In a typical year, American colleges send tens of thousands of students overseas — 347,099 in the 2018-19 academic year, to be exact — to learn about other countries and other cultures.
Covid-19 halted travel and closed borders. Rather than expanding their horizons, the coronavirus has shrunk many students’ worlds to close pods of friends and family.
Though the pandemic has affected just about every aspect of college, and of daily life, its impact on education abroad was existential: What, after all, is study abroad without the abroad?
With vaccines on the horizon, many colleges and education-abroad providers are wrestling with how to get programs up and running. Of particular concern is putting in place safety protocols to reassure skittish students and parents and to guard against new Covid variants and future outbreaks of other infectious diseases.
“Our work is planning, contingency planning, and contingency-to-the-contingency planning,” said Holly Hudson, executive director of education abroad at Texas A&M University at College Station.
But the past year without study abroad has also brought about a reckoning, with the pandemic time-out leading many in the field to consider its future. If international study is critical to a 21st-century college education, as advocates argue, equipping graduates for a workplace that’s global and multicultural, is it OK that only a small share of students take part? Just 2 percent of all undergraduates and 16 percent of those who earn a bachelor’s degree study abroad, according to the Institute of International Education.
Some have begun to question the very nature of study abroad: Is it necessary to travel to another country or continent to gain cross-cultural insight and understanding? Could students get similar educational benefits by interacting with diverse communities closer to home? And now that we’ve all become so accustomed to learning via Zoom, why not link classrooms around the world virtually, bringing a global experience to students?
“The value of education abroad has never been about getting on a plane to go from point A to point B,” said Andrew J. Gordon, president and founder of the Diversity Abroad Network. “Our value is in global knowledge exchange.”
After Covid-19, there might not just be a restart to study abroad. The pandemic could bring about a reset.
The experience of the past year has raised a set of pressing questions: Will students be itching to go abroad after so any months cooped up? Or will a new recognition of global risk keep them close to home?
Study-abroad offices report pent-up demand. Even during the height of the pandemic, applications to ISEP, a study-abroad and exchange provider, were at 80 percent of the normal rate despite that no programs were running, said John Lucas, the organization’s president.
Grace A. Murray, a junior at the University of Oregon, is one of the students in the pipeline. Murray, a first-generation college student, has wanted to do a summertime journalism program in London since she heard about it during freshman orientation. “I may sound like a dork, but I’m fascinated with British culture,” she said.
Murray was set to study abroad in the summer of 2020 and had to scramble to find an internship when Covid canceled her plans. She hopes to go this summer. “When you’re living in a tiny apartment with roommates doing online schooling, study abroad has been the light at the end of the tunnel,” she said.
Bayley Wivell had also long planned on going overseas, building her entire academic schedule at Georgetown University around a semester in Singapore. But she will forfeit that opportunity and spend her senior year in Washington, D.C.
“I’ve lost a lot of time at Georgetown, and I want to share that with my friends,” she said. “I will be able to travel in the future, but I won’t get to be a college student at Georgetown again.”
Wivell hopes to study overseas during grad school, maybe even for a full degree. But educators worry that after a year of remote learning, students will have to pick and choose about what to fit into a shortened college experience, and study abroad could tumble down the list of priorities. A survey of 800 students by College Finance, a platform that provides resources on college borrowing, found that six in 10 students would be willing to skip studying abroad in order to have an on-campus experience. That could reinforce the idea that it is discretionary or optional, rather than something central to a college education.
Instead, Barroso Delarosa is spending this spring in Tokyo, as one of 35 students studying abroad at Temple’s campus there. Although she had to quarantine for two weeks on arrival, life in Japan, where Covid infections have been low, feels normal, especially compared with the lockdowns back home in suburban Philadelphia. “It’s kind of like how I always imagined it would be,” she said of her study-abroad experience.
Temple’s other overseas campus, in Rome, where about 70 students are enrolled, hasn’t been so fortunate. Classes there had to move online in mid-March after local case counts began to rise. (Restrictions are scheduled to lift on Monday.)
Emilia Zankina, dean of Temple Rome, said administrators had been preparing for this unwelcome scenario, making sure that all classes could be offered in person and online in case of lockdowns or positive Covid tests among students.
As the rare education-abroad program operating during the pandemic, Temple offers a possible template for what other colleges and providers could face with reopening. Zankina and her staff have had to comply with two sets of safety regulations, American and Italian, and find new housing after old residences didn’t have sufficient space for social distancing and quarantining. Some challenges were unexpected — demand for mental-health services has skyrocketed, which Zankina attributes to residual trauma from the pandemic.
“We’ve had to be flexible,” she said. “It is an experiment in the making.”
In the aftermath of the pandemic, there could be new attention on safety and liability issues, with students and families paying special attention to protocols for responding to infectious diseases and even Covid itself, given the lack of knowledge about the duration and efficacy of vaccines and the possibility of future surges or virus mutations.
Zankina said support and expertise from Temple’s main campus, in Philadelphia, has been critical; her team meets weekly with administrators from international, risk management, and other offices.
Post-pandemic, students and college administrators alike may prefer traditional college- or provider-run programs like Temple’s or direct exchanges with partner universities because they offer access to better infrastructure. That would be a shift away from the recent trend toward short-term trips, typically led by individual faculty members. Two-thirds of students went abroad for eight weeks or less in 2018-19, the Institute of International Education reported.
Covid could also affect where students go. For one, some countries may be hesitant to admit Americans, given the United States’ poor handling of the pandemic. Many countries will require vaccine passports or other proof of inoculations.
Colleges could also declare some destinations off limits because of Covid-related liability risks, and students may balk at going to places with ongoing infections or where vaccines are not widely available.
Hudson, of Texas A&M, said she would be cautious about advising students to go to countries where they could place added demand on already-taxed health-care systems. “If they would be an extra burden,” she said, “would that be ethical of us?”
Given the inequities in worldwide vaccine distribution, the pandemic could reinforce existing student preferences for European countries — the six most popular destinations for American students are in Western Europe — and away from places like Africa and South America, said Melissa Torres, president of the Forum on Education Abroad, an association of American and overseas colleges and independent study-abroad programs. At the same time, Torres said safety concerns could also attract students to places like South Korea and Taiwan that have received high marks for their coronavirus response.
Low-income and first-generation students may also be less likely to study overseas, hampered by cost, work commitments, or a sense that an international experience isn’t for them. “We will closely watch more fragile populations,” says Heather H. Ward, associate dean for study abroad and international exchanges at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, “to make sure this isn’t layering on other issues.”
Another event of the past year, the Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis, could bring newfound attention to study abroad’s struggles with diversity.
Keshia Abraham, a consultant focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion in international education, said she is encouraged by the open discussion and acknowledgement that the field must do better. There are many steps colleges and providers can take, Abraham said, including hiring more program leaders of different racial and ethnic backgrounds and building explicit discussions about diversity and identity into orientation activities before students go overseas.
Conversations about change happened before, but now there’s broad recognition that study abroad must do better, she said. “I think we’re now at the table, eating the same meal.”
“I feel that we’re on the precipice of something really great,” she added, “if we can hold onto the momentum.”
Another shift in momentum could be toward giving students global experiences closer to home. For some students, that could mean “studying away” rather than studying abroad, getting a cross-cultural educational experience within the United States by spending time in diaspora or refugee community, often close to campus. The University of California at Davis, for example, offers global learning programs with Spanish-speaking migrant workers and Nepalese immigrants.
But the real energy since the start of the pandemic has been in virtual exchange, which links American classrooms with university partners overseas. Professors have used online learning to team-teach courses, organize group projects with students in different countries, and host lectures by a rotating international cast of speakers.
Natalie Vargas, a senior at Florida International University, took a Shakespeare class last fall via virtual exchange, completing a group project examining feminism and anti-Semitism in The Merchant of Venice with students from Slovenia. Vargas was surprised by the Slovenian students’ more conservative reading of Shakespeare but said she learned a lot from the experience. “It was amazing to find that community, that connection, despite our different cultures,” she said.
Some educators had previously shied away from virtual exchanges because they felt they were not as immersive as studying overseas or lacked the same opportunities for language learning. But the pandemic has helped increase the comfort level of both students and professors with remote learning, said Mohamed Abdel-Kader, executive director of the Stevens Initiative, which supports virtual exchanges between the United States and the Middle East and North Africa.
“We don’t see it as either/or,” he said, “but as another tool in the tool box.”
Still, it’s not enough to open up a joint Zoom link — effective virtual exchanges need to be intentionally designed and work in concert with the broader academic goals of a course, said Abdel-Kader, whose group has published recommendations for best practices.
At the University of North Carolina, Ward’s office offered small curriculum-development grants, of $2,500 each, to faculty members to create 20 courses with virtual exchanges in the 2020-21 academic year. Students studied child and family health with classmates in Grenada and theater’s response to Covid-19 with partners at Queen’s University Belfast and the National University of Ireland.
Chapel Hill, which typically sends 43 percent of its undergraduates abroad, had not done virtual exchanges prior to the pandemic but plans to continue them, Ward said.
Technology has not just connected classrooms but given students the chance to do remote internships around the world. At the start of the pandemic, CAPA, a private study-abroad provider, shifted to offering virtual internships. Some 900 students have gained work experience around the globe, said John Christian, CAPA’s president, including with an Italian public-relations firm and an Australian baseball team.
Even before the pandemic, students were increasingly interested in global opportunities tied to their career goals, not just to cultural experiences. The Institute of International Education reports that 38,000 students participated in noncredit internships, volunteering, and research abroad in the 2018 academic year, up from 22,000 five years earlier.
Already, at least one prominent institution, Dartmouth College, has announced it will cut back its overseas programs, from 45 to about 35. Partly, the closures reflect structural budget deficits and declining student interest that predate Covid, said Dennis Washburn, associate dean for international studies and interdisciplinary programs. The college is also seeking to realign its study-abroad programming to offer more geographic diversity and to appeal to students in a greater variety of disciplines.
Still, Washburn said, “Covid really blew us out of the water.”
For some colleges, the pandemic has only underscored just how interconnected world is and the importance of preparing students for it. Agnes Scott College, outside Atlanta, has made global education a key institutional priority, sending all of its first-year students abroad or within the United States to have a cross-cultural experience. Two-thirds of its incoming students cite its global-learning curriculum as a key reason for their college choice.
During Covid, Agnes Scott has had to make do, bringing in speakers and relying on virtual connections to replace travel. But it hasn’t shaken the college’s faith in the importance of gaining a global experience, said Gundolf Graml, associate vice president for academic affairs. “Global learning,” he said, “is core to who we are and what we do.”