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LSA junior Katyanne Calleja and LSA sophomore Hannah Glass-Chapman had both planned on studying abroad in China last summer. Both said they were disappointed when the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic brought their travel plans to a screeching halt. 

Now, just over a year after U-M students were rushed onto airplanes back to the U.S. from around the world and all study abroad programs were abruptly suspended, Calleja and Glass-Chapman’s study abroad prospects appear vastly different. While Calleja anticipates she will be unable to study internationally at all during the remainder of her undergraduate experience, Glass-Chapman intends to fly to South Korea this June as a part of what will likely be the only study abroad program offered by the University of Michigan during the Spring/Summer 2021 term.

The six-week program is expected to run from late June to early August during which students will take two or three courses at The Yonsei International Summer School in Seoul, South Korea. The country was initially commended for its rapid, aggressive and effective response to the pandemic, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently categorizes South Korea as a “Level 2: Moderate level of COVID-19” travel location.

Though the University ranked in the top 10 nationally for the number of students who studied abroad in 2019, not one in-person international experience has been actualized thus far during the 2020-2021 academic year. However, if the Yonsei program successfully gets off the ground, Rachel Reuter, senior health and safety advisor at the Center for Global and International Study, said it will be an auspicious sign, indicating that more international programs might be green-lit for students to enroll in the coming fall and winter semesters.

Traveling back through a full year without study abroad

When Calleja last spoke to The Michigan Michigan Daily in February 2020, her summer study abroad program in China had just been canceled, but other summer programs — including at least one in Beijing — still seemed like they would be able to run. Naturally, when the University shut down its own residence halls in Ann Arbor, it was clear that international programs would likely be out of the question for the summer. Yet, as some in-person operations returned to campus, confusion about when study abroad could resume extended into the fall, winter and now this summer.

However, for Calleja, it is already too late. She plans on taking the Medical College Admissions Test this summer and then spending her senior year on campus before she graduates next spring, leaving no time for her to pursue an academic program overseas. Though Calleja said she is saddened she was not able to leave the U.S. for the first time and study in China alongside her peers, she said she plans on taking a year to teach in China to teach in China before applying to a graduate medical program.

“I’m Chinese but I was adopted, so I’ve always wanted to go back to see what it’s like to live there,” Calleja said. “Since I wasn’t able to study abroad … I definitely want to take time and spend a year (in China) just because if I don’t do it now, then I probably will not have time to do it ever.”

Kinesiology senior Jesse Pollens-Voigt also wanted to study abroad last summer. He had applied to the “Study Abroad in Scandinavia” program in Copenhagen that was canceled a week or two after the University went virtual and reapplied to the same program this year as well as one in Madagascar. The Madagascar program has already been suspended, and Director of CGIS Michael Jordan told The Daily the programs they were hoping would run in Spain, the United Kingdom and Denmark are probably not going to meet the University’s health and safety standards.

Pollens-Voigt is not giving up on studying abroad just yet though. With tuition costs covered by his Kalamazoo Promise scholarship, he is currently arranging to take an additional semester or two of classes — one of which he hopes will be overseas.

“When else in your life can you just put everything on hold, go live somewhere else for like three months, and just get this cultural enrichment and hands-on learning?” Pollens-Voight said. “It’s just a phenomenal opportunity given my situation with the scholarship. I’m willing to stay (at the University) extra time to be able to go abroad.”

LSA junior Irisa Lico had also planned on studying abroad in Denmark as well as Sicily last summer. As an international studies major, when her program was inevitably canceled, Lico said she was very adamant about finding a way to learn and work with those around the world despite the physical travel restrictions.

Lico was able to secure two virtual internships — one helping prospective Albanian immigrants locate job opportunities in Spain with Valencia-based company Tu A Team and another (virtually) attending Tanzanian court hearings and working for the Demo Law Associates.

Though Lico enjoyed the flexibility of doing her virtual internships at home, she said the most notable disadvantage compared with her previous in-person international experiences was the time difference between the U.S. and the countries where her internships were based.

“(Tu a Team) would have their meetings in the morning, but it would be like 4AM over here so I couldn’t attend the meeting,” Lico said, and later noted a similar problem with Tanzania’s time difference, though she was able to attend most of Demo Law’s synchronous activities. 

“So, I would have to find out everything that they did that day the next day, and I was just a little behind, but I always caught up,” Lico said.

Despite the potential value of virtual international experiences, Jordan said CGIS did not choose to sponsor any virtual study abroad programs this academic year beyond those that allowed students who were sent home from international institutions last March to finish their program and receive credits. Jordan cited equity concerns due to the lack of scholarship funding available for virtual programs as the main reason for their decision.

“Financial aid and scholarships cannot be used because of U-M policy and/or federal policy … for virtual study abroad experiences,” Jordan said. “We didn’t think that was equitable, so we just made the decision not to offer those.”

The future of study abroad: navigating restrictions, warnings, vaccines

Currently, all countries outside the United States are on the University’s travel restriction or travel warning lists. Restricted destinations are completely off-limits for study abroad considerations, but U-M faculty may begin the planning process for prospective programs taking place in countries on the “warning” list. Currently, the University requires a filled-out “group safety plan” for a potential program to be approved by the International Travel Oversight Committee before student applications can be accepted.

Patrick Morgan, chief international safety officer, wrote in an email to The Daily more student travel opportunities may open up for students as countries move from the restricted list to the warning list. Morgan is responsible for monitoring and updating the lists based on the latest advice from the ITOC, which he is also the chair of.

“For determining U-M Travel Warning and Restriction destinations, our International Travel Oversight Committee has been reviewing countries on an iterative basis using a variety of sources, including: US Department of State Travel Advisories, CDC Travel Notices, CDC COVID-19 risk levels, other non-U.S. government advisories, and U-M’s assistance provider’s risk ratings,” Morgan wrote.

Even if a country is considered to be at a low enough risk factor to be on the warning list, Valeria Bertacco, vice provost for engaged learning, said students may not logistically be able to study abroad there. For instance, Australia — the first country on the alphabetically-organized warning list — does not permit U.S. citizens to enter.

Bertacco said most study abroad programs are planned eight months to a year in advance. Though the University continues to plan programs in countries on the warning list, Bertacco said predicting the public health situations and how various policies will change — especially in response to vaccinations — is extremely difficult.

“A lot of policies need to be updated, both by airlines, and countries to recognize vaccination,” Bertacco said. “We’ve been circling above the airport this entire time. We’re ready to land as soon as we are allowed to.”

Regarding promising vaccination distribution rates in the U.S., Reuter added that additional ethical considerations are likely to leave the University’s Global Engagement Internship program — and similar service programs located in communities without robust health care infrastructure — off the table for the foreseeable future.

“Even if the student is vaccinated, we don’t know enough about transmission rates,” Reuter said. “So we have completely taken (GEI and similar service programs) off of our radar for the next year or two just because those typically go into vulnerable populations.”

However, Jordan said he is cautiously optimistic that other study abroad and international programs will be able to run next fall. Jordan said CGIS has received more applications to study abroad in the fall than usual — even prior to the pandemic — because so many students have had previous programs canceled the past year and others are longing for a change of scenery.

“Normally, Michigan students want to study abroad in the winter and then spring, summer, but this year we’ve seen at least double, if not more, the number of applications to go abroad next fall (compared to non-pandemic years),” Jordan said. “So based on (public health conditions and recommendations) we could have another semester where there’s few people, or no one traveling, or we could have a record number of students for us abroad in the fall.”

Study abroad program in South Korea is preparing to take off

Though the roughly two dozen students enrolled in the South Korea program is a fraction of the 1,000 or so students who typically study abroad through the University in any given summer, Morgan, Reuter and Jordan all agreed it is exciting to see any program come to fruition.

South Korea is currently on the warning list, and in his email to The Daily, Morgan commended the strong program safety assessment and plan submitted by CGIS which he and the rest of ITOC approved. Jordan clarified the generally low number of positive COVID-19 cases in the country and reliable health care infrastructure have made this particular program viable this summer.

“The country meets the University’s metrics of fewer than 100 cases per 100,000 people,” Jordan said. “We’re confident in the steps that have been taken by the university we partner with (Yonsei University) and by the Korean government. We think that there’s a robust health care system.”

However, concerns regarding a possible fourth wave in South Korea are growing as the country reported 731 new COVID-19 cases — the most it has seen in one day since January — on April 14. Despite this, Reuter, who tracks the 30-day average infection rates for any potential study abroad location, said she is hopeful the rigorous planning efforts from the University and the students will pay off with a safe and successful trip.

“We’ve done a lot of orientations, a lot of meetings, there’s just been a lot more requirements that students have had to do this year than they would’ve in typical years,” Reuter said. “But I think this is just the steps that students are having to take right now in order to be able to go abroad in the middle of a pandemic.”

Besides students being required to fill out an extensive individual safety plan with added COVID-19-specific prompts, other additional steps include quarantining for 14 days upon arrival in a government-designated facility — or with Korean-resident family members — as mandated by the Korean government. Reuter said CGIS made sure to add two weeks to the beginning of the program to accommodate for the quarantine period and ensure students would leave early enough to be able to move into the Yonsei residence halls right before their classes begin in late June.

However, Gabriella Jakubczak, Business and LSA sophomore, is going with the program and told The Daily students are expected to pay the additional cost for their quarantine housing. She said she is slightly frustrated about some of the unknown details associated with the new quarantine requirement.

“A specific concern for some people is there’s not a whole lot of clarity on the quarantine period for if you have food allergies,” Jakubczak said. “I particularly am allergic to almost every fruit imaginable: watermelon, apples, bananas, everything. There’s no way to know if that’s something they’re going to feed us.”

Despite the ambiguity as study abroad begins the transition to a “new normal,” Jakubczak said she is excited to be studying abroad for the first time and hopes to have the opportunity to practice taekwondo.

Glass-Chapman said though she is still somewhat sad she missed out on studying abroad in China last summer, she looks forward to safely practicing her Korean skills in the country where the language is natively spoken. After a whirlwind year, Glass-Chapman said she feels fortunate to have received the opportunity — along with a scholarship — to be a part of the first program to run this year.

“The fact that this program still has a green light, especially when it’s the only program right now that has a green light shows that (the University) has put a lot of thought into it,” Glass-Chapman said. “And … the Korean government’s protocols, like the mandatory two week quarantine upon arrival and multiple COVID tests also makes me feel like this is … as safe as it can be in the pandemic.”

Daily Staff Reporter Roni Kane can be reached at