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As the Russian assault on Ukraine continues, ripple effects are being felt across higher education, particularly in study abroad programs. Colleges are recalling students already in Russia or Ukraine and hitting pause on upcoming study abroad sessions in those countries.
Twelve students were at Middlebury College’s school in Russia when the war broke out last week—three from Middlebury and nine from other U.S. colleges, according to Middlebury College spokesperson Sarah Ray. As of Wednesday night, three students had left; the majority will depart Friday, and the last student will leave Russia over the weekend, Ray said.
Middlebury College made the decision Monday to recall students from Russia.
“Given the very limited availability of international flights out of Russia, and the US Department of State’s authorization for family members and nonessential embassy staff to return to the US, we feel that it is time for students to leave the country,” Nana Tsikhelashvili, a professor and director of Middlebury’s Russia program, said in a news release. “Militarily, the invasion has not gone the way anyone expected, and this has made it virtually impossible to make future predictions as to what the situation will be like in Russia for our students. The best way to ensure our students’ safety, which remains our top priority, is to remove students from Moscow and Irkutsk as soon as possible.”
Tsikhelashvili added that students can finish the semester remotely for academic credit or withdraw, though there will be no refund or credit for students who choose the latter option.
Additionally, the college will make funds available for students to fly out, if needed.
“If you are in a situation where you don’t have enough money to pay for your airfare, please come to me. I will be able to lend you money from College funds that you’ll be asked to pay back later,” Tsikhelashvili said.
Similarly, the Council on International Educational Exchange, an international education nonprofit supporting study abroad efforts, announced that it is suspending its spring 2022 programs in St. Petersburg and moving students to other locations in Eastern Europe.
“Although in many ways city life in St. Petersburg goes on as normal, the freezing of Russia’s transportation and banking systems in response to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine means that CIEE will relocate the students currently studying with us in St. Petersburg to safe locations in Eastern Europe where they can complete their international programs, including their study of Russian language, culture, and politics,” the organization said in a news release on Monday.
CIEE noted that no decisions have been made yet on summer and fall programs in Russia.
Future Study Abroad Programs
Study abroad came to a halt in 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic largely froze travel. Some programs have been slow to return, meaning that there probably would be more students in affected countries had COVID-19 not forced a pause. The University of Alaska at Fairbanks, for example, hasn’t had students in Russia for several years, which is “likely a factor of COVID more than anything else, since the pandemic has really affected study abroad programs in general,” said spokesperson Marmian Grimes.
University of Richmond students last studied in Russia in summer 2019. A review of study abroad programs led the university to decide against offering a summer option in Russia.
“Our review consisted of consultation with our faculty and a look at many factors—political stability, travel conditions, COVID-related and other safety concerns, as well as entry/exit, vaccination, and quarantine requirements,” Ellen Sayles, associate dean and director of education abroad at the University of Richmond, wrote in an email. “We also looked carefully at US Department of State and [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] advisories. This review led us to conclude in December 2021 that it was prudent not to offer our summer program in Russia.”
Study abroad in nearby countries has also been affected as colleges rethink programs in places such as Poland and Georgia, nations adjacent to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
Harvard University has a study abroad program in Tbilisi, Georgia, scheduled for June. The Harvard in Tbilisi program started in summer 2016, though the pandemic forced it into hiatus in 2020 and 2021. Now the uncertainty around armed conflict in a neighboring country has prompted uncertainty about what to expect as the program is primed to return.
“We are currently making plans for Harvard in Tbilisi, but don’t know what we can expect for the summer,” Steven Clancy, senior lecturer on Slavic languages and literatures and director of the Slavic language program at Harvard, wrote in an email.
Ultimately, as colleges move forward with study abroad programs in Russia, Ukraine and adjacent countries, they’ll have to consider dual threats: COVID-19 and war.
“Although the health and safety of our students and their ability to have a valuable educational experience are of utmost importance, we will of course also factor in the current conflict and the actions that [Russian president Vladimir] Putin has taken against Ukraine,” Sayles said.