Studying abroad during a pandemic offers lessons in resilience
While most international travel screeched to a halt during the first months of 2020, Virginia Tech was one of just a few U.S. institutions that cautiously left the door open to allow students to study abroad in spring 2021. Now, the Global Education Office is applying the lessons it learned to ensure that students looking to pursue international experiences are supported and prepared to navigate the challenges of safely studying abroad during a pandemic.
This fall, 133 students are already studying internationally or planning to do so. That includes 109 participating in programs led by Virginia Tech faculty members. In Switzerland, the Steger Center for International Scholarship, the university’s European academic center, which was forced to close at the onset of the pandemic, reopened its doors to welcome 37 Hokies at the start of the semester.
This month, the Global Education Office will host Study Abroad Week, including the Fall Fair on the Drillfield, to help students learn about the variety of global experiences available.
Allie Oberoi, assistant director for global safety and risk management, has led the university’s international response to the pandemic. In early 2020, she coordinated the return home of about 230 students from locations all over the world, including the Steger Center. Now, she is working with faculty members to continue to expand the number of programs allowed to resume, with at least 12 faculty-led programs planning to proceed during Winter Session.
“The policies and safeguards the university put in place last year, along with the diligent work of people across campus, are allowing students to experience transformational global learning opportunities in these unprecedented times,” Oberoi said.
Theresa Johansson, director of the Global Education Office, said that by doing the work necessary to allow study abroad programs to continue, “Virginia Tech has expressed in the clearest terms possible the importance of international engagement to our global land-grant mission and our firm commitment to giving our students access to these unique experiences.”
The university’s Global Travel Policy 1070 does not authorize travel to locations with a Centers for Disease Control Travel Health Notice Level 3 or higher and does not authorize student travel to locations with a U.S. Department of State Travel Advisory Level 3 or higher. With much of the world still at elevated levels, university travelers are encouraged to petition the Global Travel Oversight Committee for a waiver to the policy.
Currently, anyone participating in a study abroad program is required to have a COVID-19 test prior to departure, follow all quarantine protocols and risk mitigation requirements in their destination country, and abide by all CDC-recommended quarantine procedures upon return.
Adapting to constant change
Despite these additional health and safety hurdles, students who have studied abroad this year said they have treasured their international experiences. When asked if studying abroad during a pandemic was worth it, for example, Alyse Johnson said, “100%.”
Johnson, a senior majoring in public relations, participated in last spring’s International Business in Lugano: Combining Theory and Practice program in Lugano, Switzerland, directed by David Brinberg, the Kathleen Grega Digges Professor of Marketing in the Pamplin College of Business.
“I always thought studying abroad was out of reach, so when the opportunity became available, I knew I had to do it,” Johnson said. “I put all my hopes into it happening, even though the uncertainty of COVID made it more challenging.”
The long-standing Lugano program is known for allowing students to travel to multiple countries, some reaching more than 10 countries in a semester. With border closures and advisories in effect for much of Europe, opportunities to travel freely were limited this year.
“Our students were understanding and accepting of the meaning of study abroad during a pandemic. They adapted to the constantly shifting travel restrictions and were able to adjust to the rapidly changing environment. We’ve shown that with proper planning, these experiences can still occur,” Brinberg said.
While the restrictions seemed like a deterrent initially, Johnson came to see them as a unique opportunity to explore more of Switzerland. “Most times people want to travel to other countries. Unlike the groups before us, we got to see more of Switzerland’s beauty,” she said.
Neighboring countries such as Italy opened their borders. Without crowds of tourists, Johnson and her pod were treated to a more authentic view of Italian culture. “We’d check every week to see where it was possible to travel. We’d adjust our plans based on restrictions. It made us all really adaptable and that’s a life skill that’s going to stay with us,” she said.
In the concluding weeks of the semester, Johnson traveled to Rwanda as part of the program’s service-learning component. At a local non-governmental organization (NGO), Johnson’s group worked with students ages 15-22.
“Having a cultural exchange with someone who is your age but from a completely different continent was so valuable. I got a lot from that experience, and it was easily my favorite part of the whole program.”
This fall, Johnson joined the Global Education Office as a student peer advisor.
Establishing a new comfort zone
Ursilia Beckles has always been interested in Korean culture. The junior majoring in English with a concentration in pre-education spent the spring semester in Seoul, South Korea, as an exchange student at Konkuk University. “I’ve had an interest in Korean culture for a while now, so the chance to study there was something I had to do,” she said.
The experience wasn’t without challenges. “Anyone studying abroad, but especially during a pandemic, has to be ready for anything. Nothing terrible happened, but things were unexpected. You have to expect the unexpected.”
Like Switzerland, South Korea required a mandatory two-week quarantine period upon arrival. With temperature checks and testing at the airport, it took Beckles 10 hours to clear immigration. “I have to admit, entry to South Korea was a challenge. I arrived in a country where I knew no one and had to go straight into quarantine,” Beckles said.
Social distancing and masking can make it difficult to connect with others, but Beckles made use of every opportunity. Despite classes being offered online, she was able to develop friendships with local students. “I saw the Korean movie ‘Minari’ in theaters, which is set in Arkansas. My Korean friend asked me where that is on a map. Another time, someone asked me about Texas. Fun conversations where you can learn about where people are from are definitely the best part about being abroad,” she said.
Beckles realized that being uncomfortable is a key part of her growth. She surprised herself with her newfound ability to navigate a foreign country on her own.
“I had a moment walking in Seoul when I just thought, ‘Wow, I’m really here.’ I think back to when I started college and used to struggle with anxiety and leaving my comfort zone,” she said. “This whole experience taught me that it’s OK to leave your comfort zone and that when you do, you can discover so many amazing things.”
Testing the waters
Born in Sweden and raised in Blacksburg, Sture Forsman started college with the goal of studying abroad. The junior industrial systems and engineering major spent spring semester in Sweden as an exchange student at Lund University.
“I wanted to get out there and experience something new,” Forsman said. Sweden is somewhere he is considering living or working in the future. “Even with the circumstances around the pandemic, studying abroad for half a year was an opportunity for me to give it a test run.”
He chose an exchange program since it offered him the best of two worlds. “I wanted the kind of independence that an exchange offers but still have family nearby,” he said. With exchange programs, students live locally and take courses at a partner institution.
Like Johnson and Beckles, Forsman said studying abroad was worth the hurdles. “If you have the opportunity to study abroad, you 100 percent should. You learn a lot about yourself, and at the same time you learn a lot about another country,” he said. “You don’t remember all the hassle and paperwork. You remember the experiences. It’s invaluable.”
Reopening the world’s doors
The process to study abroad has always involved a series of steps and requirements to ensure that students are prepared for the experience.
“The pandemic has added complexity in terms of health and safety to that process, but for good reason,” said Oberoi, with the Global Education Office. “In many ways, these students got more out of the study abroad experience than they would have in normal circumstances. They’ve clearly demonstrated an ability to navigate complex environments while maintaining their academic pursuits.”
In a typical year, about 1,600 Virginia Tech students study abroad. Prior to the pandemic, that number was trending upward. Participation dropped to 816 during the 2019-20 academic year; in 2020-21, participation fell to just 101 students. “Our numbers have understandably taken a hit, but interest has steadily grown and we’re hopeful to pick up where we left off pre-pandemic,” Oberoi said.
Study Abroad Week will be held from Sept. 20-24. Along with the fair on the Drillfield, the week will feature various sessions on topics such as available program types, funding opportunities, and health and safety. More information is available on the Global Education Office website.
Written by Rommelyn Conde Coffren