Forging a ‘New Normal’ within Education Abroad
April 23, 2020
International education professionals adapt to doing their jobs during a global pandemic while working remotely.
On March 25, when employees from the Global Academic Programs unit at the University at Albany logged onto Zoom for a staff meeting during their second week of working remotely, they were greeted by a surprise guest – Snow White.
Add a little levity. “Everyone is working from home and all the kids are home, so I decided to try something to add a little levity, shake people up a bit and maybe relax them,” says Carrie Prior Wojenski, Ed.D., Associate Vice Provost for Global Academic Programs. She hired an actress friend who portrays fairy tale characters at meet-and-greets to join the meeting as Snow White. The princess sang, held a whistling contest, talked about the dwarfs and handwashing, and stressed the importance of social distancing, even in the forest where she lives.
The 10 office staff members – plus three rapt children – enjoyed the surprise. “It was dorky and funny,” admits Wojenski. “There was just a lot of giggling, and sometimes you need that.”
Providing opportunities to laugh and relax is especially important now that non-essential employees are working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic. The stresses associated with working from home – and, more broadly, living through a global pandemic – have uniquely affected education abroad professionals who have been dealing with the ramifications of the coronavirus for months.
In late February, when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention designated Italy and Spain as Level 3 countries, Texas A&M University decided to return students to the U.S. and cancel all future spring study abroad programs. Staff worked around the clock to bring students home, says Holly Hudson, Ed.D., Executive Director of Education Abroad. So when her team of 20 full-time employees officially transitioned to working remotely on March 23, they had already experienced the pressure and anxiety of dismantling programs.
“For most people in education abroad, we had a three-week period of sustained crisis mode, adrenaline-driven response,” says Hudson. “To have that come into the local community, onto our campuses, was a little bit more than some people could process.”
Challenges of Working Remotely
Mandates to work remotely have presented an array of challenges as offices adapt to a new normal that entails lots of emails and “virtual meetings galore,” says Wojenski.
Education abroad offices are following up with students whose programs have been cut short and sorting through all the related issues, from academic to financial consequences, as well as planning for the 2020-2021 school year (which may or may not look different than anticipated). “There is still a lot of work related to COVID-19 in addition to the regular work we have this time of year, and the disruptions that occur as a result of being home,” says Hudson.
Perhaps the easiest hurdles to overcome are technology related – identifying suitable technology platforms and dealing with malfunctioning virtual private networks, shared drives, Wi-Fi connections and so on. Within a few days or so, most offices worked through the technical kinks. Working cohesively as a team is a bit trickier. “Just as remote learning sometimes takes a little more legwork and connection, so does remote management – staying in touch with your team and your team staying in touch with you,” says Wojenski.
One of the biggest challenges for Hudson is figuring out how to sustain momentum and motivate employees who have been working tirelessly for weeks on dozens of tasks related to canceled programming. “We hit a wall that first week of remote work: Are we really going to keep doing this? How long are we going to do this?” she admits. “We realized we can’t think about it that way. We have to take it one day at a time.”
Even though teams are working long hours, it’s hard to stay connected working remotely. “We have Zoom meetings, but that doesn’t really take the place of face-to-face connections,” says Hudson. “It’s easy to not turn on your camera one day, and that’s the beginning of not being present and not staying connected.”
With so much work to do, there’s also the risk of not shutting down at the end of the work day, says Wojenski. “We are all trying to be very careful about work creep. If you want to write an email at 6 p.m., that’s your business. But try not to hit the send button until the next day,” she says. “For my team, I have been trying to adopt strategies so they aren’t constantly feeling a blend between work and life.”
Leaders like Hudson and Wojenski are also feeling the strain of shifting responsibilities. “I find myself spending more time managing – making sure everyone’s projects are moving and reports are updated – than I do moving forward on projects I might have been focused on before,” says Wojenski. “It can feel like you’re spinning your wheels and maybe, with baby steps, you actually accomplish something every week.”
Advice for the Field
In the rapidly evolving COVID-19 landscape, most education abroad professionals are learning to adapt to work changes day-by-day. Hudson and Wojenski offer some pointers they have gleaned along the way.
In the midst of the global pandemic, Wojenski is also thinking about the future. “I look forward to when we can start future planning, not mid-range planning; we are already doing that,” she says. Wojenski is pondering ways to take the lessons learned now and approach internationalization in a new way. For example, she plans on pushing for Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) across the curriculum at the University of Albany. COIL creates equitable, team-taught learning experiences, linking classrooms in two or more higher education institutions in different countries or cultural settings.
“What could help people move forward and feel hope is to think about what we couldn’t get progress or movement on before. How can I spin that message and show stakeholders that this matters and now is the time?” says Wojenski. “I want to create something positive out of the terrible situation we've been handed during the pandemic. I want to leverage it for the good of internationalization.”
That goal just might represent the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel and one that can help all education abroad professionals remain optimistic about a future when they shut their laptops at home, return to offices on campus and forge another “new normal” within the industry.