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Program leaders say they’re looking ahead to this spring and this summer, assessing how they might safely send at least some students abroad if conditions allow. (REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

For college students, opportunities to study abroad this school year are sparse. As the COVID-19 pandemic grips nations across the globe, both the University of Minnesota and Minnesota State campuses have canceled study abroad programs for this fall and winter.

But while enrollment may have largely come to a halt, planning has not. Program leaders say they’re looking ahead to this spring and this summer, assessing how they might safely send at least some students abroad if conditions allow.

In the meantime, some study abroad offices have had to cut back on staffing, due to a lack of revenue. Others have managed to keep their entire office intact. At least one private college has continued sending students abroad to a handful of countries. Many study abroad offices are considering virtual options as a valuable alternative to an in-person intercultural experience.

Parallel planning

In a normal year, the University of Minnesota’s Learning Abroad Center sends about 4,000 students abroad, making it one of the largest study abroad offices in the country. But it hasn’t sent any students anywhere since March.

Martha Johnson, assistant dean for learning abroad at the University of Minnesota, said the center has been stuck in a loop of “hoping things can open up, and then canceling things as we go.”

It’s a self-funding department. So the disruption has led to unpaid leave for some employees. The scramble last spring to bring current participants home sent the department back financially as well. It paid out more than $2 million in refunds to students who racked up emergency return flight and travel expenses.

Students may not be studying abroad right now, but staff are still planning, registering and working out contingency plans with those who are itching to participate once conditions allow. The fall back plan includes helping students enroll in classes for the upcoming semester both through the study abroad program and on campus. “We’ve done a lot of parallel planning,” Johnson said, noting this dual enrollment option isn’t allowed under normal circumstances. “We don’t want them to lose out on the classes they may need.”

The department is still hoping to run a small number of programs this spring. All programs run through a partner organization will stay on hold, as the department focuses first on reopening some of its own study abroad centers. In a typical year, the center would be gearing up to send from 400 to 500 students abroad. If conditions allow, Johnson anticipates that count would be closer to 50 students this spring. “Even that we may not be able to do,” she said.

If students do go, their experience will look different in some key ways, including no homestays with local families, and quarantining upon arrival.

In the meantime, the department has rolled out a travel-free alternative for students who are still looking to gain some intercultural experience: a virtual internship program. This past summer, about 70 students participated. Fall enrollment increased, totaling 220 participants. “We’ve been required to get creative and innovate — which is not necessarily a bad thing,” Johnson said.

Looking ahead to summer

The Minnesota State system suspended all study abroad programs last March. That quick pivot meant lots of work for study abroad staff, bringing students home and issuing refunds, said Susan Niedzwiecki-Pham, director of study abroad at Winona State University. That cancellation, for short-term and semester-long programming, extends through the spring 2021 semester.

The staff has been updating elements of the program including deposit and cancellation policies. Currently, everyone is focused on getting summer programming ready. Niedzwiecki-Pham said her team has avoided layoffs and furloughs to date. She hopes some programs can be reopened this summer, as long as the health and safety of students and faculty aren’t compromised. The Minnesota State Board of Trustees will soon make a final decision on the viability of running summer 2021 study abroad programs, system-wide. Then each campus will have to assess the safety and viability of running each of its faculty-led and partner programs.

“Summer is our biggest term, in terms of sending students abroad,” said Niedzwiecki-Pham, noting that the summer program application process is already underway, with some program deadlines approaching in December. In a typical year, the department sends between 250 and 300 students abroad. Close to 150 of those students go abroad during the summer.

For now, study abroad advising appointments are down, which Niedzwiecki-Pham attributes in part to the fact that students are adjusting to the new virtual learning model.

“I think students are having a hard time adjusting to that right now. So one thing at a time,” she said. “However, I do know we have students saying, ‘I know I can’t go right now, but I’m definitely ready to go when we can open things up and travel again.’”

‘A delicate balance’

Carleton College made the decision to continue sending students abroad through a few of its partner programs this school year. A total of 53 students went to Denmark. “Denmark had been weathering this pandemic much better than other places — especially the U.S.” said Helena Kaufman, director of off-campus studies at Carleton.

Conditions in Denmark allowed for a relatively safe learning experience for program participants, she added. Another 10 students went to other destinations, including Iceland, Greece and one to Rwanda. (In a normal fall term, Carleton sends closer to 180 students abroad.)

She and her team — also fully in tact — has been staying busy recalibrating programs, preparing and supporting students, and constantly assessing whether or not to run upcoming programs. “This is kind of a delicate balance because you don’t want to create a safety hazard,” she said. “And you don’t want to enter communities that have gone through trauma themselves.”

The second consideration is just as important as the first, she emphasizes. Students, faculty and residents in host countries also are experiencing death and economic hardship and all of the other baggage that comes with the global pandemic. She’s taking care to ensure any programs that pass the safety check also make sense, from a social responsibility standpoint. Third, the viability of the academic program and goals must also be factored into any decision to reopen a program abroad.

Right now her department is assessing four programs for the spring trimester, which would start at the end of March: Japan, Rome, Romania and Moscow. “They’re very different destinations that we have to consider,” she said.

Meanwhile, all of its faculty-led programs, which make up about 60 percent of the college’s study abroad portfolio are on hold. Carleton hasn’t yet established any virtual study abroad alternative programs. But she’s keeping a close eye on creative developments in the study abroad field — things like shifting the bulk of coursework to a virtual format from home, then tacking on a short in-person travel stint at the end; building out a virtual lecture experience with adding in a language partner and group projects with peers in that country; and designing courses that connect a classroom in the U.S. with a classroom in another country.

Like her peers at other Minnesota study abroad offices, Kaufman remains optimistic about the future of study abroad. If anything, the pandemic has reinforced her conviction that these sorts of academic, cross-cultural experiences are incredibly valuable. “All of the challenges we are facing as a global community — this pandemic, climate change, economic challenges, political, immigration -— make it more and more important for us to think globally and learn globally,” she said.

Erin Hinrichs is MinnPost’s education reporter.

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