It’s a new world for study-abroad organizers, students

Bringing nearly 60 safely home when pandemic hit was a challenge well-met, as Saint Michael's looks to keep global learning experiences vibrant amid sea-changes

September 3, 2020
Mark Tarnacki
Staff Writer

Study Abroad ArtAn email that Saint Michael’s College’s Study Abroad Director Peggy Imai sent to key campus leaders on March 25 of this year reflects the unprecedented and sometimes nerve-wracking challenges that coronavirus presented for her and counterparts at colleges and study-abroad agencies across the U.S. and worldwide

Under the heading “They’re baaaack!,” Imai wrote in her late-March email, “The last Purple Knights to come home: three from New Zealand landed last night, one in Chile arrived yesterday morning, one from Australia is on a plane (which is close enough for me) and [partner agency American Institute for Foreign Study] AIFS confirmed that a student who did not reply to my email returned on 3/20. So with that, I say SMC is whole again!”

She helped students return from Spain, Italy, Costa Rica, Denmark, Nepal, England, Greece, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, France, Argentina, Indonesia, South Africa, Iceland, Tanzania, Cameroon, Morocco, India, Scotland, The Czech Republic, Germany and Chile. Logistics proved extra complex from some nations such as Morocco and a few in Latin America where flights essentially stopped due to COVID for a time, requiring a lot of legwork and creativity to find ways homes for students as Imai worked with veteran savvy officials from the many established study-abroad agencies that Saint Michael’s uses. A few student stories involved circuitous treks, weeks in the unfolding, to finally get them back, she said, with some touch-and-go-moments that worked out in the end.

peggy

Peggy Imai is the director of Study Abroad at Saint Michael’s College

While it wasn’t easy orchestrating these sudden early unexpected returns of just under 60 students from so many places, it has not stopped Imai and others at Saint Michael’s from continuing to support the desire of students for international explorations in their education. This fall semester, she said, just one determined student, Will Meehan ’22, will be leaving for Scotland and a program at the University of Edinburgh next week since Scotland is not in the European Union that has restricted visits from Americans in continental Europe.  Further, just over 40 students remain on Imai’s spring semester list for study-abroad, in the hopes they will be able to follow through on their trips, though many unknowns are clearly in play, and those trips might not turn out to be feasible depending on the pandemic realities.

Further, this week, Jeffrey Ayres, the international politics professor and former dean who oversees the recently expanding Freeman Foundation program – which in the past four years running has sent St. Mike’s students  to study in Asia — shared cautiously positive news on that front: while last summer’s program in Singapore for 11 students (it had been in Hong Kong for the program’s first 4 years, but moved for safety reasons), was canceled, he was able to to re-apply for another grant while determining they could roll forward those scholarships from 2020 that were not used, “so we have funding now to send 15 students, our largest group” for summer 2021, if conditions allow. study abroad art

“We didn’t just throw our hands up and cry – we decided, let’s apply again to Freeman, and we got a supplemental grant and so now we’re starting the whole process to market and advertise and recruit hopefully up to 15 students for next summer, knowing there’s still some uncertainty there,” he said. “But we hope by June, it’s conceivable we might have a vaccine and students will be able to go, with Asia doing relatively well in managing the virus.”

Getting them back

Imai said that for her and the Saint Michael’s students studying abroad when the virus hit — as for so many people in the pandemic — “spring 2020 was heartbreaking, but the upside is that all of our students abroad returned safely and in good health; but at the same time, many came home feeling disoriented, frustrated and saddened by not being able to fulfill their long-held dreams for the semester.”

She said students started to be called back to the U.S. at the very end of February. Program cancellations impacted students in different ways, as some had been in-country at their sites for a couple months already, while others had just arrived, based on when institutions in their respective host nations customarily began terms, since it varies widely.

Globe

A further disappointment, Imai said, has been that all six Academic Study Trips for summer 2020 were canceled due to health and safety concerns, including for the aforementioned Freeman students and a spring break trip to Tel Aviv that had been planned. “In total, these cancellations impacted 82 students plus their faculty/staff trip leaders,” she said. “We are now in the process of re-grouping and trying to determine what can be done for summer 2021.”

She said fall study abroad enrollments for this coming year slowly dropped too, predictably, as COVID-19 continued to wreak havoc throughout the world. By a July 1 deadline that had been set and extended for making decisions, only Will Meehan remained. He flies out September 6 for Scotland and will be self-isolating in a nice residence hall for two weeks before starting classes.

The outlook for spring 2021 study abroad is still uncertain, said Imai, who already has learned of a few program cancellations, in some cases due to the downsizing of provider; also, a few students have deferred their spring applications to the following fall. “As more becomes known about world health conditions, the 40-plus students who remain on the spring list will need to make decisions on what is best for them personally and academically. I anticipate September being a busy and emotional month,” Imai said.

Taking the longer view

Jeff Ayres, the faculty political scientist/international relations specialist, said that besides the Singapore Freeman experience (with which he has been involved from the start and planned to visit in person this year or next as he had done when it was in Honk Kong), he has hopes of resuming, as soon as possible, regular study trips to Wales that have become well established and popular as an environmental sustainability program for Saint Michael’s students, with Welsh colleagues visiting Vermont last year, too, in hopes of sending University of Wales students here in the future.

Jeff Ayres

Jeffrey Ayres

Ayres said he has started communicating this fall again with those colleagues in Wales, “and I would love to think we’ll be able to organize this fourth trip, after starting in 2015 and going every other year since then – 2017 and 2019.” His most recent collaborator on the trips has been Laura Stroup of the St. Mike’s Environmental Science and Studies faculty. “Our long-term goal is to establish a more regularized exchange,” said Ayres, who has just begun serving this early fall along with Imai and others on a strategic planning subcommittee on international matters established by President Lorraine Sterritt.

“It’s a challenging time to think about these issues and strategically plan comprehensive internationalization at the College in the midst of a pandemic, but we know this is a crucial piece to creating healthy co-curricular opportunities – you can’t be a liberal arts institution and not be in support of internationalization,” said Ayres. However, what Saint Michael’s faces “is a situation facing everyone – we’ve heard of mass layoffs in the study abroad/ internationalization industry, in some cases longtime and well established partners, since so many programs shut down after so many students had to come home. Yet it is such an important piece of 21st century learning outcomes, so we have to keep working on it and planning even though in the short-term there are some real constraints,” Ayres said. “We’re going to get past this but it will be very challenging if it’s another year or so of those constraints.”

An American in Scotland

Will Meehan explained how he came to be the sole Saint Michael’s student studying abroad this semester — since a typical fall might see scores of young scholars heading overseas: His family, on a cruise trip several years ago, had stopped in Edinburgh only shortly and it piqued his interest to explore more. The business and economics major from Concord, MA said he plans to take courses about Scotland and Celtic history while there and thinks he will be able to travel at least around Scotland and in England after his two-week isolation – something he looks forward to. Meehan was surprised to learn the program was still on in July, but said he felt the program was “managed extremely well” through the Arcadia Study Abroad program (as partner with St. Mike’s), “so I’m like, OK, I’m down to do it!” he said.

Meehan

Will Meehan is off to Scotland to study abroad soon despite the limits and extra demands of a pandemic.

Three other students will be in the Scotland program with him from different colleges, he said, likely fewer than in a typical year. “I’m excited and think it will be good, though the quarantine will be tough since I’m a pretty active person – I’m on the Nordic ski team at St. Mike’s, so I train 10 hours a week running and biking and such and roller skiing two hours a day,” Meehan said. “I guess I’ll have to do tons of pushups in my room” He has high hopes for the Nordic ski season happening given the nature of the outdoor sport that might make it feasible with some tweaks in the mass starts and other adjustments.

Keeping the Faith

Concludes Peggy Imai, “while our ability to send students abroad might be hampered at the moment, that doesn’t mean our efforts to introduce students to the world should diminish. If anything, we as a campus community need to be stepping up efforts to provide alternate opportunities for students to meet and learn about peoples and cultures around the globe. Some ideas could be working with local refugees and immigrants, or getting guest speakers and having interactions through Zoom or other technologies, to name a few.

“Our students need to understand how interconnected we are to the rest of the world, and how they fit into the bigger scheme of things,” she said. “They truly are the leaders and creators of the future, and it is our responsibility to help them broaden their minds and sensitivities. All of our lives depend on it.”

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