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Study abroad programs are letting U.S. students travel again — but it's not easy

Despite COVID-related obstacles, study abroad opportunities are starting to reopen to students again.

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By NATALIE B. COMPTON | The Washington Post | Published: October 30, 2020

Last fall, Elon University in North Carolina had 550 students studying abroad. This fall, they have just 13. They are expecting that number to increase substantially as study abroad advisers are seeing an uptick of (virtual) appointment requests.

“We’ve actually opened our cycle of applications for fall 2021 and we have loads and loads of applications already,” says Rhonda Waller, the university’s executive director of global engagement.

Americans are not allowed to enter many international borders, including the European Union, but there are exceptions for people traveling for work, emergencies and school. While the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak was chaotic for U.S. students abroad, as exchange programs were canceled and borders closed, students are taking the opportunity to study abroad again now that they have been given the green light.

“For a lot of families, it was a risk calculation,” Waller says. “You do have to get on an airplane and that’s definitely part of the calculus as part of their thinking. But once you get off that airplane, some of these locations are probably looking actually pretty favorable compared to the relative conditions and the positivity rates here in the United States.”

Before the pandemic, hundreds of thousands of U.S. students were studying abroad each year. In the 2017-2018 school year, more than 341,750 students studied abroad for academic credit, with the U.K., Italy, Spain, France and Germany as the most popular destinations, according to the most recent stats available from the Institute of International Education.

Waller says she advises students to be optimistic as well as cautious and flexible while they plan study abroad experiences since complications can arise. Students can even register for classes at Elon’s North Carolina campus in case their study abroad plans fall through at the last minute.

Once students arrive overseas, they are in the hands of the local study abroad partners who are in charge of making adjustments for the coronavirus, from health screenings and quarantining upon arrival to adjustments to classroom settings. However, a travel abroad student’s experience will depend on where they are studying. Even if students choose destinations where coronavirus cases are currently low, it is impossible to know what the situation will be once they actually arrive.

At the American University of Paris, neurology student Morgan Phillips, 21, says class sizes are small and desks are socially distanced. However, students are given the option of choosing online learning if they are not comfortable coming to class in person. “Obviously everybody wears masks, but everything else seems pretty normal,” says Phillips, who moved from New York City.

In Florence, American graduate student Stef Ferrari, 36, has her temperature checked before entering any building of the Istituto Lorenzo de’ Medici, where class sizes are small, masks are mandatory and hand sanitizer is readily available. While she’s overjoyed with the opportunity of studying in Italy, it wasn’t easy to get there.

She had to get her passport renewed when more than a million passport applications were backlogged and expediting services were not yet available. It took months of waiting, and the help of her congresswoman, to get her renewed passport, sort out an Italian visa, get a coronavirus test and fly to Italy, where she immediately went into a strict quarantine.

Her advice to students considering studying abroad is to mentally prepare for how much logistical legwork it takes to coordinate.

“You have to give yourself extra time,” she says. “You would give yourself three months to do this under normal circumstances. Give yourself six. It’s very much about planning ahead right now because nothing is operating as it normally would.”

Phillips has similar advice. After submitting her paperwork to study abroad in February, it took six months alone to process her visa paperwork. “It was a mess,” she says. “I only found out a week before I left that I even got the visa.”

Before making the decision to go, Lin Chen, the president of the International Society of Travel Medicine and the director of the Travel Medicine Center at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Mass., says students should be prepared to deal with potential school or government regulations. She also advises students and parents to do their homework and understand what could happen if a student gets sick abroad.

“What are the arrangements and protocols? Is there a possibility of medical evacuation if they’re really sick?” Chen says. “Think about the public health guidance there, whether they have good infrastructure or whether they have good [coronavirus] guidance, whether they have good testing capability.”

Liability issues and logistical concerns may outweigh the positive elements of studying abroad.

University of Montana professor Stephen Yoshimura says there is no way he could promise students a fruitful educational experience if he took them overseas at this time. However, when students ask him for advice on studying abroad or request letters of recommendations for study abroad programs, he doesn’t discourage them either.

“I think everybody should be able to make their own decisions,” he says. “I don’t think that the pandemic situation alone is a reason to not travel, but it is a reason to be exceptionally cautious and mindful of the probable complications of it.”

On a recent webinar Yoshimura tuned in to for teachers hosted by EF Tours, a company that runs study abroad programs, the audience was told that travel insurance can be a way to account for coronavirus worries. Students may feel more comfortable having travel insurance to cover things like getting sick abroad, having travel plans canceled or needing to be flown home for care.

Jeremy Murchland, the president of the travel insurance and benefit management company Seven Corners, says that while business has been down during the pandemic, study-abroad-related business is doing better than that of general leisure travel.

His company created an insurance plan called Liaison Student Plus that covers coronavirus concerns for students and faculty who are traveling abroad to study or work. Before buying any travel insurance, Murchland says travel abroad customers should call a company to discuss what plan they need and exactly what covered, as policies can be lengthy and intricate.

One thing that will not be covered: travel guilt. Ferrari says that even though the experience has been a dream realized, having such incredible happiness during a dark time in history can be conflicting.

“2020 has been so challenging and so awful in so many ways for so many people that it almost feels not right to be having that kind of joyful moment,” Ferrari says. “I’m trying to share it with people back home and contribute back to this community in some way.”