Colleges cautiously optimistic for future of study abroad

VCU Monroe Park campus.
VCU Monroe Park campus.(VCU Capital News Service)
Updated: May. 14, 2021 at 5:18 PM EDT
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RICHMOND, Va. (CNS) - COVID-19 restrictions are easing in the U.S. and some places around the world, but hurdles remain for Virginia students seeking to study abroad.

Many Virginia colleges are following travel recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and State Department when making decisions about the safety and feasibility of study abroad programs.

The organizations currently don’t suggest traveling to most countries, “whether it be due to COVID or other issues,” said Sarah Carrier, academic advising coordinator at the Virginia Commonwealth University Global Education Office.

Study abroad programs are currently canceled at the Richmond-based university, but VCU stated in an update Friday that students are permitted during the 2021 fall semester to study in countries that the State Department designated levels one and two. Students must petition for travel in the countries that are marked levels three and four.

VCU students couldn’t earn virtual study abroad credits prior to the pandemic, but the university now offers this option. Around five students were enrolled in virtual classes hosted abroad during the summer of 2020. The university will likely have around the same number of virtual study abroad participants, or more, this upcoming summer, Carrier stated in an email.

“Everyone’s learned to be more flexible and take things as they come which is also a good life lesson,” Carrier stated. “But we are hopeful that we can send some more students this fall.”

Allie Oberoi, assistant director of the Global Education Office at Blacksburg-based Virginia Tech, said COVID-19′s impact on higher education is the understatement of the year.

“International learning experiences have had significant impacts because of border closures, concerns for individual student health, public health safeties and other aspects of risk mitigations,” Oberoi stated in an email.

Tech does not allow students to travel to locations where the CDC and State Department have issued a travel health notice level 3 or higher. However, students that want to travel to those countries can pitch their travel abroad plans. A committee then evaluates and reviews if the individual will be successful and safe abroad.

Tech asked students and faculty abroad to return home during the 2020 spring semester as countries dealt with the pandemic. All travel programs were cancelled for the summer and fall of 2020.

Tech student Amanda Riddle was set last summer to study children’s literature abroad in the United Kingdom, but the trip was ultimately cancelled. Riddle said she’s upset she will not have a study abroad experience. She plans to graduate next year and will not reapply for the study abroad program again, she said.

“Study abroad was an experience I knew I wanted when I came into college,” Riddle said in an email. “COVID-19 has made it so it’ll never happen.”

However, study abroad policies are different for other universities such as the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg.

Jose Sainz, director of the UMW Center for International Education, said that although the university’s summer travel abroad programs are cancelled, students are allowed to independently study abroad. Students may choose to study abroad by partnering with individual companies or the university’s providers.

“Should their travel destination be within the travel guidelines of the Department of State and the CDC’s, students are free to travel as they please,” Sainz said. “We do have a number of students that are very interested.”

The biggest challenges when the pandemic first started was coordinating with overseas partners, making course rearrangements and finding enough housing for all students, according to Sainz.

“As you can imagine [the students] were in a large variety of locations,” Sainz said. “That went on for several months until everybody was able to return.”

Most, if not all, students studying abroad had their academic plans altered when their respective programs were canceled. Those courses were rearranged to be taken on campus at UMW, according to Sainz.

“That took a lot of work across different departments to try and accommodate the different courses they needed to take,” Sainz said. “It was academically and financially challenging.”

UMW also had to find housing for international students studying abroad on its campus who were unable to return to their home countries, Sainz said.

Despite the chaos, the university is “cautiously optimistic” about fall 2021 being the “rebirth of travel,” Sainz stated in an email.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.