Uncertainty of Study Abroad Continues into the Fall


Photo by Trenton Almgren-Davis

With lockdown and stay-at-home regulations in place in many parts of the world due to the mounting number of COVID-19 cases, most are certain that international travel is the least of their worries. However, for students planning to study abroad in the near future, international travel is not just a worry—it’s a rather big uncertainty. 


In the 2017-2018 academic year, more than 340,000 students studied abroad, according to CNBC. However, with close to three million cases of COVID-19 confirmed in more than 180 countries, universities around the globe are hoping for the best, yet preparing for the worst. 


One of these universities is the SLU campus in Madrid. “SLU-Madrid is in the same situation: we are preparing the best case scenario, we have already taken some steps,” said Paul Vita, Director and Academic Dean of Saint Louis University-Madrid campus.


More than 800 SLU students are involved in international experiences each year, with SLU Madrid hosting a large number of these students. 


“There is a lot at stake. One, we have to deliver quality education, that is what we do. We have to take care of our community, and we have to really serve. When we think about the future, one is the question mark: what are we going to do in the fall?” Vita commented.


At the moment, international travel is restricted by travel bans and a slowdown of passport and student visa services offered. In the wake of these obstacles, SLU-Madrid has proposed solutions in order to continue advancing the university’s mission overseas this fall.


 “We have announced to our fall study abroad students that classes will start the first of September and end on the 20th of December. It will be remote for the first two weeks…we have adjusted our fall academic calendar so that it is a hybrid semester that permits a study abroad student to come on a 90 day tourist visa.” He adds that, “In the summer we will be adjusting based on the info we receive.”


Although Saint Louis University’s Office of International Services recommends that students proceed with registration for fall 2020 study abroad programs, they will reevaluate the programs to determine if they will run or not by June 15.


Students that are—or were—planning to study abroad feel the strain of the situation.


One of those students is Amelia Bottcher, who plans on studying abroad at SLU’s Madrid campus in the fall. 


She commented on how COVID-19 has affected her study abroad plans: “Although I am still set to study abroad, uncertainty is certainly surrounding the situation due to COVID-19. Our trip was already shortened to 90 days, which is unfortunate, but better than not being able to go at all. I’m hopeful, but doubtful, at the same time due to the ever changing information we are receiving regarding the situation,” she said. 


Bottcher is a junior studying on the accelerated physical therapy D.P.T. track. As part of this program, she is only able to study abroad her fall semester of junior year, which happens to be next semester for her. 


“I am definitely a bit fearful about studying abroad at this time,” she admits.


“I will continue listening to the recommendations of the school, which will obviously make the final decision regarding if study abroad will be allowed,” she added. 


While some SLU students like Bottcher continue to set their sights overseas, others like Emily O’Gorman, a freshman nursing major, made the tough decision to stay back.


She decided to withdraw her application due to rising concerns over the virus, “and more than anything [I] wanted a sense of normalcy when I return in the fall. After my spring semester being cut short, I miss daily life on campus, seeing my friends and feeling a daily routine at SLU,” O’Gorman said.


Vita also hopes to return to some normalcy soon. 


However, he acknowledges that, “We just don’t know yet, so the plans are mostly keeping our options open and keeping the students’ options open. There are kind of three scenarios: the first is that everything is normal…the second is starting, and then suddenly having to do what happened this particular spring semester…and third, to be completely online the whole time. We have to prepare for these three scenarios”.


In place of the iconic study abroad experience, universities across the U.S., such as Northeastern University, have already adapted their summer study abroad experiences to an online format. In this way, students can study abroad from the comfort of their own homes. 


For the summer, SLU’s Madrid and St. Louis campuses have both shifted many classes and programs to an online format. The question still remains of how the fall and spring semesters will unfold. 


Although the uncertainty of the situation is “heartbreaking” to Vita, he remains committed to advancing the university’s mission overseas no matter the format “Nurturing and supporting the outcomes of international education is something that we have to still do. We have to figure out how to make it work,” he asserted.


He concludes by proposing for us to do “whatever you can do to continue making this a learning experience” and to “go back to some of that Ignatian reflection and to turn it into a learning experience.”