The term “study abroad” usually implies world travel, something that has been severely restricted during the global COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, the International Studies program got creative.
International Studies students need to have six credit hours of study abroad as part of their degree requirement. Sorin Nastasia, director of the International Studies program, helped create a virtual study abroad option to help those students graduate on time.
“This summer, I had this special issue, that some students were saying ‘I’m going to graduate in the summer, but there is no chance for me because of the COVID-19 situation to really go in person to study abroad,’” Nastasia said.
Prior to the pandemic, SIUE’s study abroad program offered students the opportunity to study in over 40 different countries. According to Kim Browning, a study abroad adviser, things quickly took an unexpected turn for the program.
“When COVID-19 hit, it pretty much quashed study abroad across the country,” Browning said. “That left our providing companies, the companies we work with to provide various package programs, scrambling, trying to make a living. They had no customers.”
Administrators of the program were not alone in having their plans interrupted by the pandemic. Senior International Relations major Kaitlyn Kyle of Dupo, Illinois, said she planned to study abroad in El Salvador, and was taking courses to prepare her to teach in local schools there, when the pandemic forced a change of plans.
“Whenever things first shifted, it was very overwhelming for me, because I had already made payments onto my account,” Kyle said. “I already had plans to go, and already had my flight purchased and everything ... so when I learned that it was going to be a virtual format, I was very disappointed and not as excited, because I wasn’t going to be traveling and actually doing what I had planned on doing.”
After much talk with tens of thousands of advisers and professors from around the world, Nastasia managed to bring some experts and faculty from those countries to the students themselves via virtual discussions over Zoom. Not only did he find experts from the specific countries his students were interested in, he also made sure said experts were doing research on topics that were also of interest to his students.
Not everything about the change to online was bad, according to Kyle.
“Overall, it was like a smooth transition into the courses, and I had a lot of guidance from Sorin Nastasia … he was pretty helpful during that transition in explaining everything that would go into our virtual program,” Kyle said.
This fall, Nastasia has collaborated with International Affairs to make a wide array of virtual study abroad and global internship options available for students, including those from SIUE-vetted organizations that have worked with the university for many years.
According to Nastasia, students who feel hesitant about joining a virtual study abroad program should consider a number of factors, not the least of which is cost.
“Part of that is all in the mind of the individual,” Nastasia said. “You don’t have to go through the expenses of traveling in person, which is actually an advantage ... whatever you have in savings as a student will be smaller in euros than in dollars.”
The reality of a virtual program is a matter of compromise, according to Browning.
“This is not something for everybody,” Browning said. “It’s something for those students who need the experience, or who want to have this experience … if it can work, it can be effective. It’s not like being there, but you do what you can, right?”
Students doing some form of virtual study abroad this fall should not lose hope, Kyle said.
“I think just for them to stay optimistic and recognize what is actually happening in the world,” Kyle said. “I think that they should recognize that they do have resources available, and there are tons of faculty and staff that are willing to help them through this process and guide them through it, and just recognizing that there [are] so many more options after college to get to pursue traveling and studying abroad.”
Students interested in learning more about the virtual study abroad program should visit the study abroad website and/or schedule a Starfish appointment with Browning.