As pandemic continues, students grapple with uncertain study abroad plans

Monday, August 24, 2020 - 11:17am

A man wears a mask in early March in Madrid, Spain, where U-M runs several study abroad programs.

A man wears a mask in early March in Madrid, Spain, where U-M runs several study abroad programs. Buy this photo
Madeline Hinkley/Daily

As the fall semester approaches and the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, students like LSA junior Nathan Schooner are adjusting their plans to study abroad.

Schooner had hoped to study multicultural psychology in Argentina during the 2020 spring term. Now, “with everything going on, you just don’t know the timeline… or the future of study abroad,” Schooner said.

University of Michigan students studying abroad in March were forced to abruptly return to the United States. Other students scheduled to leave the country for summer and spring term study abroad programs saw their plans dashed as well.

Fall 2020 study abroad programs have been canceled and students are barred from visiting most countries due to current travel restrictions. Amy Conger, associate vice provost and director of global engagement, said it is too soon to have a conclusive answer about Winter 2021 programs. 

“By early October, we hope that we have a better projection of what countries might be opening up for study abroad programs,” Conger said. 

But Patrick Morgan, the University’s chief international safety officer, said some hope remains for future study abroad programs. One factor is whether the University will lift its travel restrictions.

“We are looking at whether or not the risk level has lowered enough to remove the restriction and let future undergraduate travel and study abroad programs go on,” said Morgan.

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Design by Wilma Brandt

Even if it is safe to travel, Conger said it’s not clear if students can get visas, purchase refundable flights or make deposits for the study abroad program of their choice.

“We want to be clear, it’s not only about the COVID-19 circumstances in a particular country,” Conger said. “The other thing that these offices and these study abroad directors are very aware of is the financial timetable of these study abroad programs.”

Even if the programs do continue, COVID-19 will remain a concern for the students who do choose to study abroad. To limit risk, there will be new regulations that students will have to follow in order to travel safely.

“The program reviews will be very different in terms of what orientation would look like, what advising would look like,” Morgan said. “All students would have to do a safety plan … The considerations really span a whole bunch because now there might be specific country COVID requirements.”

Conger also said it is possible that students may have to deal with abrupt cancellations of the program, similar to what happened in March.

“We’re going to build in some information for students to just help them be more prepared for contingency plans,” Conger said. “So, what happened in March of 2020, we were all taken by surprise, we never could have expected that volume of students and that stretch of countries would be impacted.” 

Applications for the 2021 study abroad programs remain open. But students like LSA senior Maggie McKinney, who planned to work with a local nonprofit focusing on women empowerment in Tanzania in the 2020 summer term, are concerned about how COVID-19 could impact the regions where they will conduct their studies.

“I am concerned about bringing the virus to other communities,” McKinney said. “Many other countries are faring better than the U.S. right now as far as the pandemic goes, and it would not be fair to bring sickness to other countries and people for the sake of our own global experience.”

As long as COVID-19 remains a substantial threat, McKinney said she does not plan to study abroad in the near future. Other students continue to harbor anxiety about their health.

“You have the fear of COVID out there,” Schooner said. “I think everyone has this ongoing concern and anxiety with what will happen to them or what will happen to their family. I’m always hesitant now to apply to programs for study abroad because … you’re going into a lot of unfamiliar places and you don’t really know where you’ll end up.”

Conger said despite the disappointment many students faced, she hopes students will study abroad when it is safe.

“Global learning itself, which is key to study abroad, is more important now than ever,” Conger said. “As we’ve learned from the pandemic, this is a global issue. COVID-19 doesn’t respect what passport you hold or what national boundary you reside within … We don’t want those students to lose sight of how valuable it is.”

Daily Staff Reporter Cynthia Huang can be reached at huangcyn@umich.edu.

Correction: A previous version of this article said travel may depend upon if students can purchase "nonrefundable flights." The correct word is "refundable."