Study abroad programs survive pandemic regulations

Rebecca Cole   
Executive Editor 

Studying abroad offers students an opportunity to explore a new environment, learn more about the world and about themselves, and inspire students to be part of a global community that works to make the world a better place. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Office of Global Citizenship faced new challenges and was forced to adapt months of prior planning on short notice. However, with this trial under their belt, the Office is more prepared than ever to face these obstacles and still offer students the opportunity to travel and learn safely abroad. 

The Purple met with Andrea Del Balso, the Director of the Office of Global Citizenship, to talk about complications incurred from the pandemic and how the Office has adapted. 

When asked what the biggest complication the Office faced regarding study abroad during the pandemic was, Del Balso said, “So, the first complication would be last-minute changes. Traveling over a border, you are now entering another country. Therefore, you’re under their regulations and that country can change those based on what’s in the best interest of that country.” She also mentioned the complication of students testing positive for COVID before they are set to leave, meaning that they will be two weeks late to their program after quarantining. These students would also not even be allowed on the airline to board a flight. 

Del Balso says, “What I think our students felt abroad on their programs was the closing of borders between countries. So for example, a lot of students like to go to Europe because they like to travel between countries and during the pandemic they couldn’t do that. So that altered the experience for them.” Museums, restaurants, and other businesses that contribute to the study abroad experience also affected students because they were operating at limited capacity or were even closed because of a shortage of staff. 

Another issue that the Office had to face was the availability of study abroad programs. With shortages of faculty and staff, as well as some limited capacity, some programs were paused during the pandemic, giving students a smaller pool of options to choose from. While studying abroad was still possible, this deterred some students. 

The State Department Travel Advisory Levels that the Office of Global Citizenship used to decide which countries were safe to send students abroad to, changed in April 2021 to include COVID concerns. Prior to April 2021, the State Department did not include COVID in its assessment of the safety of other countries and health concerns were the jurisdiction of the CDC. A Level Four State Department Advisory level warns ‘Do Not Travel’ due to a greater likelihood of life-threatening risks. This affected the Office because the University policy said that any country that was ranked a level four was automatically off the table as a possible destination. With most of the popular study abroad destinations ranked a level four, there was much uncertainty as to how and where to send students abroad. “We factored our policy based on the State Department’s policy and then they changed their policy. So we have since changed ours as well,” Del Balso says. Now, any country ranked a level four for COVID reasons only will be reviewed by a committee consisting of staff, faculty, wellness center staff, and others to determine if it is a safe destination. 

Because of last-minute changes and uncertainty regarding the level and safety of some of the more popular study abroad destinations, the number of students studying abroad in the spring and fall of 2021 was smaller than average. Del Balso says, “A lot of students said, ‘We’re not going to wait to figure out if our country drops back down to a level three. We’re pulling out of the process and we’re just going to enroll on campus.”

Students were recommended to choose more than one program and country that they would be interested in so that if the COVID numbers of a level four country were deemed unsafe and concerning for students, the student would still be able to travel abroad somewhere safer. 

Today, the Office is well-equipped to face COVID-19 and Del Balso says, “We don’t have any additional concerns that we haven’t already had regarding COVID.” The Office has had so much experience with the pandemic that everyone in the Office is well-prepared and ready to send students abroad without much worry about the virus. 

“We’ve learned how to adjust and live with uncertainty, and overseas and in other countries, they’ve also realized how to navigate that,” Del Balso says. 

In the spring semester of 2022, Del Balso says that the Office had some of the highest numbers that they’ve ever had for spring semester study abroad. 

When asked about the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, Del Balso says that the Office will not send students to either location and if the conflict continues to escalate, it will possibly affect study abroad in surrounding countries. However, Del Balso says, “I don’t know how it’s going to affect study abroad or study away… It’s too early to tell how that conflict is going to affect popular study abroad destinations.” She shares that if other countries get involved, they would likely close their borders or limit the number of individuals coming into the country in order to focus on the conflict.