Global students prepare for return of travel

ASU international students, study abroad programs pivoted during pandemic


With the European Union’s 27 countries agreeing to open their borders to vaccinated Americans this summer, the world is one step closer to the international travel that has been held at bay by the COVID-19 pandemic for over a year.

That pause included many study abroad programs and provided many challenges for international students attending American colleges. With the pandemic inching towards the finish line, schools like Arizona State University are moving forward with plans to get students traveling once more.

“ASU is moving forward with a fall send where possible,” an ASU spokesperson said regarding its study abroad programs. “There are currently about 150 ASU students confirmed for fall in-person programs.”

As a large public research university, ASU has long attracted a significant international student body. With many courses moving online, those students have had to make due — either staying put in the U.S. amid the pandemic or taking virtual classes from afar.

Holly Singh, Executive Director of the International Students and Scholars Center at ASU, said there were approximately 9,334 international students enrolled for the spring semester and fall enrollment is on the way. Those unable to travel to the U.S. will continue learning remotely.

“We have counseled international students who have not been able to travel home and, as you can imagine, that can be challenging for students,” said Mr. Singh. “We also worked to keep students who are enrolled remotely in their home countries engaged in the ASU experience as much as possible.”

In an unconventional academic year, he said ASU is doing its best to support stranded students and those many miles away to get the most out of their education.

“For students overseas, we are helping them understand current policies around international travel and ensuring that they have the documentation they need if they are able to travel,” said Mr. Singh. “For international students who are here with us on our campuses and cannot travel home this summer, we’re working with them to find summer jobs, internships and other experiences that will enrich their summer experience.”

The same goes for third-party study abroad programs who work with affiliated colleges and universities nationwide.

“There is no program that has been unaffected by the pandemic in some way or another,” said Kris Holloway, the president and CEO of CIS Abroad. “Even programs that were able to continue forward with their plans had to be extensively reviewed under new risk guidelines and under a COVID lens.”

CIS Abroad offers study abroad programs and international internships across the globe. In addition to 300 affiliated partners, CIS works with ASU, Grand Canyon University and Northern Arizona University in Arizona. CIS supported students abroad throughout the pandemic, with interns working internationally during summer 2020; students have been sent abroad every semester since and the program is starting to see an uptick in participation.

“Internally, the creation of guidelines enabled us to make objective decisions regarding re-commencement or continued suspension of global programs,” said Ms. Holloway. “Through transparent communication with our university partners about these key decision-making factors we hoped to create some clarity about when and how we would be able to begin sending students abroad again. Our plan was written with flexibility in mind.”

This past spring, CIS supported students living and working in Thailand, Costa Rica, Ireland, England, South Korea, Hawai’i and the Czech Republic -- a smaller number of programs than usual. Ms. Holloway said that narrowing CIS Abroad’s portfolio allowed them to better provide a quality experience for its students, despite a limit ability to travel or have visitors during the semester.

Ms. Holloway said the industry is encouraged by the news out of Europe and by the vaccine rollout occurring across the globe.

“CIS Abroad strongly recommends our program participants receive a COVID-19 vaccination before departing for their study abroad destination,” she said. “Vaccination is the best way to end this global pandemic and to show care for the communities in which we operate. We develop our CIS policies and protocols for international travel and study in consideration of local country guidelines and restrictions and expect that there will be continued lifting of restrictions for vaccinated individuals.”

Like CIS, the University Studies Abroad Consortium is seeing an increase in program enrollment as people begin to get vaccinated and feel more comfortable with travel. USAC sent nearly 4,500 students overseas annually pre-pandemic; that dwindled to just 15 students in five countries during the Fall 2020 semester. In spring, the number jumped to 75 students in 12 countries. This coming fall has around 400 students enrolled.

“Borders are opening and each term more students are able to study abroad,” said Dr. Alyssa Nota, the president and CEO of USAC. “We expect things to ramp up as more vaccines get distributed worldwide. That being said, university decisions often impact study abroad organizations like ours. However, in some circumstances, some universities are allowing waivers or allowing students to study abroad as an independent.”

USAC, which works with several Arizona universities, must also contend with each country’s restrictions. For example, students studying in Alicante, Spain simply had to wear masks and social distance like they would in the U.S. But students traveling to Chiang Mai, Thailand had to have a negative COVID-19 test three days before departure and complete a 14-day quarantine upon arrival.

Regardless of the challenges and the constant pivoting, Dr. Nota said things are heading in the right direction for a return to normalcy.

“As US campuses reopen in person and vaccines are more widely available, we are seeing interest and applications ramp up considerably for fall and spring 2022 and beyond,” she said. “We expect a medium rebound for Fall 2021 and much larger boom for spring 2022.”