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Universities find virtual ways to offer study abroad

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For many students in the U.S.—over 300,000 each year, according to the Department of State—summer is a time to prepare for an upcoming semester or year of study abroad, or a time to reflect after returning home from a program. But in the midst of the COVID-19 global pandemic, the prospect of studying abroad during the 2020-2021 academic year looks bleak. Universities across the country have suspended education abroad programs, and professors are looking at ways to bring the world to their students in a virtual setting.

The Institute of International Education (IIE) reported that in the spring 2020 semester, 88% of 599 institutions surveyed had curtailed international travel for faculty, and 82% had cancelled international travel for students. Most of the students (81%) who were studying in European countries that were hit particularly hard by the coronavirus returned to the U.S. By the time of the release of the IIE report in May, many colleges and universities had completely cancelled summer programs, and 17% had already cancelled at least some of their fall study abroad programs.

What are schools looking to do to make up for the inability to travel? Many are allowing students to defer study abroad, but for some students, that isn’t an option. That’s where the pivot to virtual programs comes in. One UMass-Lowell professor who usually leads a three-week summer course to San Sebastian, Spain, invited “a dozen guest speakers in Spain, Germany and the U.S. to help him teach his students about Basque history and culture – including how to dance the fandango and how to make a Basque cheesecake.” Students at SUNY-Cortland are participating in a joint program with Empire State College involving two classes, International Perspectives in Poverty and Intercultural Storytelling, which are meant to address “the United Nations' number one sustainable development goal: eliminating poverty across the planet.” It’s not just study abroad opportunities that are available online, either: James Madison University students are participating in virtual internship experiences. One student, for instance, is spending the summer working for an online magazine based in Valencia, Spain. 

For now, most schools have only cancelled fall international programs—many students, faculty, and administrators remain hopeful that travel can resume in the spring. Until then, with no end in sight to the coronavirus pandemic and no safe travel until a vaccine exists, virtual study abroad programs offer students a chance to connect with schools, students, and cultures around the world.


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