Global Engagement Solutions for Higher Education


Study Abroad Offices Adapt to COVID-19

March 23, 2020


Universities grapple with how to educate students – and keep them safe – not only on their home campuses, but in study abroad programs around the world.

NOTE: Institutional responses to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic are evolving. Therefore, current campus policies and procedures may have changed since the writing of this article.

Portland State University (PSU) is facing the same challenge as all other institutions of higher education across the United States. With rapid global spreading of the COVID-19 virus, the public research university is wrestling with the implications for its study abroad programs, as well as programs on the home campus in Portland, Ore.

“When the coronavirus outbreak escalated in China earlier this year, the university had three students studying abroad there. Two returned home, and one – a Chinese national – opted to remain in the country with his family. PSU indefinitely suspended all 18 study abroad programs in China that it offers students, many through program providers.”

On March 1, PSU leaders implemented a broad policy for determining what other study abroad programs should be discontinued, deferring to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s rating system for travel health advisories. “The health and safety of our students overseas is something we take very seriously,” says Ron L. Witczak, executive director of the Office of International Affairs at PSU. “Our students have returned home, or will return home, from any country that is a Warning Level 3.”

“As of March 9, Level 3 countries – those that the CDC recommends avoiding for nonessential travel due specifically to COVID-19 – include China, Iran, Italy and South Korea. In addition to the two students in China, PSU has brought home four students from an exchange program in South Korea and six from a study abroad program in Italy. All have adhered to a 14-day self-imposed quarantine.”

Duke University has restricted all university-funded travel to any country the CDC assigns Level 2 status and above, as well as all domestic and international non-essential, university-sponsored travel. For Amanda Kelso, Executive Director of the Global Education Office at Duke and Assistant Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, the decision to shutter programs is prudent, but disheartening.”

“For international educators, there’s a bit of a mourning process taking place. This isn’t what we do,” says Kelso. “We don’t dismantle education abroad programs; we make them possible. To dismantle them is heartbreaking.”

Special Committees Arise to Weigh Substantial Considerations
While decisions affecting study abroad programs and international travel are made at the highest levels of university leadership, often among presidents, provosts and boards of trustees, both Duke and PSU have multidisciplinary committees advising leaders. Duke has a standing Emergency Steering Committee that considers everything from crowd control at football games to campus drone policies. Kelso and a health, safety and security officer from her office are members of that committee, as well as a recently spun off coronavirus sub-committee.

“We started having daily coronavirus calls in which we discussed all aspects of management and planning for what might happen, both in Durham, North Carolina, at Duke and in all of Duke’s activities around the world,” says Kelso. While the majority of Duke’s study abroad programs occur in the fall – a 5-to-1 ratio compared to spring – the university maintains a robust international presence.

One of its flagship endeavors is Duke Kunshan University in China, which began offering a Global Learning Semester program in 2014 and a four-year bachelor’s degree program in 2018. When the coronavirus outbreak locked down the 200-acre campus in Jiangsu province, the university  delayed its semester start from Feb. 3 to Feb. 24 and moved all instruction by its 100-plus faculty members to online delivery.

As of early March, the coronavirus sub-committee was meeting two to three times a week. “It has been extremely helpful for my team to have representation on that committee – to give feedback to upper administration and have them hear our concerns,” says Kelso.

Witczak is a member of Portland State University’s Incident Management Team (IMT) regarding COVID-19, which includes more than 25 faculty and staff from finance and administration, facilities management, academics, the registrar’s office, enrollment management and other offices. The group, which meets twice a week, focuses on three primary areas: international travel, academics and operational needs of the campus.

“Each IMT member reaches out to counterparts in our respective worlds and brings insight back to the IMT,” says Witczak. “A couple of doctors on the team are working closely with the Multnomah County Health Department [where PSU is located] and the Oregon Health Authority. It’s imperative we work together because the situation is changing so fast.”

Advice for Responding to a Situation in Constant Flux
Because of the fluidity of COVID-19 and university responses, both Duke and PSU provide frequent updates to information on their websites. (Here are Duke’s and Portland State’s coronavirus responses.) While the rapidly evolving landscape presents unique challenges for preparation and mitigation planning – indeed, it’s a moving target – Witczak and Kelso offer some overall advice for their peers in international education:

  • Stay calm. With a 24-hour hyped up news cycle and a barrage of content on social media outlets, it’s easy to get swept up in a doomsday mentality. The coronavirus pandemic deserves careful consideration, but decisions should be made thoughtfully. “My advice is to stay calm,” says Kelso. “That helps with clear thinking.”
  • Prepare for all possible scenarios. “People need to move away from thinking about if something should happen and develop plans for when it happens,” says Witczak. “The best scenario would be if COVID-19 doesn’t affect your campus, but if you have a plan in place then you have the ability to move quickly and enact whatever protocols are appropriate for your particular community.”
  • Refer to policies related to other emergencies. Don’t start from scratch with your planning if a similar policy already exists. In the past, Portland State’s Center for Student Health and Counseling had created policies for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), the H1N1 virus and the Zika virus. “We have dusted those off and are looking at those protocols,” says Witczak.
  • Plan for remote work and instruction. In late February, Witczak completed all the necessary paperwork for staff in the Office of International Affairs to work from home. The office also oversees PSU’s intensive English language program, and Witczak  informed teachers to prepare for remote instruction. “It’s a very real possibility that people will work from home and faculty will teach from home using Zoom meetings for some period of time,” says Witczak.
  • Utilize all available university resources when making decisions. “Tapping into resources at the university makes us all stronger,” says Kelso. She feels fortunate to have close proximity to the Duke University School of Medicine and Duke Health Systems. “As an institution with a large medical center, we always have pandemic plans in place – always,” she says.
  • Reach out to peers at other institutions and in industry organizations. Look to your counterparts at neighboring universities for advice on how they are handling the coronavirus pandemic. Witczak is also involved in the U.S. State Department’s Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC), which facilitates exchanges between government entities and private organizations on a host of overseas security issues. He has gathered invaluable information through the OSAC that has helped the Incident Management Team at PSU make decisions.
  • Use office emergency teams to monitor the situation. The Global Education Office at Duke has a standing group called E-5 (Emergency 5) that handles any student crises related to study abroad. The team is now also tasked with monitoring the COVID-19 situation. “There are so many different angles to this, so we split the work up or are working together to move forward and get the job done,” says Kelso. For instance, various people on E-5 are tracking COVID-19 activity in different regions of the world, messaging students with updates, working with host universities and providers on contingency planning and developing academic continuity plans as programs are suspended.
  • Keep in constant communication with students. This includes students studying abroad, those who have returned home and those on campus with ties to geographic areas that have been heavily hit by the coronavirus. Portland State has 396 international students on campus from the Pacific Rim, in addition to 56 scholars and two faculty on H1B visas from China. “They are worried about their friends and family back home. We have reached out to them and are in constant communication with our international students,” says Witczak. When new countries are escalated to Level 3 by the CDC, the university reaches out again to offer support, including counseling.
  • Craft your messages around the public health risk. “While we need to tend to international students and students coming back from suspended programs, this is now a public health issue for Oregon,” says Witczak. “We need to focus on everyone, not just calling out the students from areas hardest hit so far.” There is no room for xenophobia or Sinophobia on college campuses, adds Witczak. In a message to PSU students about COVID-19, the university president stressed that the institution has no tolerance for discrimination and encouraged empathy for all affected.


The spread of the coronavirus is a dynamic situation, unlike anything most international education professionals have ever seen before. “The speed by which decisions are made and new developments take place has been incredible,” says Kelso. As hard as some of the early decisions were, Kelso feels ready to tackle what’s next.

“We’ve been doing contingency planning steadily now for several weeks,” she says. “Plans made related to study abroad programs in South Korea and Italy have been a sort of ‘pilot program.’ Now, we have templates in place, know the issues that will arise and can think in advance about other areas that will be hard hit by COVID-19.”