Courtesy of Gabrielle Jakubczak.  Buy this photo.

LSA senior Tiffani Ihrke was supposed to return home from the South Korea trial study abroad program in early August with fellow students. Instead, frontline workers dressed in hazmat suits picked Ihrke up and rushed her to a treatment facility in Seoul after she tested positive for COVID-19 just a couple of days before her flight back to the U.S.

Ihrke had been a part of the Yonsei International Summer School (YISS) program for the Spring/Summer 2021 term. It was the first study abroad program to take place at the University of Michigan since all were suspended in March 2020 due to the pandemic.

Despite testing positive at the end of the program, Ihrke said she sincerely enjoyed her time in South Korea. She attributed her positive experience to living off-campus due to both financial reasons and the desire to experience more of South Korean society. 

“I personally learned so much about myself, and I gained so much insight about different cultures and the different ways that the pandemic is being handled in different areas,” Ihrke said. 

Once her 10-day quarantine is finished, Ihrke can request confirmation of her recovery from the local center of public health and reenter the U.S. with documentation confirming her recovery starting Aug. 21. Ihrke was fully vaccinated when she tested positive for the virus, as the University has required all students participating in on- and off-campus programs — including study abroad — to be vaccinated. 

For now, Ihrke is in quarantine at the treatment facility with a government-assigned random roommate who also tested positive and is dealing with the downsides of studying abroad during a pandemic. 

“I’ve been very well taken care of, and I’m really fortunate that the Korean government is so accommodating for COVID specifically, but it’s definitely been a headache, to say the least,” Ihrke told The Daily while in the Seoul National University Treatment Center. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently classifies South Korea as a “Level 2: Moderate” out of a scale from “Level unknown” to “Level 4: Very High” in terms of COVID-19 risk. Both new daily infections and deaths have increased since June, and roughly 21% of the country is fully vaccinated.

Business junior Gabriella Jakubczak, another student who participated in the program but lived on campus at YISS, said physically being in South Korea was “better than anything else I would have done this summer.”

But as rising COVID-19 cases in the country led to YISS’s and South Korea’s increasingly stricter social distancing rules, Jakubczak began to realize how much the pandemic still inevitably impacted the program. 

“Eventually you could only go out in pairs after 6 p.m,” Jakubczak said. “They shut down all the street food in Korea, which is insane, considering how much that’s a part of their culture and how prevalent that is within the city. It was like walking in an empty Times Square; you’d just see storefronts empty.”

Jakubczak said if she knew how bad the COVID-19 situation was going to be earlier in the year, she probably would’ve opted to complete the program online from the U.S. instead. According to Jakubczak, studying abroad amidst the pandemic also sometimes led to miscommunication from CGIS staff about program details like dates for certain activities.

“I think the problem is there was an increased demand for support and responsiveness that we needed because it was a COVID program (during the pandemic),” Jakubczak said. 

CGIS Director Michael Jordan said he has yet to send out surveys and receive feedback from students who were in South Korea. He told The Daily that CGIS often communicated with students in the program, and he asked for “flexibility” and “patience” from students when traveling abroad given the current circumstances of the pandemic.

Jordan said CGIS has been communicating “quite frequently” with students in the South Korea program especially because it was the office’s first ongoing program in a year.

“Information has been and continues to change very frequently under these circumstances, so I can imagine it could get confusing,” Jordan said. “But again, it is a situation that’s changing on a daily basis, so we definitely require our partners’ and the students’ patience and flexibility, because this virus and the pandemic just keep throwing curveballs at us.”

Courtesy of Gabrielle Jakubczak. Buy this photo.

Looking ahead to the fall

Six programs will be running this fall semester in South Korea, Germany, Iceland and the United Kingdom, including a different program in Yonsei. 

Jordan said CGIS had to cancel numerous programs for both the fall and winter semesters after evaluating the status of the pandemic in various countries.

“We’ve worked for years to expand the options for our students’ interest among our students and destinations outside of Western Europe,” Jordan said. “But at this point in time, those are the countries that are letting Americans in and that meet the University’s criteria for health and safety during a pandemic.”

Some of the criteria include infection rates and vaccination rates among that country or city’s population, quality of the country’s healthcare system and potential overuse of that country’s healthcare system by U-M students.

“Even though our students are vaccinated they could still transmit the virus, so it seems unethical to be sending them into unvaccinated countries,” Jordan said. “If the local medical system is already being overtaxed by the pandemic, then obviously we don’t want to exacerbate that.”

LSA junior Jorge Blanes will be studying in Germany this fall to earn credit for his double major in International Studies and German.

Though he admitted that potential lockdowns and risk of being sent back to the U.S. were “daunting,” Blanes said he considers the pros of meeting new people and venturing into a new country worth the challenges. He said studying abroad this fall is the best time academically for him to do so.   

“It’s basically a risk-reward thing, and the rewards seem to outweigh the risks right now,” Blanes said. “They won’t really let the program happen unless they see that we’re going to be, for the most part, safe.” 

LSA junior Garrett Ashlock also contemplated the benefits and drawbacks of studying abroad and ultimately chose to enroll in a program at University of Cambridge Pembroke College in the fall. Feeling like his time was running out in addition to being accepted into his “dream school” of Cambridge, Ashlock said he felt it was necessary to seize the opportunity. 

“Ultimately, it came down to the fact that this was basically going to be my only chance to study abroad that I had left, and this was such a great program and one that is very selective to get into,” Ashlock said. “So after weighing the options, even though there are some inherent risks with traveling abroad during the pandemic, I thought it was still the best thing to do.”

Though Ashlock is fully vaccinated, he said he remains worried about potentially contracting the virus. However, he said he is grateful CGIS and the University are able to support him if he must navigate a foreign system.

“I think the amount of effort that Michigan puts into sending students abroad, and the amount of resources that they have, helps me feel a lot better about going somewhere, especially in the middle of a pandemic,” Ashlock said.

After the challenges she faced during the program in South Korea, Jakubczak said she is debating whether or not to follow through with another study abroad program planned for the winter semester. 

“It’s very isolating in a way that you already know what COVID feels like in the United States,” Jakubczak said. “Now imagine you have no friends, you have no family support and maybe now you have a language barrier, depending on where you’re going. So now you’re really truly alone. I was supposed to go on a study abroad program to Madrid in the winter semester this year, and I’m wondering whether or not I want to go through that again.”

Daily Staff Reporter Martha Lewand can be reached at mlewand@umich.edu.