Diary of an International Credential Evaluator

May 1, 2020
  • International
  • International Admissions and Credential Evaluation
  • covid-19
by Ann M. Koenig. AACRAO International staff

April 30, 2020

Getting ready to start my workday at my desk and wondering: What will today bring?

It has now been six weeks since the AACRAO office in Washington DC was closed and colleagues starting working from home. I have been working remotely since I started with AACRAO’s international staff in 2002, so I have a dedicated workspace in my home and am used to working independently while connecting with colleagues remotely. My usual routine is to outline my agenda day-by-day, week-by-week, month-by-month, then triage and adjust as needed.

But since the COVID-19 shutdowns around the world began, my daily agenda does not always go as planned. (Huge understatement! Insert your favorite crazy face emoji here!!!) Flexibility is the rule of each day, as well as urgency and creativity in layers of problem solving, all while following principles of best practice in my work. And since no AACRAO staff member is an island, we Zoom and Zoom and Zoom, needing and longing to stay connected with each other while maintaining distance and striving to serve our membership during this challenging time.

As COVID emerged, our work changed. In late January, we began receiving news of foreign university closures.  AACRAO's international team started receiving questions about what to do about transcripts from international students. 

As the virus spread, higher education institutions started closing in many countries and our staff needed to expand our own toolbox for this widening global crisis. We considered our experience with past (and some ongoing) crises that, like this pandemic, make it hard for students to get official academic records. These crises include natural disaster, economic collapse, strike, armed conflict, political crisis, or other disruption of civil structures, which have closed institutions in Syria, Venezuela, Nepal, Haiti, and beyond.

Over my 30+ year career as an international credential evaluator, admissions officer, registrar and academic advisor, I’ve asked this question many times: During difficult times, how can we adjust our requirements to be flexible and supportive with students and applicants, but still maintain due diligence with regard to academic record review?

This time around, however, the whole world is shut down, not just one country. This time the challenge is global.

We kicked into high gear, huddling around the topic of “best practice.” That is our touchstone and our starting point. The challenge during crisis times is to balance the due diligence that best practice demands with sensitivity to the situation and flexibility. Due diligence calls for being informed and knowledgeable as well as setting policies and procedures rooted in that knowledge base, but also outlining the basic parameters for handling exceptional cases. 
 
Our team’s step 1: Becoming and staying informed about the state of affairs with institutions around the world. Confirming what is closed and when it closed and when it might open. Checking Web sites, emailing with colleagues in other countries, following online news and social media. Trying to determine whether administrative roles are functioning, even though physical facilities might be closed to human access. Are administrative offices open? Are academic records staff working from home like we are? Are shipping and mailing services operational? Confirm what is going on.
 
Step 2: Once we know what is actually going on (or not), we can investigate what alternatives might be possible. Maybe the usual means of issuing and transmitting official records won’t work in this environment, but what could work? What kinds of electronic tools are available? Can record-issuing offices access electronic portals remotely? Can they generate electronic records through a secure server? Can they email records? Is there an online verification tool such as a national database of graduates or institutional verification page where copies of a student’s documents can be verified online?
 
This is where the COVID-19 pandemic situation is different from many other disruptions I’ve seen before – volcanic ash, fires and floods can destroy records, strikes and economic crises can leave administrative offices unstaffed/unpaid or devoid of basic resources (staff, computers, paper…), changes of government in a country can mean we don’t know who is legally in charge of education, and wars and violence can leave buildings and their contents destroyed. But in so many countries now, student records are kept electronically, and COVID-19 is leaving the basic electronic tools of record management intact, waiting for human operators to perform their function. Official records might not be available till later. What is possible now?
 
Step 3: Once we know what is possible, then the next question is: What is acceptable? Could we accept records generated in those alternative ways? Could we accept them temporarily, make provisional decisions based on documents that aren’t “perfect” right now, and require official records later, when institutions are open again? 
 
Step 4: This is where “flexibility” comes in. Knowing what’s going on, knowing what is possible, and then thinking creatively about ways in which “the possible” could be “acceptable” in order to keep the pathway open to what a specific applicant or student is seeking to attain. We need to be vigilant about the results we see if we decide to accept records issued by alternative means. Flexibility allows us to make changes in our approach if we detect problems with the decisions we have made.
 

But “flexibility” must be grounded in the principles of best practice, which brings me full circle with the way we started developing our response to the current global challenge. It’s well over two months ago that my AACRAO international colleagues and I laid the groundwork for our “protocol for cases in which official international credentials could not be sent directly from the issuing institution due to COVID-19 closures.” Our original protocol was the basis for the AACRAO “Protocol for International Evaluation COVID-19.”  I think we have made at least one adjustment per week to our original document, based on what we have learned from institution Web sites, online news sources, emails from institutions, and descriptions from students. It is always in progress, never complete. We are constantly reviewing and adjusting it, mindful of our responsibility of due diligence, but heedful of the needs of students and institutions who look to us to be connected.

So here I go again, into another new workday. I wonder what this day will bring? And I wonder what new challenges we will have faced by the time I have a chance to come back to this diary again. 

Reminder to self – for today and every day for a time to come:

Best practice. Due diligence.
Know what is going on.
Know what is possible.
Decide what is acceptable.

Be flexible.

So far, so good… (Knuckles to forehead – knock on wood!) Staying healthy, staying safe, taking good care of my loved one. Trying to support those who aren’t as fortunate. Sharing what I can to help make everyone’s work a little easier.