June 30, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic has slammed study abroad – organizers, hosts, and participants. Today we share reflections from two colleagues whose lives as graduate students in international education changed when the pandemic hit.
Marta Manzano is a graduate
student at the University of Maryland College Park and works with AACRAO as an adjunct international credential evaluator.
Laura Tucker of George Washington University is a graduate student and study abroad professional whose work in study abroad
has come to a halt because of the pandemic.
Cuba, the Most Exciting Part of 2020 - before Meeting COVID-19
Marta L. Manzano, student at University of Maryland College Park
I clearly recall attending a winter AACRAO institute in 2017, where the facilitators were so excited about the AACRAO Cuba Project and the opportunity for Cubans to finally be able to come to the U.S. to study. I wanted to be part of this groundbreaking
experience, but at the time it was not a possibility for me. My passion for international education led me to begin a graduate program at the University of Maryland College Park, where they offer a wealth of study abroad opportunities for graduate
students. One of those study abroad programs is led by Dr. Taylor Woodman. Dr. Woodman is the Co-Director of Búsquedas Investigativas and a lecturer at both the University of Maryland College Park and George Washington University. Búsquedas Investigativas
was founded 26 years ago. It runs an annual research seminar that hosts close to one hundred U.S. and Cuban participants. U.S. participants travel to Cuba in the spring
for a week-long academic research experience. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to study abroad in Cuba in March of 2020. I would be one of the very few people to have the opportunity to study in a place so geographically close to the U.S, but
in so many ways a world away.
A week before our departure to Cuba, the University of Maryland College Park cancelled all 2020 spring break study abroad programs due to COVID-19. We were given a choice to drop the course halfway through or move to an online environment. A few of us
decided to finish the course online without the possibility of traveling to Cuba. At the time, I was optimistic that perhaps that in spring of 2021 I would have the opportunity to go to Cuba, but now I do not have the same optimism.
What is the Future of Study Abroad?
Dr. Woodman shared his thoughts on the impact of COVID-19 on international education and the future of study abroad programs. Regarding how soon international academic exchanges will re-start, Dr. Woodman said, “ [f]rom the leader of one of these
programs, I see that mobility as the foundation of U.S. internationalization practice will be questioned, which will hopefully lead to interesting new innovations or a re-commitment to other internationalization practices. In general, I do not see
mobility happening until there is a vaccine/clear way to identify someone cannot spread the virus. With that in mind, I and other leaders are trying to determine what is the best step forward for our partnerships and programs.”
It has taken many years for the value of study abroad to be embraced globally. Study abroad has been the most valuable part of a student's academic experience around the world. One of the reasons why I decided to go back to graduate school was for the
opportunity to study abroad again, and now I don't know if by the time I graduate study abroad programs will be an option. This has made me question whether I should pause my graduate education for at least a year in order to have the opportunity
to study abroad.
Dr. Woodman shared his biggest concerns regarding the future of study abroad programs, “[f]irst, I am concerned about our partnerships. Faculty, universities, and organizations across the world tirelessly work to build academically enriching content
for our students. It takes trust, time, and a commitment to build reciprocal partnerships. In this era where safety is concerned the move to protect students was needed but what does the next phase of our COVID response look like? How will we show
our partners our commitment to one another? Additionally, partners are hesitant to put energy into re-building as the financial and resource cost to our partners was great this past semester. My hope is that we will move beyond the initial challenges
created by COVID and find ways to show our commitments. Maintain partnerships through research collaborations, virtual environments and find ways to scale our global learning efforts to expose more students to Cuba and other non-traditional locations.”
Dr. Woodman’s second concern sheds light on the impact of COVID-19, particularly as the U.S. has become the highest inflected nation in the world. “Despite all of our efforts, study abroad is still an activity that a small group of college
students undertake. When borders open and COVID is better contained, will U.S. students want to take the risks? Will international partners want to engage with us given the number of cases in the U.S.? In many ways, I think it is important for us
to re-embrace a campus internationalization plan and put our efforts forth to embed global learning throughout the curriculum and campus activities. Thus, creating a global environment that shows the academic connection and provides students multiple
ways to engage with our partners and the global learning environment.”
I personally believe that the developed nations in North America and Europe will be able to return to business as usual sooner as they will be able to afford the Coronavirus vaccine. For developing countries with limited economical resources their future
is more uncertain. I think that study abroad programs between those nations that can afford vaccination will begin in a year or so. For those impoverished countries where study abroad programs are the most impactful and meaningful, it might take many
years to see the return of international students. Even during times of world crisis, the inequality among nations around the world is clearly visible. It seems that all the work international educators and advocates for international education have
done has not yet reached the ears of world leaders. This pandemic will require us to more deeply look at the power within mobility and the environmental and societal impacts of our work.
The Impact of COVID-19 on International Academic Exchanges
Laura Tucker, student at George Washington University
As a study abroad professional, it was eye-opening to experience the pandemic as a study abroad participant. It gave me tremendous empathy for all the students who had saved up money, applied for scholarships, and planned their academic future
around their semester abroad - and were stopped short of a life-changing experience. The world looked different in January; students who may have started their semester abroad were repatriated to a strange and uncomfortable situation in the
U.S. As a professional in the field who experienced the cancellation of my own study abroad experience, the unique circumstances of the pandemic motivated me to write a piece evaluating the various perspectives of those impacted by the cancellation
of programs. I hope to share the full piece through an international education organization publication or upcoming event.
As with most things in the pandemic, I’m left with more questions than answers. Studying abroad changed my life, fueled my undergraduate studies, influenced my professional career, and inspired me to pursue a graduate degree in international
education. Though the future landscape may contain new risks, I am committed to the value of study abroad and the transformative experience of international educational exchange. I don’t know what study abroad will look like in the future,
or really any aspect of post-pandemic life, but I have to remain hopeful. I am hopeful that we will come out of this, curious to understand or experience a different walk of life, a hunger to get out of our comfort zone, and open to experience
whatever study abroad looks like.