Carole Weinstein International Center

UR bolsters support for international education amid travel restrictions

September 16, 2020

University News

International students in the University of Richmond’s first-year class accounted for 11% of new Spiders, which was the highest of any incoming class in University history. But because of COVID-19, most first-year students who live outside the United States began their classes remotely and will not arrive on campus until January.

As those first-years made their enrollment decisions last spring, UR adapted to meet student needs. The campus transitioned to virtual learning, and some international students had difficulty returning home. It was also nearly impossible for students to be certain that travelling to the United States for their studies would happen, said Martha Merritt, dean of international education.

“That flurry of activity was not the first time we have had to drop everything, get into high gear, and communicate urgently with international students,” Merritt said. “They have had to become resilient and creative in finding new paths to their degree.”

There was an atmosphere of uncertainty, she said, and International Education, as well as other divisions on campus, stepped up to address the concerns of UR’s 271 international students and to advocate on their behalf. 

“We’ve tried really hard on the communications front to accurately represent student concerns and to help students know they’re not forgotten even though some of them are thousands of miles away,” Merritt said. 

UR’s international students are in 35 countries that span the world from Albania and Kenya to Indonesia, Brazil, Taiwan, and Uzbekistan. Some students who stayed in their home region have also been able to study abroad at partner institutions, and remain enrolled for UR credit.

In addition to international students facing difficult choices, students of any nationality who wanted to study abroad in the three cycles the University offers (spring 2020, summer 2020, and fall 2020) had their plans cancelled. Those whose fall plans fell through had not been in the housing lottery, nor were they registered for on-campus classes.   

“Our partners across campus did amazing things and that group of more than 300 students ultimately were eligible for campus housing and received a registration period,” Merritt said.

Because the coronavirus pandemic is global and not an isolated threat, and because it’s no longer a new phenomenon, she said UR is selectively opening study abroad programs for spring 2021. University leadership will make a final decision in early October about which programs — or if any— will occur. Some of the potential locations like France and Taiwan require visas, a negative COVID test, and a quarantine period.

“There is an understanding about how tough it is for students who want international engagement, and we want to create ways for them to walk down that path,” Merritt said. 

The national average of total undergraduate students who study abroad is around 15%, but at UR, that number is around 67%. Programs like EnCompass — which offers full financial support for faculty-led, short-term travel opportunities — help the other 33% who may not think they can study abroad because of finances, athletic schedules, or their STEM field requirements.

“International education is a critical component of a Richmond education,” Merritt said. The Institute for International Education has ranked UR No. 2 nationally for its global engagement for the past four years.