International travel is still on hold, COVID-19 continues to affect life in the U.S. and abroad; so where does this leave study abroad? On Episode 3 of the Students Beyond Borders Podcast we sit down with our CEO, Dr. Alyssa Nota to talk about the future of international education in a COVID-19 world, her experience studying abroad during a global crisis and how it helped shape and prepare her to lead USAC through the current pandemic. We also talk about why students should still consider a study abroad experience and what USAC is doing to continue to offer students safe and valuable international education opportunities. Listen to the full episode below.
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Episode 3 Transcript
How did you see COVID affect our students and what did we do as an organization to support them during that time?
COVID had a major impact on our students, our programs, and the whole field of study abroad. At the time, between January and April, when it really hit the peak we had about 1,500 students abroad all over the world. It started in China and we made the difficult decision to cancel both our programs in China, in Shanghai and Chengdu. However, a silver lining of that was that a lot of those students actually got to transition to Uruguay to our program in Montevideo. They were able to continue to study Chinese, and we were able to initiate a load of new courses there for them so they could continue their studies.
I think that was a great success and something we can be proud of. I’m really happy that we did that because those students got an extra month or two of international exposure and experience that they wouldn’t have had otherwise.
But then, the impact of the coronavirus continued, unfortunately. At that time we had no idea how much of a worldwide impact this was going to have. So the next step was Italy, and that was just heartbreaking. I remember sitting in a room with our crisis management team that night and having to make the decision to cancel all four of those programs and to bring those students home. It was sad and difficult for us, but also for the students and the staff because you have to remember that that’s what they love to do. The staff love to share their cultures with the students and for them to also have to shorten that experience was really difficult. We continued talking with the Resident Directors as the virus spread worldwide and made those decisions together. We all decided it was the best decision at that moment with the information that we had, and it was always really difficult and sad, but I do think it was the right decision, with the health and safety of our students in mind.
Luckily, we were able to transition most of those students into online courses. So they could come home and finish their credits and finish their semester. So that was a really positive ending to that whole experience.
How do you think your study abroad experience and experiences as an RD prepared you to lead USAC through the current situation?
It was definitely a team effort and team decision. We have a crisis management team and directors all over the world. We made decisions together based on the resources that we had and what we thought was the right thing to do at that moment. I think as a student, I can say you learn to problem-solve. You learn to think on your feet, and that’s true for any student who goes anywhere. You’re going to face difficulties and challenges. You’re going to learn new languages or how to get around a new city or bus system. You’re learning these concrete new things, but you’re also learning, “I can do this, I can get through it. it’s an obstacle, but I can get by it and I can be more confident and comfortable as a result.” I think crises have a real potential to unite people, to make them stronger as an individual, but also as a group or as a team. I saw that tremendously in these last months at USAC people came together, they supported each other. It really showed me, even more, how committed our staff is all over the world.
How do you predict that COVID is going to change the future of study abroad?
That’s a tough question. It’s hard to predict that. I know certainly on travel, it’s going to have a long-term impact. I think study abroad is going to look different, it’s going to be fundamentally the same, but the way you go about it will be slightly different.
It’s all about being prepared and getting the most information possible so you’re well prepared to make the best decision for you to go abroad and to go to a certain location. I really see that as our role as an organization. I’m staying very optimistic and very positive because I still see the applications rolling in for spring and for January and even for next summer already.
I think student interest is still very strong and they can’t wait to get out there as soon as they can. At the same time, I understand why people might be a little more hesitant, a little more cautious, but again, I think it’s just about preparing yourself, knowing what you’re going into. That’s our job at USAC. We have a great health and safety team. We have a great crisis team. Everybody’s working hard to increase all that information so that our students will feel even more confident going when they can.
What can students expect from USAC as we move forward?
We’ll definitely be continuing our global perspectives options, and we’re really happy about those. Through that program we offer a variety of online courses, so we’re really trying to be as flexible as we possibly can and to help as many students as we can. This means a student can take one course, or they can take a full load up to 18 credits in one semester, or they can mix and match a course and an internship.
Through the virtual internships, students are doing incredible work even though they’re not on-site and these companies are great. They’re tasking them with projects and responsibilities that really involve them in their country and company. They’re also giving them little mini cultural lessons. It’s a really awesome opportunity. I think it’s evolved our company as a whole, we’re a lot more than a study abroad organization. We’ve also added complimentary career workshops or cultural workshops. Students can learn resume tips, interview tips and global careers.
We’re also looking at when we’re back on site, again, we’re going to be offering January sessions that are going to be, two or three weeks. They could be a hybrid part online and part in-person. They could be fully in-person for three weeks, depending on the location. We’re also creating our Spring Accelerated Programs, which are really interesting because these are a shortened version of a semester from January to March. Students who want to go for a shorter period of time, or maybe it works better for their schedule back at home, this is perfect for them. You can get a full semester between January and March, or you can go for the full regular spring semester, which is January through May.
Once students go abroad again, how is USAC adjusting our policies and our onsite procedures to keep students healthy on-site?
We have a really great health and safety team who have been working very closely with our Resident Directors abroad. We’ve increased all our materials including pre-departure advising, we’ve created a whole new webinar that’s about COVID and health issues that students should prepare for and think about before they go. We’ve also created guidelines for students and their families to know what they’re going to experience, but also site-specific resources that will discuss what the classroom is going to look like, what housing will look like, etc.
The Resident Directors have been creating videos so that we show students what it looks like physically on site today. You can really see that life is going on and people are outside and on the street and able to live their lives, you can find those videos on our YouTube channel.
Why should students still keep study abroad in their plans?
I think study abroad is so vitally important for everybody. It’s important for students to have international exposure even if it’s a week or two versus a year. Whatever amount of time it is, it will have a positive impact on that student and on their future. Online work is great and it can certainly be effective and you can learn a lot, but I also think it could never fully replace that in-person experience. There’s something about walking in that Piazza or on those cobblestone streets or eating French cheese in a cafe. It’s an entirely different experience. You’re absorbing the culture because you’re physically there in it. So I can’t say enough about how much I support study abroad.
What is your advice for students or parents who might be apprehensive about studying abroad?
I understand their concern, but I want to stress that health and safety is always our priority at USAC, and it always has been. Now we’re working even more on these things and have more people involved in it. We’re fully in touch with all the authorities we could possibly be in touch with and getting as much information as we can to students to help them feel confident and comfortable to go.
I encourage students and families to call us or write to us. We’re happy to put you in touch with the advisor who knows the country you’re interested in or the health and safety team. Even our Resident Directors abroad are available so you can talk to them individually to see what is happening in their country.
Our team really, truly cares about students and study abroad. We’re going out of our way to make sure things are in place and ready for students as soon as they can possibly get on that plane again. So when you’re ready, we’re ready!
If you’re ready to start planning your study abroad journey, visit our website.