Pandemic study abroad

Claire Noland prepares to teach a swim class at The Centre of Elgin recreation center. Noland, 19, is scheduled to start college this fall in a study abroad program in Italy but is making contingency plans in case that pandemic restrictions prohibit her trip. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

After delaying the start of college, partly because of the coronavirus pandemic, 19-year-old Claire Noland  is certain she’ll begin school this fall. She just doesn’t know in which country.

Noland, an incoming freshman at New York University, hopes to spend her first two semesters in Italy. But if her study abroad program in Florence falls through due to travel restrictions, she’ll have to settle for stateside classes.

“I am trying to prepare myself for the next year of my life,” said Noland, who grew up in Elgin, Illinois, and must wait until summer to learn the final status of her program. “That can be somewhat nerve-wracking.”

More than a year has passed since study abroad programs screeched to a near-universal halt in the early days of the pandemic, but the fate of the international experiences is still up in the air. Many college students don’t know if they should start packing their bags yet, let alone book flights.

And though local universities planned to relaunch programs this fall, some of the most popular study abroad locations — France, Spain and Italy — were recently singled out on the U.S. State Department’s “Do Not Travel” list, which could change the outcome.

Like many hallmarks of college life, study abroad programs were transformed and largely canceled by the pandemic. While the excursions help students develop cultural perspective and independence, health risks outweighed those benefits until the vaccine became available.

Loyola University Chicago, Northwestern University and the University of Chicago have announced intentions to resume study abroad in a limited number of countries if health conditions allow. Loyola, for example, aims to reopen a program in Rome but not in Vietnam “due to the complexities of creating and maintaining a safe environment for students.”

The state’s largest school, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is taking a more conservative approach. It has suspended all study abroad programs through December and is looking to expand virtual international exchange opportunities. The university hopes to resume study abroad in the spring, according to a spokeswoman.

“Despite positive developments, uncertainty remains too high on several fronts, including vaccination progress (here and abroad), travel requirements, and host nation precautions,” the university said in a March 23 announcement.

Before the pandemic, more than 347,000 U.S. students went abroad for class credit in the 2018-19 school year, according to the nonprofit NAFSA: Association of International Educators. When the pandemic was declared in March 2020, universities shelved programs and required students to return home. While some scrambled to secure flights, others found themselves stranded, unable to leave for days or weeks due to border closures.

NAFSA, which advocates for study abroad for its professional and cultural importance, worries students will continue to miss out. It opposes what it sees as overgeneralized State Department guidelines, issued April 19, that advise against travel to about 80% of countries worldwide.

Many universities rely on the advisories to assess risk and liability and might now change their plans, according to NAFSA, which is calling for more nuanced assessments that identify countries making progress in vaccine distribution.

“This change could impact not just the fall 2021 semester, but also study abroad opportunities for the foreseeable future,” NAFSA and a coalition of 10 other organizations wrote in a May 5 letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken. “This would have a manifest effect on the global readiness of college graduates entering the U.S. job market in the next few years.”

Caroline Donovan White, a senior director at NAFSA, said the likelihood of study abroad programs in the fall remains fluid. Some smaller schools might not run programs because of the travel advisories.

In response to criticism, the State Department said the updated guidelines reflect not just case rates but also COVID-19 testing levels and health care infrastructure. The advisories are written to educate a general audience about “potentially life-threatening travel risks,” the agency said in a reply letter. The guidelines do not “imply a reassessment of the current health situation in a given country” and aren’t binding.

“Unfortunately, the global epidemic is far from over,” the department said in a reply letter. “Incidence rates are rising in many of the destinations previously favored by U.S. travelers and students, and many countries still have stringent entry/exit restrictions and quarantine requirements in place to halt the spread of COVID-19.”

The majority of undergraduate study abroad programs were canceled in fall 2020, though some colleges made individual exceptions or offered remote options, according to a survey of 520 schools by the Institute of International Education. About 79% of colleges and universities expected “a substantial decline” in study abroad numbers for the current school year, according to the survey.

An April 2020 NAFSA survey showed that U.S. colleges and universities lost a cumulative total of nearly $1 billion due to shortened or canceled study abroad programs. Universities instituted furloughs, hiring freezes and firings because of the changes, according to the research from NAFSA, which collected responses from 346 schools.

Many countries have blocked U.S. travelers from visiting since March 2020, but the European Union plans to allow vaccinated Americans in this summer. There are some exceptions to the bans, including for students.

At Loyola, students planning to participate in the Rome program must be vaccinated at least two weeks prior to arrival and undergo weekly testing during the semester. Students will also be placed in single rooms and required to follow Italian health protocols for masking, quarantine and social distancing.

A Loyola spokeswoman said the school expects to make a final decision on its programs “with relevant national and local data” by June 15.

Northwestern sophomore Grace DeAngelis also plans to study in Rome. DeAngelis, 19, is optimistic her program will proceed this fall but is awaiting a final decision and said she gets “mixed messages” about how to plan.

“They’re telling us to start the visa process early since it takes longer because of all the delays, but they are also telling us not to make any nonrefundable deposits until they can confirm that we can go,” said DeAngelis, originally from Naperville, who’s majoring in classics and linguistics.

Noland, who will start college this fall, is keeping her spirits up. Though she’s also stuck in a holding pattern, she’s working several  jobs, including a gig as a lifeguard at a city of Elgin’s recreation center, to save up for college.

And in her time off, she fantasizes about the prospect of studying abroad.

“I want to study languages, the art, the history, all of it,” Noland said. “I look forward to just being involved in the community ... taking classes on things I’ve never studied before. I’m just excited for everything that’s going to happen.”

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