Studying abroad in the COVID world

It was like watching dominos fall. In March 2020, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 reached pandemic proportions and borders around the world closed one after the other. Suddenly, American students studying abroad were told to get home or risk being stranded in their host nation. If ever there was a situation that deserved to be called a game-changer, COVID-19 proved to be a worthy recipient of the moniker.

Now, a year after the coronavirus emerged from Wuhan, China, and a little less than that since the mass shut down that saw study abroad students forced out of their programs and back to their homes, the question is: what’s next for American students who hope to study away from the U.S.?

The study abroad industry

To say that providers of study abroad opportunities were devastated by the events of the spring of 2020 would be an understatement. Prior to the pandemic, almost 350,000 American students were pursuing university and college options around the world. No one wants to talk about how low the number has gone since the pandemic started but, with many study abroad programs cancelled for the fall and only a few running in the winter term, it’s safe to say that a fraction of the number of students are heading out of country to pursue their college and university dreams. According to Michelle Tolan Tomasi, a former executive for the Institute for Study Abroad, most outfits laid off at least half of their workers after the novel coronavirus became a pandemic. Tolan Tomasi, herself a victim of the layoffs, said, “The education abroad field has been decimated. It’s an under-recognized casualty of the pandemic.”

Fear and uncertainty

One of the tertiary reasons for the rapid decline (COVID-19 being the obvious, primary reason) is the fear and uncertainty the pandemic has brought to people’s lives. The CDC has encouraged American universities and colleges to consider postponing or cancelling student international travel programs. They warn “…students may face predictable circumstances, such as travel restrictions, challenges returning home, and challenges accessing health care abroad.” These are the legitimate concerns that are impacting whether U.S. students choose to study abroad at this time.

Studying abroad is happening

Nonetheless, students can still choose to participate in some programs. While travel restrictions are in place for non-essential travel (tourism), people travelling for work or education can apply for – and, in most cases, receive – an exemption. One important warning: students will need to give themselves plenty of time to apply for study visas since the pandemic has hampered the bureaucratic processes of many countries. That said, some American students are pursuing study abroad opportunities despite the pandemic. There are several factors that have influenced their decision. Here are the things they are considering before making their move:

Safety – COVID-19 has made most Americans extremely safety conscious. From constant hand washing to wearing masks in public to physical distancing, COVID-19 has shown us how vulnerable we all are to illness and infection. What some students and their families are considering is the risk level of certain host nations and the programs they are providing. Some are checking their state infection rate and comparing it to the infection rate of the place the student wants to study. In some cases, students are statistically less likely to get COVID-19 abroad than at home. For example, a student in Massachusetts faces a 2.4 percent chance of contracting COVID-19 (as of mid-November 2020). If that student chooses to study in Germany, they face a less than one percent chance of contracting COVID-19 based on the safeguards Germany has put in place to combat the coronavirus. While the risk level is still there, these students are working on the assumption that they will likely be safe in the confines of the school where they are studying and the host nation they are visiting. However, many consider this to be a form of grim calculus. If they are at risk of getting sick, they would rather be at home with their family and this is why the study abroad numbers are so low at the present time.

The host nation / school – Many host nations and schools have worked hard to try to make their programs attractive to U.S. students despite the pandemic. Case in point: Canada. Universities and colleges across Canada have been extremely aggressive in the battle against COVID-19, implementing strict quarantine polices, rigid enforcement of physical distancing and the use of masks. The federal government has mandated all this. Some schools have gone above and beyond, locking down their student residences to prevent the spread of infection into dorm rooms from the greater community. Canadian universities and colleges have also introduced hybrid education models – a combination of physical distance, in-class instruction and online learning – to make things as safe as possible for international students. The Canadian government has also compelled schools to help international students with provisions during their 14-day quarantine and health insurance for the duration of their stay in Canada. A popular destination for internationals students, Canada attracted over 600,000 students to all levels of their education system from around the world in 2019, over 15,000 of who came from the United States. One additional note: Canada was selected as the #1 Place in the World to Study Abroad (2020) by

Program – Some American students have opted for completely online schooling with actual, in-person attendance postponed until the pandemic is over. Others have turned to the hybrid model adopted by many Canadian schools described above – enrolling in an online course of study with programming supplemented by cultural experiences in the form of videos and chats with students at the host school in the international destination they are interested in. Most study abroad programs have either postponed courses of study or adapted their programming to suit a COVID-19 world.

Travel insurance – By the fall of 2020, the medical community had developed a better understanding of COVID-19 and initiated treatments that drastically reduced the impact and mortality rate brought on by the disease. This allowed insurance providers to start to develop policies for students looking to study, or to continue their studies, abroad. COVID-19 specific coverage – in addition to standard medical coverage – has become a must for American students studying outside of the U.S.

To study abroad or not to study abroad

Students hoping to study abroad are doing one of two things: conducting comprehensive risk assessments and research in their quest for a study abroad opportunity OR waiting for the pandemic to settle, employing patience as they thoughtfully delay their departure from the U.S. Both options cater to different personality types. The questions American students considering studying outside the U.S. in 2020 must ask themselves are:

  • What are my educational needs right now?
  • Can my international study adventure wait?
  • Are there other options that help me meet my goals while the medical community finds a way to deal with COVID-19? With a vaccine on the horizon, is it just a matter of time before things start to normalize?

In the meantime, the study abroad industry – whether private companies or university/college sponsored – is adapting to the new reality. Shorter courses of study (months vs. years) are becoming the go-to marketing strategy for many. A focus on health, living conditions and safety are also emerging as key selling points. And online learning is becoming an important compliment to classroom learning. Their hope is to ride out the pandemic and, within a year or so, bring study abroad education back to pre-pandemic levels.

NOTE: The infection rate is calculated by considering the number of cases per 1,000,000 people living in each nation. The U.S. COVID-19 infection rate: 3.3%. The state with the highest transmission rate is North Dakota (7%) and the lowest is Vermont (0.4%). The state with the highest number of cases is Texas (over one million) and the state with the lowest number of cases is Vermont (just over 2,000). Statistics are based on mid-November numbers gathered by Statista and the World Health Organization. Check your states transmission rate to calculate a risk assessment for your area.

The people at surveyed over 30,000 international students to develop a series of top ten lists. This one indicates the top ten overall choices, keeping in mind that study abroad students make their decisions based on country first and program second. The top ten ranking is based on seven criteria that allows the study abroad student:

  • To achieve their career goals
  • To develop themselves personally
  • To experience a new culture or lifestyle
  • To access higher quality teaching
  • To have an adventure
  • To make new friends or widen their professional network
  • To learn a new language

The chart also lists the satisfaction of citizens regarding the government’s management of the pandemic. Some might conclude that, if the people living in these nations feel safe, students travelling to these countries should also feel safe. If you go by the chart above, Canada would be an ideal choice for study abroad students based on the proximity to the U.S., the quality of education, and the nation’s management of the pandemic.