Study abroad in 2021 is still up in the air

By Madison Sellers
Executive Staff

Students have begun receiving information related to study abroad programs for the spring, summer, and fall semesters for 2021, though it is at this point unclear what exactly the programs will look like. 

Generally, many more Sewanee students go abroad in the fall than in the spring, sometimes more than three times as many, said Andrea Del Balso, associate director of the Office of Global Citizenship. This fall, of course, no students went abroad through Sewanee, and Del Balso expects numbers to be down quite a bit this spring due to the uncertainty of study abroad. 

The application process is essentially the same as it always has been: students attend an informational session (now over Zoom), register an account with Via, the University’s platform for finding programs, fill out applications, and meet with study abroad advisors (also over Zoom). 

As for studying abroad itself, differences between past semesters and semesters for the foreseeable future will vary depending on the program and country chosen. 

“Each different provider, and each different country, they have different procedures regarding COVID testing, going out in public, wearing masks, things like that,” said Del Balso. “So, that will all look different for the spring semester than what students are used to. It’s similar to how things look different here on campus.”

The Office of Global Citizenship has already postponed the Sewanee in Spain and Sewanee in France programs for the spring. They have asked study abroad providers for every country to place Sewanee students in single-occupancy rooms this spring, either in apartments or dormitories, and they’ve also asked that there be no home stays, where students stay in a house with a host family. 

Del Balso continued, “In that regard, it’s more going to be the social dynamic that’s going to be a little bit different for students abroad than it has been in the past. And that’s for spring. We can’t really speak for fall yet because we don’t know what fall is going to be like. But for spring specifically: single-occupancy rooms, students will have to follow in-country protocol for Covid protection, and students will have to follow the protocol for their provider regarding testing, quarantining, and things like that.” 

“With that being said, almost every provider has a plan in place if a student has to quarantine and cannot attend classes. So, taking online coursework will be an opportunity that students will have if they go abroad in the spring,” she added. “That way, if a student gets sick or if the country goes in a lockdown, the students can still attend their courses.” 

The University has installed a Risk Advisory Committee, made up of faculty members, health and wellness staff, and members of the administration, which meets once every seven to ten days to look at the countries where students have applied and evaluate the risks of travel to those countries. 

In an email recently sent to the student body, Scott Wilson, assistant provost for global and strategic partnerships, wrote that the goal of the Risk Advisory Committee is “to offer recommendations to the provost on which programs in various countries have low enough risks to authorize student participation… For fall 2021, we will likely have to follow a similar process, though we hope that country conditions will warrant higher levels of student participation.”

Del Balso said, “The provost is going to make a policy mid-November about where students can go and where they cannot go. So, if we have about 25 countries on our list, probably about half of those would be approved, and the other half, we would say students are not going to be allowed to visit these countries during the spring semester.” 

“We’ve been advising them to apply to three to five programs all in different countries because we expected this,” she continued. “We expected that we would be making a decision about which countries to approve on a country-by-country basis, looking at their healthcare industries, looking at their COVID numbers over the past several weeks, looking at any Covid spikes, looking at the provider protocol, things like that.” 

The options for spring are going to be limited, but that shouldn’t make students feel discouraged about study abroad next semester. 

“Study abroad is going to look quite different in the spring than it has in the past. Fortunately, there will be study abroad in the spring, so we’re excited about that, and we’re excited that students get to have that transformational experience,” Del Balso said. “But it will look different both in the country and according to the options that students have to study abroad.” 

Though it is difficult to assess the likelihood of programs happening next fall from this point in the pandemic, the Office of Global Citizenship is optimistic for fall 2021. 

Del Balso said, “If we have 200 approved programs, for example, and let’s just say 30 percent of those programs are able to run in the spring,” due to the University’s decision on approved countries, program cancellations, and a number of countries closing their borders, “I’m hopeful that in the fall we are going to be running closer to 70 or 75 percent of those programs. But it’s impossible to predict at this point because that’s months and months away, and things could be astronomically better, or they could be the same, or heaven forbid they’re worse.”

Del Balso explained that the likelihood of students being able to visit certain countries is difficult to estimate from so far off due to the fluctuating nature of the pandemic, which is why the Office of Global Citizenship is mainly focusing on plans for the spring semester. 

Wilson asked students to “please keep in mind that study abroad is unlikely next semester, so any student applying for study abroad in the spring should also register for courses on campus. For students who hope to study abroad in fall 2021, you should recognize that there is a degree of uncertainty related to study abroad during the pandemic.”

In the same email, Wilson announced that the European Studies program, sponsored jointly by Sewanee and Rhodes, will be discontinued. “The coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of the 2020 offering of the European Studies Program,” he wrote, “and Rhodes and Sewanee have reached the difficult decision to discontinue the program permanently.”

“They’re hoping to redesign sort of an alternate program that will take its place,” said Del Balso. “Unfortunately those design plans have been put on hold, but it will be in a similar area and it will have a similar focus as well. It will just be a little bit of a different model of program.”

According to the Sewanee Pledge, students can study abroad for a semester during their junior year for the same amount of money that they pay for a semester at Sewanee. “Unfortunately, as the Sewanee Pledge first kicked in, the first class to take advantage of it was this year’s junior class. They were dealt a bad hand,” Del Balso said. “So we have been working with the dean of students as well as with the provost, and we’re offering basically the opportunity for current juniors to study abroad under the Sewanee Pledge as a senior, if their academic department will make those allowances for them.” 

This is great news for juniors who were forced to cancel their plans to study abroad this semester. Del Balso explained, “If they are a junior this year and they missed their chance to study abroad, they can still do it their senior year under the Sewanee Pledge, as long as they can make the academics work.”

“Our office really wants students to take advantage of studying abroad during their Sewanee career because studying abroad, it expands your horizons, it gives you a different academic perspective, it helps you develop more into a mature, contributing global citizen with a global consciousness,” said Del Balso. “We’re working hard to make study abroad as much of a possibility that it can be in a global pandemic.”