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Challenges ahead as education abroad seeks to rebound from the Covid crisis.

It’s Not So Easy To Flip a Switch

Covid-19 all but halted education abroad. In the summer of 2020, study-abroad participation fell 99 percent, according to recent Open Doors reporting.

It will be some months before we get the official stats on education abroad’s return, but a picture of recovery is beginning to take shape — one that hasn’t always been easy but whose rough patches have been smoothed, at least a little, by student enthusiasm and educator commitment. Readers wrote in to share their perspectives, and I also sat down with Melissa Torres, president of the Forum on Education Abroad, to talk about what she’s seeing across the sector. 

Covid might not continue to be a crisis for study abroad on par with the last couple of years, but it will still affect students’ overseas experiences. As the past week’s discovery of the omicron variant in southern Africa makes clear, the coronavirus threat is not going to disappear anytime soon. “At some point, we will be post-pandemic,” Torres told me, “but I don’t know if we’ll ever be post-Covid. It’s our new reality.”

Globally, rules about travel, vaccines, and quarantines keep changing. Risk isn’t static. Earlier this semester, colleges often opted to allow students to study in a limited number of “safer” destinations; now, western Europe, where many of those students traveled, has some of the worst outbreaks.

Colleges and third-party providers are having to work out a new understanding of how to assess and assume risk. The University of Oregon is “constantly monitoring locations to determine their safety and suitability,” wrote Sam Jones, assistant director of communications for global engagement. At the University of Rochester, Jeff Russin, director of global travel risk management, said not only has risk assessment grown more sophisticated, so too has the response. For example, if cases rise, Rochester may not evacuate students en masse as at start of the pandemic — it can be more dangerous to have students travel than to take precautions and stay in place, he said.

It’s not so easy to flip a switch and resume programming. Restarts have been slow in some places. The state of New York, for instance, has not permitted State University of New York-administered programs abroad to run, although some could get approval for spring semester. Binghamton University had more than 150 applications for spring programs but will likely only send a fraction of that number overseas, said Linda Torricelli, coordinator of education abroad.

Some colleges reported surging interest. Applications for spring 2022 hit record levels at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, according to Jason A. Kinnear, interim associate dean of study abroad and exchanges, although a few students had to drop out because of slow passport-processing times. More than 375 students are slated to go to 30 countries.

But Torres noted that education abroad staffing was badly decimated by pandemic-related layoffs. One college lost a third of its study-abroad employees. Although hiring has picked up, some workers have left the field for good, leaving fewer advisers to handle student demand. 

The pandemic could worsen inequities. Navigating Covid’s additional risks could be more difficult for smaller or one-person offices. Torres worries about the pandemic’s unequal effects in other ways. Progress on diversifying study locations could be eroded if programs in places perceived to be less safe are limited or if students revert to more traditional destinations, she said.

Angela Schaffer is executive director of the Fund for Education Abroad, which gives scholarships to students traditionally underrepresented in study abroad. A number of students started scholarship applications only to drop out because their colleges cancelled programs. And the students FEA serves come from communities heavily affected by Covid so it’s understandable that some of their families may be wary of sending them abroad. The students who completed applications are “some of the most resilient,” Schaffer told me. “But I do worry about the lasting impact.”

The “pandemic pause” led to innovation. With Covid, we confronted what education abroad would look like without air travel. This summer the Forum released a series of guidelines about how study abroad can meet sustainability goals. After the killing of George Floyd, many colleges and providers began to think about how they could make anti-racism education part of their programming, and the pandemic gave them space to carefully consider new directions. 

Of course, Covid led to widespread adoption of virtual programming. One question will be how online programs will be sustained or integrated when traditional travel is fully back. “There’s a real risk of virtual become a second-class option,” Torres said, “and that would be a travesty.”

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‘I Don’t Take a Second for Granted’

Covid-19 didn’t just stop students from having an international experience — it also prevented faculty members from going abroad for research, teaching, and academic exchange. Currently, the flagship Fulbright Program is supporting 1,412 American students and 311 American scholars overseas, and officials said they hope to add to that number as more countries reopen. I recently spoke with Dawn Edmiston, a marketing professor at the College of William & Mary, who is spending the semester teaching at Tallinn University in Estonia. Here is our conversation, edited for space.

March 7 was the last day that I taught at William & Mary face to face. Within three weeks, I had received the announcement that I had been selected for the Fulbright experience in Estonia. I remember having tears in my eyes of happiness that I was selected. This is something that I have wanted for a very long time — it was the third time I applied. But also there was a sense of realization that I knew it was not going to happen. By May or June, they made the announcement that we would not be able to travel in the fall.

Fulbright is requiring everyone to be vaccinated, so for us as Fulbrighters, as long as you have your CDC card and your passport, life has not really changed for us. Here, students have to be masked at all times. I do office hours on Zoom, so I can see their faces.

I’m teaching an introduction to marketing course and a social media and networked consumer culture course. Estonia is a great place to be for startups. They have two leading platforms from a digital perspective — Bolt, a direct competitor of Uber, and Wise, the financial services exchange. I’m having the students assume the role of chief marketing officer of Bolt and explore how global platformization is going to affect how Bolt grows in the region and across the world. I’m learning so much in the class discussion.

William & Mary has [one of the highest percentages] of students studying abroad of any public university in the U.S. Part of our mission is to create global citizens. But when you look at our faculty, it’s not the same. I was the only Fulbright last year. We have to create greater opportunities for faculty. If we’re expecting this of our students, we need to expect this of ourselves. Going to a presentation about internationalization is great, but it’s not the same value as being in Estonia. I think the time here will resonate; it will permeate through every element of my teaching when I return. I have no doubt I will teach marketing research differently. I’ll be able to bring a European perspective, which I’ve studied. Now I’m living it and, and I just think that’s so important.

To be an educator, we first must be the finest of students. I truly believe that what I share with my students is only as good as what I know. If I’ve had not had these experiences, how will I be able to encourage my students to have these experiences? That was the reason that Fulbright was created after World War II, to create these bridges. And I think these bridges need to be strengthened now more than ever. I was the first woman to attend college in my family. I’ve always believed that education is how we’re going to democratize society. I know that’s idealistic, but that’s what I believe.

I studied abroad too when I was in college, I went to San Salvador, the Bahamas, for six weeks to study marine ecology. That experience was life changing for me. But this experience has really been life-affirming and -forming for me. It’s just framed in a different manner. I think you need gentle reminders about why you do what you do. And this by no means has been gentle. It’s been challenging. I’ve never worked harder. But I appreciate it to an even greater extent than I could have in the past. I don’t take a second of this experience for granted.

Recommended Reading

There’s so much good stuff on foreign influence, campus cancel culture, and academic freedom in this smart essay from Yangyang Cheng, a particle physicist turned Yale Law postdoc and an astute observer of Sino-American relations. While I recommend reading it, I also want to flag two important points she makes about Chinese students. The first refutes a broadbrush characterization of Chinese students’ impact on campus free speech (one that I hear far more often from politicians than educators, I hasten to say):

The few who surveil or harass other members of the campus community should face discipline, but painting every Chinese student who holds pro-government views as a potential agent of Beijing erases individual agency and feeds racist paranoia. Students, however misinformed, are also entitled to free expression and, hopefully, will learn and correct their mistakes.

The other goes to a real and ongoing challenge for colleges, the need to create a sense of community for Chinese and other international students:

With the privatization and commercialization of higher education, universities are run like businesses, in which a degree becomes a product, students become customers, and the world’s most populous country becomes the biggest overseas market….Schools are often underprepared for the influx of Chinese students, making them rely on organizations like (Chinese Students and Scholars Associations), which keep a cozy relationship with Chinese consulates but also provide services and a sense of community for overseas students.

Got some suggested reading of your own? Send me your choices as well as your feedback and ideas for coverage.

Around the Globe

The Biden administration announced new Covid travel restrictions on South Africa and seven other African countries.

Some University of Chicago students and community groups worry that safety changes in the wake of the killing of a Chinese alumnus near campus could create anti-Black sentiment.

The U.S. Department of Justice has updated its website on the China Initiative to exclude cases that resulted in dismissal or acquittal, an edit that has raised some eyebrows.

Women continue to be underrepresented in academic careers, especially in traditionally male disciplines like engineering, according to U-Multirank.

The UK issued a record number of student visas.

University students in Egypt won’t be allowed to sit for exams if they are unvaccinated.

Turnout for college entrance exams in Brazil was at its lowest point in 15 years because of the pandemic.

A new report from Apply Board seeks to forecast the future of international enrollments, with predictions for new markets and a rise in articulation agreements between colleges in different countries.

A Hong Kong court sentenced a student activist to three and a half years in prison under the powerful national security law.

A guest essay in the New York Times has harsh words for Hong Kong universities, calling them “theaters of state surveillance and policing.”

Is the honeymoon over for liberal arts in Asia?

A group of quick-thinking international students in Canada rescued a pair of hikers from a waterfall by fashioning a rope out of their turbans.

And finally…

Guys, when I saw a Thanksgiving headline in the New York Times about turkeys on campus truly I thought it was a joke. Apparently, it is not: “There is little formal study of college turkeys, but on campus after campus, there is widespread agreement that their numbers have exploded in the last decade or so.”

’Til next week —Karin

A freelance journalist and expert on global issues in higher ed, Karin has been writing for more than a decade about the changing relationship between American colleges and the world.