I. BFA Program

General Critical Studies Requirements

CalArts is committed to providing a course of study, which advances both the practice of the arts, and a broad program of general education designed to enable students to consider aesthetic questions within larger socio-cultural, ethical, and political contexts. The emphasis on the close relationship between critical studies and studio practice at CalArts reflects the visionary commitment to inter and cross-disciplinary study on which the Institute was founded.

A CalArts education is based on both artistic and intellectual rigor. To ensure that every undergraduate has the broad knowledge and cultural sophistication needed for successful arts careers in today’s world, all candidates for the BFA Degree must complete the Critical Studies Undergraduate Requirements in addition to coursework in their individual programs.

Designed to broaden vision and encourage well-informed, innovative art making, the Critical Studies Undergraduate Requirements help students to develop analytical, writing and research skills, and to learn about a broad range of topics in the humanities, social sciences, sciences, and cultural studies. Many courses directly related to the student’s own métier are also included in the Critical Studies curriculum.

Critical Studies Program Goals

On completing the BFA Program Requirements you will be able to:

  • Participate in collaborative and interdisciplinary projects in roles that vary from engaged participant to group leader. 
  • Synthesize and contextualize a diversity of historical and contemporary events, movements, perspectives from a global field, utilizing a range of methodologies that are relevant to your projects and/or practices. 
  • Engage with complex and controversial ideas from multiple perspectives across the arts and society demonstrating cultural competencies as a student, artist and citizen.
  • When appropriate, support independent research/projects with quantitative evidence demonstrating skills of analysis and decision making.
  • Write and present your own ideas coherently with the adept use of various compositional strategies that address a range of clearly identified publics.
  • Develop a sustained critical and creative research practice by adopting and/or adapting appropriate critical research methods to independently initiated projects.

All BFA candidates are expected to have taken a total of 46 units in Critical Studies by the time of graduation. This amounts to 2–3 courses per semester (6 units) and represents about 40 percent of each student’s overall course load.

For satisfactory progress toward the BFA degree, students should have accumulated the minimum required Critical Studies units for their year level as follows:

Year Level / Minimum CS Units Completed

  • End of First Year (BFA1–2) 10 units
  • End of Second Year (BFA2–2) 22 units
  • End of First Semester, Third Year (BFA3–1) 28 units
  • End of Second Semester, Third Year (BFA3–2) 34 units
  • End of First Semester, Fourth Year (BFA4–1) 40 units
  • End of Second Semester, Fourth Year (BFA4–2) 46 units

**Any student failing to meet the above year–level requirements will be subject to Academic Warning. (see Institute Policies and Procedures for details. Policy Academic Warning, Probation, Dismissal and Appeal: Deficiencies Leading to Warning, Probation and Dismissal).

Critical Studies Rubric

100 & 200 Level


300 Level


400 Level

Engage in class discussions and communicate ideas, demonstrating course preparation. 


Generate class discussion from course material through active questioning, challenging ideas across and through disciplines and diverse cultures, and making connections beyond the classroom. 


Lead, facilitate, and participate in discussions and collaborative interdisciplinary group work, communicate ideas clearly, and make presentations using image and/or text effectively to a range of diverse audiences.

Frame key events, movements, and ideas in a range of subject areas in historical, contemporary and globally diverse contexts.


Investigate and analyze key events, movements, and ideas in a diverse range of subject areas relevant to course topic, demonstrating comprehension of diverse methodologies with a range of global and cultural contexts and perspectives.


Synthesize and contextualize key events, movements, perspectives and methodologies that are relevant to your own projects and/or practice demonstrating core cultural competencies in situating work in a global context.

Respond to a range of critical approaches and demonstrate an introductory understanding of how they may relate to métier practice.


Craft ideas, developing and constructing independent critical positions in relationship to course material.


Propose projects or papers that make independent arguments through a thesis demonstrating a sophisticated comprehension of and response to complex ideas.

Identify a range of quantitative methods. 


Collect and organize quantitative information related to course material.


Analyze, interpret, and utilize quantitative evidence for the development of independent research or projects.

Write critically/creatively in clearly communicated texts honed for an intended audience. 


Write independently using sustained analytical and evidence based reasoning and clear communication.


Write with the adept use of various compositional strategies that address a range of clearly identified publics. 

Research using a variety of sources ethically and according to academic citation protocols, and demonstrating familiarity with different research methodologies.


Research including the employment of library, internet, and database searches to find and evaluate relevant and reliable sources.


Develop, articulate, and implement a range of methods in the realization of advanced independent research plans and demonstrate critical research methods in the analysis and use of research material.

The Critical Studies Level 100 Curriculum

The Critical Studies Level 100 Curriculum is a graduation requirement. In the fall semester of the first year, all students must take "Introduction to Critical Studies," a course that welcomes students into the critical conversations that are at the heart of Critical Studies courses and to prepare them to engage with a variety of modes of critical inquiry. In the spring semester of the first year, all students must take a Level 100 Special Topics course. These courses cover a variety of subjects ranging from literature to biological sciences. Both "Introduction to Critical Studies" and Level 100 Special Topics courses have an intensive writing workshop component.

Exemptions from Level 100 Curriculum

Students either participate in both the fall and spring Level 100 courses, or are exempt entirely.

  • Students with 15 or more Critical Studies transfer units, prior to matriculation, are exempt. This exemption occurs even if they do not have the equivalent of "Composition-101."
  • Students with a previous Bachelors degree are also exempt.

Students with fewer than 15 CS transfer units would have to take the Level 100 requirement regardless of having the equivalent of "Composition-101." This is because the first year sequence is an introduction to Critical Studies and not simply a sequence of composition or writing intensive courses.

Deferral of Level 100 Sequence

CalArts utilizes an assessment and placement process for multilingual students who speak a mother tongue other than English. Following this process, non-exempt students may be placed into the credit-bearing English for the Arts courses Artspeak 1A or Artspeak 1B in their first year. Students in these courses will join the Level 100 sequence in their second year.

Retaking Level 100 Courses or Sequence

Students who fail to receive credit (by dropping, withdrawing from the course, or by receiving an NC) for either, or both, Level 100 courses will have to retake the course the next time it offered. Failing the Fall Semester course will not prevent students from taking the Spring Semester course. Because these two courses are a graduation requirement (unless exempted upon matriculation), students will have to complete the courses to be awarded a BFA. Transfer credit is not accepted for the Level 100 Curriculum. The Level 100 Curriculum is a prerequisite for all Critical Studies 300 and 400 level courses. Students who fail during their first attempt will be monitored carefully by the Academic Advisors and will be required to use the Writing Center when they retake the required course(s). This close monitoring will continue until the student has completed the requirement.

The Critical Studies Core Curriculum

Throughout the remaining three years, students must get at least two units in each of the following Critical Studies categories:

  • Humanities
  • Social Sciences
  • Cultural Studies
  • Science and Math

The remaining units are elective and drawn from other courses offered by the School of Critical Studies, or can be fulfilled through Advanced Placement credits and liberal arts / general education transfer credits from other accredited colleges and universities. To successfully complete the 46 units, it is expected that after the first year, the student will need to take an average of two to three Critical Studies courses per semester (or 6 units).

Critical Studies BFA Residency Requirement

Students with previous bachelors degrees and students transferring in undergraduate credits are required to complete at least 8 CalArts Critical Studies Core Curriculum units in order to obtain a BFA degree from CalArts. While all students graduating will have to meet the Core Curriculum requirement, students transferring in from outside institutions may apply transfer credits to any of the corresponding Critical Studies categories up to a maximum of 38 units. The remaining 8 units (Residency Requirement) which must be taken in Critical Studies at CalArts may fall in the following distribution:

  • 8 units in any combination of Critical/Intellectual Skills, Creative Writing, Computing and Research Skills, Humanities, Cultural Studies, Social Sciences, Science/Math providing the student will have met the Core Curriculum requirement by graduation. The Critical Studies BFA Residency Requirement cannot be fulfilled by Independent Studies units.

Upper Division Courses

Upper Division courses (400 level) assume students are already familiar with the modes of thought and writing associated with a given subject area.

Foreign Language Courses

Students may take or transfer foreign language credit at accredited institutions outside CalArts during their period of residence (for elective credit only).

Critical Studies Minor

Students who have completed their Level 100 and Core Curriculum requirements have the option of obtaining a Minor in Critical Studies in one of the following categories: Creative Writing, Humanities, Social Science, Cultural Studies or Science/Math. Students are required to take 18 units from their designated area of concentration (12 of which must be completed at CalArts). Students are not required to take additional units to obtain the Minor in Critical Studies; rather students would focus existing unit requirements (46 total) in a specific curriculum area. 

Independent Studies

Students who have completed their Level 100 and Core Curriculum requirements have the option of working closely with a Critical Studies instructor on a well-defined academic project for elective credit. Typically these will be awarded 1 unit and only in exceptional circumstances will be awarded 2 units. Independent Studies allow for further research and development of themes and ideas students have encountered in Critical Studies courses and/or in their métiers; they will not replace Critical Studies courses or requirements. Independent Studies may comprise no more than 10 units of the total 46 needed to graduate.

To obtain credit for an independent study, the student must fully define his/her project in a written Independent Study proposal learning goals drawn from the Critical Studies rubric. The proposal must also include a schedule of meetings and assignments jointly determined by the student and the instructor. Independent Study contracts can be obtained in the Registrar's office.

Critical Studies Policies on Grading and Attendance

The School of Critical Studies adheres to the Institute policies on grading. If a student is unable to complete the requirements for any Critical Studies course by the end of the semester, they may ask the instructor for an incomplete in lieu of a grade. At the instructor’s discretion, a HP, P, or LP grade will be awarded only if missing work, completed to a satisfactory standard, is submitted by the end of the following semester. Otherwise the student will receive a No Credit.

If a student misses more than 3 sessions of one class and does not pursue the formal Withdrawal option, a NC will be given and will appear on external records.

Institute–Wide MFA Offerings

Critical Studies also offers Upper Level courses, which are open to MFA students throughout the Institute, and to upper level BFAs, provided the Level 100 curriculum requirement has been completed. These classes give insight into contemporary criticism and arts practice, with graduate–level readings and assignments.

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II. MFA Writing Program

The two-year School of Critical Studies MFA Creative Writing Program offers a variety of options for study: the Creative Writing Program—the choice of most students; Interschool Writing; and Integrated Media (IM). At any time during their residency, MFA Creative Writing students may choose to complete one of four interdisciplinary concentrations: Writing + Performativity, Documentary Poetics, Writing and Its Publics, or Image + Text.
Genre experimentation and an emphasis on critical contexts for creative work characterize each of these options.  In support of their writing and thinking, students are paired with a faculty mentor, and work closely with them throughout their time in the Program
The goal of our MFA Creative Writing Program is to enable students to shape their own unique practice, while familiarizing themselves with an international range of aesthetic and critical traditions through our inclusive and future-forward curriculum.  MFA Creative Writing Program students will

  • Cultivate a writing practice that allows them to produce work to the best of their creative and analytical potential
  • Become fluent in a vocabulary that encourages communication and understanding of their own practice as well as of the work of their peers
  • Prepare to become practitioners in a career that may include teaching through training in critical thinking and pedagogy
  • Produce a thesis that accurately reflects their capacities as writers and that embodies their aesthetic foundation and vision
  • Become good citizens of the workshop/seminar and learn to function within a community of artists, understanding the value of that community while following their own compass as writers
  • Draw meaningfully from the other arts and academic disciplines to inform their own writing, or to develop an interdisciplinary practice
  • Develop a sustainable writing dynamic as they enter a world of increasing artistic risk and diversity

Our Program is designed to inspire students to explore and employ both "creative" and "critical" modes in their practices, without seeking to draw a hard line between the two. All students attend closely to questions of form and aesthetics, as well as to the historical, cultural and critical contexts of literary work. Many classes offer a mix of seminar and workshop, and as such provide opportunities for discussions and presentations on both assigned texts and student-generated work. In addition to the more traditional forms of lyric poetry, short story, essay, memoir, novel, literary/arts theory, and reviewing, Program courses also cover genre-fluid forms, such as prose poetry, micro-fiction, and "hybrid" writing that blurs the boundaries between memoir and theory, fiction and nonfiction, criticism and poetry, among other cross-pollinations. While not all classes are offered every year, over the two-year program students take a wide selection of courses, and are all encouraged to experiment with and create new forms and approaches.

The CalArts MFA Creative Writing Program is ideal for students keen to develop their confidence and range as writers and to benefit from CalArts' uniquely interdisciplinary and experimental atmosphere. The Program is also attractive to students who seek a formally expansive and critically challenging alternative to existing creative writing programs.

The requirements for being awarded a Master of Fine Arts degree in the Creative Writing Program are as follows:

  1. Students must maintain two years of residence (minimum). The residence requirement may be extended for students specializing in writing for mixed media or interactive media formats depending on technical skills and in some cases for Interschool Writing students.
  2. Students must complete a minimum of 40 semester units (see chart below for minimum requirements). To ensure graduation in a timely manner, students are expected to complete at least 10 units per semester.
  3. Students must take two (2) Core MFA creative writing courses per semester.  
  4. Students may also take upper level/Special Topics Critical Studies offerings and/or institute wide electives. Students interested in earning one of our named interdisciplinary concentrations need to take at least four elective classes in their area of concentration over the course of their time in the program.
  5. All students meet with their mentors a minimum of three times per semester for advisement with an additional meeting in spring semester to conduct mid-residency or graduation reviews.

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MFA Interschool Writing

Interschool Writing students enroll in both Critical Studies and in an MFA program offered by another school of the Institute-Art, Dance, Film/Video, Music or Theater. Applicants must apply separately to each school. Requirements for the other métiers are set on an individual basis or according to that school’s requirements. The following list refers only to the Critical Studies component of the Interschool degree.

To receive the MFA degree in Interschool Writing, students are required to:

  1. Maintain two years of residence (minimum). The residence requirement may be extended for students specializing in writing for mixed media or interactive media formats depending on technical skills. It may also be extended for students whose Interschool requirements exceed a two-year residence (for example, the School of Film/Video).
  2. Complete the same requirements as for the MFA Writing Program, except as noted in the chart of minimum requirements given below.

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MFA Writing Program, Integrated Media

Students who choose Integrated Media (IM) are enrolled as, and must complete the same requirements as the MFA Writing Program except as noted in the following chart of minimum requirements.

Additional requirements-including IM seminars and critiques, specified Critical Studies courses, and electives from throughout the Institute-are set on an individual basis in consultation with the Office of Integrated Media.

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MFA Creative Writing Program, Minimum Requirements (40 Credits)

To maintain financial aid eligibility, students are required to take a minimum of 9 units per semester; they are not encouraged to take more than 13.

Year One Program Requirements (Descriptions of courses are below)

Year 1, Fall Semester

Core MFA course

Core MFA or Elective course

Writing Now First Year Seminar

Year 1, Wintersession

Katie Jacobson Writer in Residence course

Year 1, Spring Semester

2 Core MFA courses

Core MFA or Elective course

Writing Now Reading Series

Year Two Program Requirements

Year 2, Fall Semester

Core MFA or Thesis Workshop course

Core MFA or Graduate Teaching Practicum or Elective course

Core MFA course

Writing Now Reading Series

Year 2, Wintersession

Katie Jacobson Writer in Residence course

Year 2, Spring Semester

Exit Strategies: Professional Development for Writers course

Core MFA or Elective course

Directed Thesis Study with Mentor

Writing Now Reading Series

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Interschool & IM MFA Writing Program, Minimum Requirements (30 Critical Studies)

Year One

Year 1, Fall Semester

Core MFA course

Writing Now First Year Seminar

Year 1, Wintersession

Katie Jacobson Writer in Residence course

Year 1, Spring Semester

Core MFA course

Core MFA or Elective course

Writing Now Reading Series

Year Two

Year 2, Fall Semester

Core MFA or Thesis Workshop course

Core MFA or Graduate Teaching Practicum or Elective course

Writing Now Reading Series

Year 2, Wintersession

Katie Jacobson Writer in Residence course

Year 2, Spring Semester

Core MFA course

Exit Strategies: Professional Development for Writers course

Directed Thesis Study with Mentor

Writing Now Reading Series

Course Descriptions

Core MFA courses are courses designed and taught by core MFA Creative Writing Program faculty.

Elective courses include upper-level (500) courses taught by faculty in the School of Critical Studies and upper-level and graduate courses taught in the other schools at the Institute.

Writing Now is a core requirement for every semester in the Creative Writing Program. It is structured around the work of contemporary writers who will also be visitors to the Program.  The course, taught by a member of the MFA Creative Writing faculty, includes discussions, presentation, and workshops. The fall semester of the first year, Writing Now requires attendance at weekly meetings as well as the visitor events.  Every semester thereafter, attendance is only required at the visitor events.

Katie Jacobson Writer in Residence is the required course during Wintersession. This course centers around the Katie Jacobson Writer in Residence’s lecture, reading, seminars, and/or individual meetings with students. The Katie Jacobson Writer in Residence is selected by Program faculty, and is focused on the Writing + Its Publics concentration.

"Exit Strategies: Professional Development for Writers" is required in the spring semester of the second year. This course provides students focused consideration of all aspects of students’ transition out of graduate school, including publishing, agents, public speaking, and maintaining creative practice. In addition to developing skills and dossiers for job-seeking or doctoral work, Exit Strategies connects insights from Writing Now and the Katie Jacobson Writer in Residence to course readings, guest-run workshops and seminars, webinars, presentations, and panels.

The Thesis Workshops, while not required are recommended for all 2nd year students in the fall semester. This course is intended to provide students an opportunity to share, revise, and refine their thesis among peers with faculty guidance.

The Graduate Teaching Practicum is a course designed to support students while teaching as well as prepare them for future pedagogical opportunities. All students teaching on the BFA Level 100 curriculum at the Institute must be concurrently enrolled in this course.

The Directed Thesis Study with Mentor is a core requirement for all students in their final semester. This course supports the completion of the thesis required for graduation.

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III. MA in Aesthetics and Politics

Students graduating from the MA Program in Aesthetics and Politics are expected to:

  • Have read widely and deeply in the literature on modern and contemporary political, critical and aesthetic theory;
  • Be able to articulate the complex relationship between political and aesthetic problems, theories and movements;
  • Write critically and at a scholarly level for a variety of publications and audiences; and
  • Begin to engage in dialogue with the world beyond CalArts.

This program embraces a multi-perspectival approach to the various intersections between the realms of the aesthetic and the political.  First, the MA focuses on what is normally understood as political art -- i.e. art-making that chooses to become critical discourse in the public sphere.  Second, the program addresses the reverse phenomenon -- the famous "aestheticization of politics" that so troubled critical theorists during the twentieth century and that continues to invite further reflection.  Finally, the program aims to become a pole of attraction for students, artists, and scholars interested in the type of theorizing -- characteristic of continental thought -- that contextualizes aesthetic and political phenomena within a dynamic space in which social meanings are generated, renewed and contested.  Applicants interested in these fascinating crossroads and increasingly burgeoning fields of study will have the unique opportunity of enjoying the artistic environment and interdisciplinary dialogue offered by CalArts.

The MA Aesthetics and Politics is a one-year full time plus one-year low-residency degree program that engages students in an intensive critique of the relations between culture, politics and society in today's demanding global context. Taught in the unique arts-centered environment of CalArts, the Program offers a series of rich and dynamic core courses that span globalization, technology and media, politics and the arts, socio-economics and urbanism. Concentrated elective options delivered by a dynamic faculty and supplemented by a diversity of visiting specialists as well as public conferences enable students to work intimately with leaders in their field. Over two years, students work towards an independent thesis that marks the culmination of their degree and are provided a mentor to support the development of their work. The MA program equips students with a unique combination of creative and analytical skills that enable them to enter their professional milieu with confidence and the ability to participate in practical, cultural and theoretical fields of work. 

This program is flexible and substantial enabling students to focus time and depth on their studies, to take advantage of the creative environment of CalArts, to have access to a larger and more diverse cross-section of theorists and artists, and to opt to study while working in their second year.


The Program requires students to take 36 credits of study spread out over two years: the first year, 24 credits, the second low-residency year, an additional 12 credits. The low residency year enables to students to undertake flexible learning options, virtual classes, and provides opportunities for alternative study, internships and professional networking.

To arrive at the required number of credits for the MA, students can add elective courses or independent studies in either year one or two. Alternatively, internships or study abroad can also be credited towards the MA degree. 

Year One (24 credits) 

During the first year, students complete all of their core and elective course credits on-campus at the California Institute of the Arts.

Program Requirements (Description of courses are below)
Year 1, Fall Semester
Contemporary Political Thought (3 units)
Contemporary Aesthetic Theory (3 units)
Critical Discourse in the Arts and Media (3 Units)
Elective Course (3 units)

Year 1, Wintersession
Theorist in Residence (1 unit)

Year 1, Spring Semester
Critical Discourse in the Arts and Media (3 units)
Thesis Seminar (3 units)
Elective Course (3 units)

Independent Study (2 units)

Year Two (12 credits) 

During the second, low-residency year students complete their remaining coursework and prepare their graduate thesis. The low-residency second year enables students to deepen and expand their thesis research, but also to pursue internships, work, or international exchanges (for example with partner programs in France and the UK). International students should note that their options in year 2 may in part be determined by their immigration status. There may be some limitations on their Year Two Low-Residency Options because of restrictions associated with their visas. International students are advised to seek clarification on the available options through the Office of International Students and Programs. 

Students have the option of completing year two following one of two paths: either low-residency on-campus or low-residency off-campus.

On-Campus Low-Residency Option
Year 2, Fall Semester (On Campus-Low Residency)
Critical Discourse in the Arts and Media (1 unit)
Thesis Directed Study (3 units)
Independent Study/Internship (2 units)

Year 2, Wintersession (On Campus)
Theorist in Residence (1 unit)

Year 2, Spring Semester (On Campus – Low Residency)
Critical Discourse in the Arts and Media (2 units)
Thesis Directed Study (3 units)


Off-Campus Low-Residency Option
Low-residency students complete 11 of their second-year credits through a virtual classroom experience. Students selecting the off-campus low-residency option are required to be physically present on campus during the two weeks of Wintersession for the Theorist in Residence seminar (1 credit). Students are also required to meet to discuss their thesis progress with their mentor in person during Wintersession on campus.

Year 2, Fall Semester (Off Campus – Low Residency)
Critical Discourse in the Arts and Media (1 unit)
Thesis Directed Study (3 units)
Independent Study/Internship/International Exchange (2-3 units)

Year 2, Wintersession (On Campus)
Theorist in Residence (1 unit)

Year 2, Spring Semester (Off Campus – Low Residency)
Critical Discourse in the Arts and Media (2 units)
Thesis Directed Study (3 units)

Course Descriptions

Contemporary Aesthetic Theory and Contemporary Political Thought interface with urgent questions in art, politics and aesthetics, providing a historical and contemporary context for learning.

Critical Discourse in the Arts and the Media is a year-long core course that enables students to work closely with a specialized series of visiting researchers. Students will work in person or virtually through on-line classrooms engaging with a series of speakers as part of the Low-Residency off-campus option.

Theorist in Residence seminar - Each year during Wintersession the Program invites a theorist of high critical esteem to visit the School. Past theorists have included Judith Butler, Fred Moten and Thierry de Duve.

Thesis Seminar - This course delivers methodology and critical training to prepare students for the development of their independent thesis work in year two.

Elective courses - Each year the MA program offers electives that cover a diversity of topics and methodological approaches. These include courses on subjects that include: neoliberalism and the history of governance; the question of political art today; philosophies of change and the aesthetics of disagreement; the city and architectural media-scapes; technology and the global environment; arts writing; territories of violence; new feminisms; critical race theory; and core methodological questions on the intersection of philosophical, political and artistic practice. Every semester, we offer about 3-4 elective courses, giving the students a relatively wide range of choices. Students can also choose electives that are not on the recommended list, but in this case, they need to consult with the MA program director first.

Independent Study - Faculty are also able to work with students through an Independent Study. Here a student is supervised by a faculty member on an agreed upon set project that supports the development of student work. Students would meet on campus during set office hours. The Independent Study course would include assignments that traverse a range of learning methodologies and outcomes that are specific to a student’s project.

Internship - The Program works with the Center for Life and Work to house students in productive internship environments that include NGO’s, galleries, museums and other culture industry professions. We welcome students to make their own internship arrangements and work with them to facilitate such projects.

International Exchange Program – Students may apply to participate in an International Exchange Program with partner institutions.

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