Recent grad Georgi Warren stands in front of the Royal Palace of Madrid, during her study abroad semester in Spain. "It felt like what I assume a normal semester would be like," she said, "with all the same cultural opportunities, just with masks and common sense."

Spider students get back to globetrotting

January 7, 2022

STUDENT EXPERIENCE

When airports and international travel were shut down in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Office of International Education leapt in to action to get more than 50 University of Richmond students back home.

The office also quickly arranged for a “regional study abroad” program where international students who were stranded in their home countries could spend the semester at a nearby partner institution where study abroad students would have normally attended. 

For a year, the office carefully monitored and evaluated until summer 2021, when Richmond slowly began to reintroduce study abroad. About 25 students participated in two faculty-led programs, one in Denmark and one in Sweden. The programs were hybrid models with three weeks taught online and two weeks in country.

“This was a way for us to get back into travel and study abroad,” said Ellen Sayles, associate dean and director of education abroad, “but we had always the option that, if it wasn’t going to be safe, we could continue the course and they could earn the credit online. After the spring 2020 cancellations, one of our goals has been to not cancel programs outright again.” 

With the success of the summer’s trial programs, Sayles said, study abroad largely returned to normal this fall. Nearly 250 students studied outside of the U.S., mostly in Western Europe and parts of Asia. More than 120 are scheduled to go abroad in spring 2022.

Study abroad is possible thanks to constant monitoring, careful planning, and plenty of flexibility. International Education staff maintain a matrix of CDC, State Department, and World Health Organization guidelines, entry and exit requirements, quarantine and testing requirements, and case models. Every two weeks, the office publishes a complete update and evaluates whether any plans need to change course.

With constantly changing variables, backup plans are a must. International Education advisors work with students to identify a first, second, and third choice so that they’re prepared if developments arise.

“It’s a process of careful advising,” Sayles said. “We are willing to make changes as late as we can to help a student get abroad.” 

Georgi Warren, a 2021 graduate, had originally planned to study abroad in New Zealand in fall 2020. However, the country’s travel restrictions were among the most restrictive, and international students weren’t allowed. Warren made plans to study in Ecuador, then Chile, before ultimately landing on Valencia, Spain. She also pushed her semester abroad back a year — to her last semester at Richmond — in order to have the best chance at a near-normal experience with clearly defined and stable COVID protocols.

While restarting study abroad could be full of uncertainties, sometimes lasting until students arrived in their host countries, Warren said all the planning and preparation were worth it in the end.

“It felt like what I assume a normal semester would be like, with all the same cultural opportunities, just with masks and common sense,” she said. “There were some travel restrictions in the program I chose, but I was still able to travel to a different city in Spain almost every weekend. I felt safe and supported by my program, my host mom, and Spain’s COVID rules.

“I was really glad to have a holistic experience in a time when it’s especially easy to feel isolated.”