Coronavirus-related border closures, embassy shutdowns and quarantine mandates caused schools across the country to postpone and cancel study abroad programs in spring 2020.
With travel restrictions in place, colleges and universities redefined global education by offering asynchronous and synchronous virtual alternatives, allowing students to collaborate with individuals and employers throughout the world without boarding a plane.
“There are so many more options today than ever before,” says Adam Rubin, assistant vice provost and director of education abroad at the University at Buffalo–SUNY. “Students shouldn’t think of virtual programs as a negative or as a trade-off. There’s always going to be a trade-off between any two programs, but I think students should see it as a viable option. While we hope that every student at some point will have an in-person experience, I think that’s still the preferred model. These virtual programs are still really rewarding.”
What Are Examples of Study Abroad Alternatives?
After her study abroad trip to Mexico was canceled due to COVID-19, Shania Stevenson, a senior at Virginia Commonwealth University, looked for options. Running out of time to participate in a global experience before graduation in December 2021, she decided to pursue a virtual global internship.
As an international social justice major and Spanish minor, Stevenson sought an internship that would allow her to practice her language skills. She was matched this fall with the Casa Alitas Program, an organization that works to connect migrants with family in the U.S. under the auspices of Catholic Community Services of Southern Arizona.
Though the program is based domestically, Stevenson interacts with individuals and volunteers from around the world, with a large portion from Spanish-speaking countries such as Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador.
“It’s not going to be the same as studying abroad but I do feel like virtual internships or any type of study abroad excursions offers you something that you still can’t obtain in a typical classroom,” Stevenson says. “I’ve been able to build these intercultural relationships and have these global communications.”
The University of Iowa also offers a variety of remote global internships for credit in partnership with five international education organizations: Cultural Experiences Abroad, Institute for the International Education of Students, School for International Training, The Education Abroad Network and University Studies Abroad Consortium. Internships are individually tailored, and a student works with the career center to update his or her resume and cover letter for the interview matching process.
Remote faculty-led programs are also available. For winter 2021, the school plans to offer two business-related programs in the Asian Pacific region and Italy, where students will learn about each country’s culture, interact with local and large businesses, and complete consulting projects virtually.
“There’s a tendency for students to want to travel once they get to a place,” says Monica Ernberger, senior study abroad adviser and program coordinator at Iowa. “So every weekend, they might be off to a different location, which is wonderful. But it isn’t necessarily culturally impactful for the place that they picked as their home base. Whereas with the virtual programming, they’ve really done a lot surrounding their chosen location in terms of those cultural aspects.”
For schools like the University of Texas at Austin, virtual study abroad programs were already in place long before the pandemic.
The Texas Global Virtual Exchange initiative, for example, gives funding and administrative support to faculty members looking to incorporate the collaborative online international learning method, or COIL — created by the State University of New York — into current or new courses in collaboration with peers at universities abroad, according to Sonia Feigenbaum, senior vice provost for global engagement and chief international officer at UT Austin.
Course topics have ranged from architecture in the Galapagos to political approaches to how the pandemic was contained around the world.
“The response has been overwhelmingly positive,” Feigenbaum says. “Pedagogically, it brings a lot of diversity to both the teaching experience but also to the students’ learning experience.”
How Do Virtual and In-Person Study Abroad Compare?
Not everyone has the ability to travel due to financial constraints, immigration complications or family situations, so virtual international education provides access to students who might have been unable to participate in a traditional program. It can often be the more affordable option, as students do not have to pay for airfare, housing and other travel-related expenses, experts say.
However, both options provide opportunities for scholarships.
Another barrier to study abroad can be a lack of course flexibility. Often, students fear not being able to graduate on time. But through virtual learning, colleges and universities have the ability and flexibility to deliver online courses that might not be available in person.
Virtual study abroad can also serve as an introduction to global education and, in some cases, encourage students to pursue in-person programs.
“We don’t see (virtual programs) replacing what we do, but we do see it enhancing what we do,” says James Pellow, president and CEO of The Council on International Educational Exchange.
Participating in global exchange can prepare students for a career, as it teaches adaptability, communication, problem-solving and interpersonal skills, according to Lindsay Calvert, lead at the IIENetwork, which connects members to experts on international education by offering resources as well as conferences and seminars throughout the year.
“Now we’re seeing the rise of remote working,” she adds. “So being adaptable, skilled and experienced in an online collaborative environment is also just as helpful as the in-person collaborative environment to learn from.”
Study abroad not only provides necessary skills for the workforce, but it also may improve academic success. For example, four-year graduation rates are 18% higher for students who study abroad, according to research reported by the nonprofit NAFSA: Association of International Educators.
Caroline Donovan White, senior director for education abroad services and volunteer engagement at NAFSA, encourages students to talk with a study abroad adviser to determine the best program fit for their academic and career goals.
“When I was working at a university campus myself, I found that students made those decisions about what was possible before knocking on the door or opening the door of the study abroad office,” she says. “Or they do that and decide it’s not for them because they haven’t seen a friend do it, or they don’t know much about it.”
Despite countries reopening to tourists and international students, experts predict virtual study abroad and internship alternatives will remain post-COVID.
“In terms of the future, there is going to be a lot of pent-up demand for conventional study abroad,” says Russell Ganim, associate provost and dean of international programs at Iowa. “Nonetheless, we’re living in a hybrid world. And part of that hybrid means virtual, so we’re continuing to promote virtual study abroad and virtual global internships. We are definitely getting interest, and it seems to me that that’s going to be a big part of our portfolio as we move forward.”
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