Global Engagement Solutions for Higher Education


COVID-19 Becomes Real for Study Abroad Students

April 8, 2020


For many students studying abroad as the COVID-19 pandemic grew, the severity of the situation hit home before cases were widespread in the United States. What started in December in Wuhan, China has spread rapidly to neighboring countries and beyond. As international educators, cutting these experiences short is never something we wanted to do but had to as we considered our ethical responsibility.

Terra Dotta turned to students to hear their voices on the situation. Some never embarked on their journey whereas others had COVID-19 on their minds from the start of their journey, depending on the location of their program. As Europe remains a hotspot for study abroad, many felt the COVID-19 situation became real when the European travel ban was announced. One student who was studying in Dublin, Ireland stated:

“It wasn’t clearly stated that Ireland wasn’t affected nor were U.S. citizens, and that’s when it got pretty intense for my friends and for myself. It took about a day after the announcement was made for my program and home university to communicate with us.”

Another student who was studying in Strasbourg, France said:

“It became a reality when I heard students were being sent home from Italy. I think that was February 29th. Slowly events and trips we had planned were getting cancelled, and then our program sent us an email the following Monday. As I watched the numbers in France reach well beyond the numbers of Italy at the time of students being sent home, my stress levels reached an all time high.”

With levels of uncertainty rising for students, parents, and universities due to COVID-19, it was time for students to start returning home.

Coming Home
Each student that has returned to the United States in the past month has had their own unique experience navigating travels, transitioning to online classes in different time zones, and self-quarantining due to CDC guidelines.

Following the travel ban placed on Europe, study abroad goers scrambled to find flights home. One student stated he “lucked out” by finding a one-way flight for $2,000. He compared his flight price to a friend who booked a one-way flight home to Chicago, Illinois for $4,500. For other students, flights they booked last minute were getting cancelled as airlines scrambled to accommodate the influx of flight bookings and as additional restrictions were made to the European travel ban.

For many students, the process of returning home was exhausting, confusing, and expensive. However, one student expressed her gratitude for her home university as their Student Health Center reached out to ask how she was doing and if she had everything she needed for quarantine. She appreciates that they have been following up since to make sure she is doing well.

Another student interning in the Caribbean was part of a program scheduled to end in March, but her flight was cancelled and the only airport on the island closed. She stated,

“I’m really thankful my program was able to extend my accommodations and is allowing me to stay until May. I’m sad about not going home, but this isn’t the worst place to be right now.”

Many students are happy to be reunited with their families, but are not experiencing the same re-entry experience they expected. Universities and their international departments have been working diligently to respond to student needs and provide resources to ease the abrupt transition they experienced.

Takeaways Regarding Globalization
Whether students are still abroad or back home, they are reflecting on their time abroad and the takeaways they have had from their experiences. Moreover, globalization is at the forefront of the conversation as they conceptualize the interconnectedness of the world.

“I think globalization is unavoidable long term since the world has become so connected, which is a good thing most of the time. But in times like this it's incredibly important to have an elastic response in place in case there's a need to quickly close borders.”

“It has been interesting to see how different countries react to COVID-19, and it has become more apparent to me how we are all dependent on each other. Before this semester, I don’t think I had ever heard the word solidarity, but I have heard it nonstop in my courses and countless times during this pandemic. We are all on this planet together; therefore, we should be able to come together during times like this to make the best decisions for each other.”

Lessons learned about global interconnectedness seem to be iterated more now as these students look back on their time abroad, and as international educators, globalization is one of our main takeaway goals for students.

Positive Experience Despite COVID-19
Even though their study abroad experiences were interrupted, students are still reflecting positively on study abroad. These students still gained independence, were able to travel prior to COVID-19, and made lifelong friends. One student said,

“We were all scared of how life was going to change after experiencing so much change already. The support that we have provided each other which still continues today has made us all really close friends. I am so grateful that I was able to experience this with such amazing and kind people.”

Students continue to express gratitude for the experience despite COVID-19. One student who was studying in Thailand said,

“It’s kinda been here the whole time, but I literally still had the time of my life there and would do it again in a heartbeat.”

Study abroad remains as a sought after experience for college students, and COVID-19 has not put a halt to international education.

“Overall 10/10 experience and would recommend it to anyone, COVID-19 or not.”

As universities are looking ahead for fall programs and to 2021, we encourage universities to continue striving for students to gain international experiences. As a field, we should keep in mind that international education will survive because we all believe in exposing our students to this global community.