Last-minute flights, canceled programs and hope for the future: Off-campus study in a time of pandemic

For junior Grace McConaghie, the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic meant scrambling to find a flight home in a foreign airport. For McConaghie, who is pursuing majors in Spanish and sociology with a minor in ministry, studying in Buenos Aires, Argentina was an important part of truly immersing herself in the Spanish language. “I was on the last American Airlines flight out of Argentina on that Monday,” said McConaghie. “We got a screenshot of a tweet from the U.S. embassy in Argentina in our group message that says ‘All flights between the US and Argentina will be grounded for 30 days starting Tuesday, the 17th.’” 

After classes were put online for the rest of the semester, it was a scramble for students to try and figure out what to do next. “There was this big decision of whether to just stay and wait it out, and maybe it’s really boring in Argentina for a couple weeks and maybe you stay in your apartment a lot, but you’re still in Argentina, you’re still immersed in the language, you’re still spending time with your host family. But you could be stuck there. Or, coming home, seeing your family, sleeping in your own bed and being in the U.S. for healthcare and stuff. But you’re giving up your entire study abroad experience.”

On March 15, McConaghie’s program was canceled for the semester, and although the process of leaving Argentina was stressful, McConaghie was thankful for the help from Hope during the process. “Throughout the whole way, they [Hope] were basically like, be safe, we’ll figure out the rest later. This is a priority, and we’ll figure out how it’s gonna work with credits and for classes later.” 

“In regards to finances too, Hope helped me refund that emergency plane ticket that I had to buy coming back, because that was a big thing too. Every American in Argentina was trying to leave within like three days, so prices of flights were skyrocketing. So both CIEE and Hope helped pay for that ticket so that it wasn’t a cost that I had to take on, which I really appreciated.” 

Overall, McConaghie is still proud of her progress in Spanish. “I really wanted to come back fluent in Spanish. And I definitely grew in reading, writing and listening, because we listened to a lot of lectures. I wrote a ten-page research paper as one of my finals in Spanish, so that’s something I never thought I would be able to do. And I think that’s a testament to that I still improved my Spanish even though I had to come home early.” 

For students considering study abroad experiences, McConaghie encourages students to make the most of every aspect of the experience. “Don’t put things off when you go abroad. It might sound cheesy, but like take advantage of every day that you have there.” 

Molly Douma—a junior from Crawfordsville, Indiana pursuing a major in global studies and a minor in Spanish—also found her semester abroad in Buenos Aires interrupted in March. Douma was partaking in a School for International Training (SIT) program about transnational and comparative development and planned to travel to various locations in South America. “We were there for three and a half weeks,” said Douma, “even though we were supposed to be there until June.” She explained that although the coronavirus was really escalating in the U.S., Argentina had very few cases. Because of this, she and her classmates were thinking, “We’ll probably be okay, we can stick around, and it’s safer for us here.” 

“But then,” noted Douma, “we got news that Hope was going home and other students were going back to their schools.” She explained that she planned to book an Airbnb with a few friends near their classes in case the program shut down and they were no longer able to stay with their host families. Before that could happen, however, they received news that “they were going to close the Argentinian borders, not let people in and cancel all commercial flights.” This forced the students to return home very quickly, and Douma recalls feeling a whirlwind of emotions. “It was just complete denial,” she said. “Even after getting home, I literally didn’t unpack my suitcases until I had to pack them to come back to Hope.” 

Studying abroad was a requirement for Douma’s global studies major, but the experience should still count since she was able to finish it all online and still received an international experience. “We had enough buffer time that it was a little less stressful than I think it would have been if we had gone straight online after getting back,” said Douma about the transition from in-person to online classes. “Obviously, they also had to figure out how to teach everything online so they took some time for themselves.” Even though it was cut short, Douma is still grateful for the experience, reflecting that she “was still able to make a lot of good connections with the people in the program even in those three weeks” and find a sense of community. 

Unfortunately, the pandemic is also affecting more recent study abroad programs. Will Clinton—a junior from Cranford, New Jersey pursuing a major in global studies and a minor in Japanese—was forced to cancel his semester abroad in Tokyo, Japan this fall. “Everyone was hopeful about it on Hope’s side and on the International Education of Students’ (IES Abroad) side,” explained Clinton, “but it ended up getting canceled not necessarily because of coronavirus but because a lot of the people on the trip pulled out because of the coronavirus.” 

Clinton was also planning on studying in Liverpool in May, but that trip was canceled as well. “I was pretty hopeful for Japan this semester,” Clinton noted. News of the trip’s cancellation was especially disappointing, however, because he planned to travel there with his close friend; since his friend is a senior, they now won’t be able to study abroad together. While studying abroad is not a requirement for his Japanese studies, Clinton explained that, “With Japanese, you definitely want to immerse yourself in the culture, visit there and speak with the people because there’s a lot of stuff you can pick up with the native speakers that you wouldn’t be able to do just learning it in the U.S.” 

Clinton also recalled that, in the weeks leading up to the news that the trip was canceled, he was preparing himself for the disappointment. “A lot of people had told me it was going to be canceled,” he said, “and even though I was hopeful about it, I kind of knew deep down that it wasn’t going to happen.” He remains positive by keeping his experience in perspective, however. “It does stink, but it’s just a matter of circumstance, and it wasn’t just me that it happened to. People’s weddings were canceled, people’s… you name it, just a lot of events that are a lot worse than me not being able to go Japan this semester.”

Amy Otis, the senior director of the Fried Center for Global Engagement, is cautiously optimistic for study abroad programs in the spring and fall of 2021. “We’re seeing a number of programs who are simply making changes, and some have said, ‘Okay, we’re not using host families, others have said they will only put one student in a room, others have said if you come and study here, in this particular country, you will only be able to travel in-country. You can’t travel to a bunch of other countries.’ So they’re limiting exposure for the students as well, but really I think for the program providers, they’re trying to keep our students healthy and safe,” Otis said. 

With over 300 programs in 60 countries for off-campus study, programming opportunities will likely vary greatly. “Given COVID-19, I still see a lot of students that want to go, and I’m still hopeful that we can send students off-campus. I think the same things we do to practice safety here is what you can also practice overseas if you can go.”

Although there are no guidelines for studying abroad that Hope specifically has set for every program, additional emphasis is being placed on maintaining COVID-19 precautions as if the student was on campus, with Otis adding, “If the program is running and if the borders are open, if you’re healthy and can go, then you continue to practice good health and safety practices off-campus—you should wash your hands, you should wear a mask, you should practice social distancing, and all the same things of how we mitigate the risk here.” In order for students to study abroad, they must abide by rules set by both programs and the nations they are studying in. Staff at the Fried Center for Global Engagement are hoping that students soon will be able to enjoy all of the benefits that off-campus study has to offer and are monitoring every aspect of the pandemic diligently. 

Additionally, staff sympathize with students whose study abroad programs were cut short or canceled as a result of the pandemic. Otis said, “I think for all of us at the Center for Global Engagement and a lot of people across campus, it was really hard for us when we had to bring students back in the spring, but also when we had to cancel the fall study abroad programming, because we know how much work goes into this for students and how much planning students have done for years. The students were grieving the loss of these programs, but we as staff were equally grieving the loss of experience, because we believe so much of what we do is transformative and has an impact on students.”

Claire Dwyer ('24) is a current Co-Editor-in-Chief of The Anchor. Joining as a News Writer fall of a freshman year, she has enjoyed the opportunity to connect with the campus community through journalism!

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