellowship Advisers, with 120 colleges as members. As such, she proposed a trip to England and Scotland to see their higher education systems firsthand. 
"Impressive young scholars come to my office for guidance as they prepare their bids for prestigious Marshall, Gates and Rhodes scholarships to study in Britain. Dozens of perplexing phrases and structures in British higher education make choosing the right program and right school very difficult," Vardaman said.
The first day the trip was announced on the Internet in January, it filled. Administrators from Yale, Columbia, Smith, the University of California, Ohio, Arkansas and many others -- 30 in all -- signed up for the May 25 to June 7 trip.
This workshop on wheels started in London and then went to Oxford and Cambridge, then north to York, Durham, Edinburgh and St. Andrews. Visiting 11 universities, the group met with administrators of the British Council in England and Scotland, as well as presidents, chairs and professors at many of the finest institutions of higher education in the British Isles. They also met with key members of the Marshall, Gates Cambridge and Rhodes foundations, which offer generous postgraduate scholarships to highly ranked students.
Baylor's reputation in international education and special relationships with some of the universities paved the way for some "extras" that the British hosts provided the NAFA members, Vardaman said. For example, Baylor's longstanding relationship with Westminster School in London resulted in a private tour at night of Westminster Abbey. Baylor's summer program at Christ Church College in Oxford led to an invitation for the group to attend Evensong in Christ Church Chapel and to dine in the formal dining hall with University of Oxford students. A memorable evening spent at Wolfson College, Cambridge, was hosted by its president, Dr. Gordon Johnson, a friend and colleague of Dr. Herbert Reynolds, Baylor president emeritus, who also is a Wolfson Fellow. 
"Maybe they would have treated us like royalty without the Baylor connection, but no university traveling with us could have missed seeing how strong some of the bonds are between Baylor and various British institutions," Vardaman said.
Accompanying the group was her husband, Dr. James Vardaman, emeritus professor of history and noted British scholar, who led walking tours and provided historical explanations of icons of British life from the Magna Carta to the European Union. He headed Baylor's international education division for many years, initiating numerous student study-abroad programs. 
The trip was a success and is expected to become a biennial event, Elizabeth Vardaman said. In the meantime, she will edit the information gathered during the trip into a manual that will be released this fall by the NAFA. 
"Seeing an idea turn into a substantive program has been exciting and rewarding," Vardaman said. "We now have a new understanding of these institutions and new resources for helping our students."-- Vicki Marsh Kabat