By Hazel Kieu
It’s been almost a year since COVID-19 first rattled the U.S.. For students at St. Michael’s College, the future of study abroad programs still holds many uncertainties. What does the study abroad experience look like in the middle of a global pandemic? Should students even apply? Is it safe to travel outside the country and reside in another during a pandemic?
According to study abroad director, Peggy Imai, among the 50 to 60 Saint Michael’s students who had planned to study abroad this semester, only four decided to follow through. Between travel restrictions and public health concerns, the majority of study abroad programs have either been canceled or altered, and some college students have also made the decision to stay home on their own.
“It definitely stunk, especially on the day that I was supposed to leave,” said Megan Schneider ’22. She was supposed to study in Costa Rica this semester but decided to stay home within the last month before her trip.
This small percentage of St. Michael’s students choosing to study abroad seems to be the common trend amongst study abroad programs in the last twelve months. Wendy Lombardo, associate director of Institutional Relations at Arcadia University and study abroad program affiliate, reported a decrease from roughly 3000 students traveling abroad per year to around 100 students since the pandemic started.
Though many other colleges have shut down their entire study abroad departments as a response to the pandemic, Saint Michael’s College is one of the few that still keeps the program running.
“We haven’t done that on this campus, mainly because students are pretty good decision-makers,” said Peggy Imai. Students on campus can still seek advice about study abroad and make a plan for the future.
Imai’s point about good decision-making is not unfounded, as it was not an easy or straightforward decision to make. For many of these students who were considering study abroad this semester, this has been their dream for a long time. “I was even looking at study abroad programs when I was considering colleges, because I knew that was something I wanted to do in college,” Schneider said. Though she fell in love with her program in Costa Rica, she felt unprepared and didn’t receive enough information to form any real idea of what it was going to be like, she said.
While some students made the decision themselves to not study abroad, others were forced to stay because of travel restrictions. This was the case for Anna Bilotti ’22, whose initial plan was to study in Perth, Australia, only to find out that Australia had banned international travel in an effort to prevent another outbreak. As a result, her program was canceled.
Other programs have also been canceled this semester due to small turnout, or due to consideration of other countries’ healthcare infrastructure. “We made the right decision not to go [abroad] this semester because [we’re] thinking about how it’s going to affect students as well as the rest of the world,” Lombardo shared. On the other hand, students who are traveling abroad this semester have shared mixed feelings. Even though they are eager to immerse themselves in a different culture and learn as much as they can, they said, there is uncertainty about how their experience will unfold. Therefore, they are proceeding with a lot of caution. Alexyah Dethvongsa ’22, whose program consists of six weeks in Nepal and the rest of the semester in India, is hoping that in six weeks’ time, India will allow American citizens into their country. Maeve Kolb ‘22, who is studying in Kisumu, Kenya this semester, said that she is not only concerned about COVID-19 but also malaria and other diseases that she can contract, especially at a time when public health is already vulnerable.
Decisions to study abroad vary, but both students shared that they have been planning to study abroad for so long and they couldn’t give up that dream. “It’s so bad here…if I can go to the grocery store and get [COVID], why wouldn’t I just do what I have always wanted to do and not miss out on a valuable experience,” Kolb said.
Dethvongsa acknowledged this was a difficult decision to make. “People who are going are really passionate about this,” she added. Even though both of their programs have been altered because of the pandemic, they are still excited to learn more about public health and epidemiology during this critical time period.
Although the study abroad experience may not be the same, Lombardo from Arcadia University notes some silver linings to the situation. As a result of having to spend most time in their host city instead of being able to travel to neighboring areas, “students gained a much deeper understanding and appreciation for where they were studying abroad,” she said. Because of the pandemic, “people have to think about how what they do or don’t do affect other people around them,” she added, observing that students are moving beyond what they want to get out of a study abroad program to think about the global impact of their actions.
Studying abroad during the COVID-19 pandemic is difficult, but not impossible. There are many challenges and restrictions students have to navigate, depending on where they want to go. For those who are planning to go abroad, although it varies from program to program, there are usually health and safety staff available 24/7 for any students in need, as well as staff working closely on tracking the development of the pandemic. For those who couldn’t travel, there are still other opportunities in the future, as well as other ways to experience different cultures and get a global perspective, such as through virtual internships abroad. “If that study abroad experience is really important to you, it doesn’t hurt to apply and try. It might get canceled again but I think it’s worth it,” Bilotti said. She has much hope for the future and plans to apply again next Fall.