Study Abroad Programs Resume After Pandemic Hiatus

Some students who lost out on studying abroad because of the pandemic are turning to alternative programs. Others are going abroad their senior year, a little later than intended.

January 20, 2022
 
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Many students who lost out on the study abroad experience last year because of COVID-19 are finding ways to make it happen this year.

Andrea Boe had always planned to study abroad as part of her college experience. During her sophomore year at Tufts University, she began looking at programs in Spain for the following year.

Then, in March 2020, the coronavirus pandemic hit. Classes went remote, and many students who were already studying abroad came home early.

By the time Boe started her junior year in fall 2020, she realized her plan was doomed: Tufts canceled its study abroad programs for spring 2021 due to COVID-19.

“Studying abroad was the No. 1 thing I wanted to do in college my whole life,” said Boe, now a senior. “My older sister studied abroad in Prague when she was in college, and I watched her do all of that. And so I think it was devastating. And even now, I’ll think about it, and it can make me very sad.”

Unwilling to abandon her dream of spending time abroad, Boe turned to Workaway, a platform that allows users to arrange homestays abroad in exchange for work, such as teaching children English or helping a host renovate their home. But rather than give up part of her senior year to go abroad, Boe said she plans to travel to Spain for three months this summer after she graduates.

“Having a program that would allow me to be placed with people who could be a home base for me and give me guidance on the area is appealing to me,” Boe said. “And part of my desire to go abroad was to get really good at Spanish and use it. If I was just traveling around, I feel like I’d be spending less time in a specific place. This program gives me the ability to stay for however long I want.”

Many students who lost out on the study abroad experience last year because of COVID-19 are finding ways to make it happen this year. Some, like Boe, are creating their own trips on their own time; others have simply delayed their study abroad programs a year. Either way, many study abroad programs are back on track, though their overall numbers are still down.

According to data released by the U.S. Department of State and the Institute of International Education in November, 162,633 American students studied abroad for academic credit during the 2019–20 academic year, which includes summer 2020. That’s a 53 percent drop from the 2018–19 academic year, which saw 347,099 U.S. students study abroad.

Numbers for the 2020–21 academic year have not been released yet, because there is a yearlong data lag required for credit transfer to take place after students return to their home campuses. But according to the Institute of International Education’s fourth COVID-19 Snapshot Survey, released last June, roughly half of the 414 U.S. institutions that participated said they anticipate an increase or stabilization in study abroad numbers in the 2021–22 academic year.

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For spring 2021, 43 percent of institutions canceled all study-abroad programs,16 percent offered both in-person and online study abroad, and 15 percent maintained in-person-only study abroad. The outlook improved by summer, when only 12 percent of institutions reported canceling all study abroad programs, while 35 percent reported offering in-person study abroad and 14 percent allowed both in-person and online study abroad.

Looking ahead to spring 2022, 42 percent of institutions said that they would allow in-person study abroad, and only 2 percent vowed to cancel all programs; 43 percent hadn’t yet made a decision as of June 2021. But anecdotally, at least, it appears that many programs are plowing ahead.

Europe In, India Out

COVID-19 has affected the destinations students choose, however. IIE’s Snapshot Survey noted that for the 2021–22 academic year, the four most popular countries for study abroad were France, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom. Only five of the top 15 destinations were outside Europe—Australia, Costa Rica, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea—and fewer than 10 percent of institutions planned to send students to India, “likely due to the serious, ongoing COVID-19 outbreak,” the report speculated (the Delta variant was first detected in India in February).

Melissa Torres, president and CEO of the Forum on Education Abroad, a membership association of education abroad professionals from over 800 institutions, confirmed that the uptick in study abroad enrollment is concentrated in certain regions.

“As compared to fall 2021, many Forum members have resumed study abroad programs, although for colleges and universities, that frequently means a restricted subset of their portfolio of destinations and programs,” said Torres. “Ed abroad organizations are generally reporting steadily increasing numbers of both applications and student mobility, particularly for programs in Western Europe.”

However, Torres said, the latest COVID-19 Omicron surge has hit institutions at a hard time, as many are struggling to decide whether or not their spring and summer programs can run. In addition to worries about the highly transmissible variant, institutions have to navigate constantly changing international visa and entry rules as well as testing and vaccine requirements.

Melanie Armstrong, assistant director of global education at Tufts University, said that based on the high number of open or pending applications to study abroad in 2022–23, which are officially due Feb. 1, students seem eager to make up for lost time.

“A fair number of them originally applied to go abroad in 2020–21 but were unable to and reapplied for this year,” Armstrong said.

Stephanie DiLeo, currently a senior at Tufts, was planning to study abroad in Seville, Spain, during her junior year, before Tufts pulled the plug on the program.

“When it got canceled, I called my mom in a panic,” DiLeo said. “And I said, ‘This is what I’ve been wanting to do since I was 15 years old.’ I was really, really frustrated with the whole situation.”

While not her initial plan, DiLeo decided to go abroad her senior year. Though the Seville program is running this semester, she opted instead to go to Madrid through the Council on International Educational Exchange because the timing worked better with her graduation schedule. The two courses she’s taking—an intercultural communication and leadership class and a photojournalism class—are not for credit, since they’re not required for her degree in international relations, but at least she’s getting her abroad experience by taking them in Madrid. The only class she’s currently receiving credit for is her senior capstone, through Tufts, which she’s completing virtually.

DiLeo said the Omicron surge made her nervous about going abroad, but she flew to Spain without any issues, arriving in Madrid Jan. 3.

“I’m so thrilled to be in any capacity abroad,” DiLeo said. “I know there’s things going on back at school, and I’m sure I’m going to miss out seeing my friends, but I keep reminding myself that I’m in Spain and this is just such a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Rebounding Numbers

After a big drop in students studying abroad last year, Elon University in North Carolina has seen its numbers bounce back. Nick Gozik, dean of global education, said Elon, which uses a trimester system, currently has over 900 students abroad for winter term, which runs from Jan. 4 to 27. Gozik noted more than 1,200 students applied—the highest number the university’s ever seen for its winter term.

Most of the programs filled up right away, Gozik said, leaving some students on wait lists.

“This year, we’ve seen rebounds both for fall and for spring terms—a bit lower in the fall than usual, but robust numbers,” Gozik said. “For the winter term, interest was just off the charts, [though] we will end up having fewer students because of cancellations, and a lot of that is driven by individual countries.”

The Netherlands program, for instance, was canceled after the government imposed a lockdown, Gozik said.

When the pandemic first hit in spring 2020, Elon brought back students who were studying abroad, but the university was able to send students overseas again that fall, Gozik said. Elon’s annual Isabella Cannon Global Education Center report for 2020–21 noted that 13 undergraduates studied abroad during the fall term and 46 did so for the spring term. Study abroad programs for winter 2021 were canceled, Gozik said, but those students were offered a study abroad term in May 2021 instead, which 32 undergraduates attended.

Similarly, Middlebury College in Vermont suspended all study abroad programs during the first months of the pandemic but restarted some programs in fall 2021 in countries that permitted it, said Carlos Vélez-Blasini, dean of international programs. For the forthcoming spring 2022 semester, 311 Middlebury students are enrolled in study abroad programs—about twice as many as studied abroad last fall, but 25 or 30 percent fewer than during the pre-pandemic spring of 2019, Vélez-Blasini said.

“Some students may be more cautious, but that is understandable given the circumstances,” Vélez-Blasini said. “We have also heard that because the pandemic caused disruptions in students’ college experience, many decided to forgo or at least postpone study abroad to be able to have the opportunity to attend college the way they had originally intended.”

Senior Year Abroad

University of Richmond students are also beginning to venture overseas again. Most of the university’s study abroad programs restarted last fall, said Ellen Sayles, associate dean and director of education abroad, when 250 students participated. During a typical, pre-pandemic fall semester, close to 300 went abroad, Sayles said.

For the spring 2022 semester, 119 University of Richmond students are either already in their program country or preparing to go abroad soon.

“It’s a big increase for us in the spring,” Sayles said. “And I think the reason for that is because of pent-up demand. We’ve seen more seniors who are going this year, when it’s more traditionally a junior semester abroad.”

Gozik noted that a ​high percentage of Elon students studying abroad this winter are seniors who weren’t able to go earlier or who didn’t feel comfortable traveling. Seniors applying to study abroad got first dibs in program selection, since a lot of them missed out on the opportunity to go their junior year, he said.

“Because a number of students couldn’t go last year, and they want to make sure that they get this experience before they graduate, we’re seeing a lot of students say, ‘I really, really want to go,’” Gozik said.

Sayles noted that the latest COVID-19 surge has impacted students studying in countries that introduced new rules and regulations, like France, where the government recently implemented a vaccine pass to enter public places.

As people learn how to live with COVID-19, interest in studying abroad will likely increase, Sayles said.

“I do think we’ll see some stronger interest in the next year or two,” Sayles said. “Assuming that COVID does not get worse than it is now.”

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