Fordham University senior Coralie Jean-Francois has dreamed of studying in Paris since she took high school French. So when colleges shut down international academic programs because of the pandemic, she was devastated.
Now, in her final semester, she has the greenlight to buy her plane tickets to study abroad in January. Jean-Francois is among many college students, primarily seniors, in the tri-state area who have had to wait out the pandemic to study abroad.
As international education programs slowly reopen this academic year, they are reporting at or near pre-pandemic levels of enrollment despite the very limited offerings and evolving COVID-19 concerns and travel restrictions.
College study abroad administrators are constantly navigating unpredictable emergencies like these brought on by the evolving pandemic. Even with the emergence of a new variant, omicron, they are cautious — but still plan to continue sending students out-of-the-country next semester and open up more international study destinations.
“My program was canceled three times,” said Jean-Francois. “It was overwhelming, and the uncertainty heightened my feeling of disappointment, but I really want to experience French culture in France.”
Before the pandemic, about 2% of students in the U.S.engaged in a foreign educational experience, or nearly 350,000 people. When the pandemic hit the U.S. in early 2020, colleges suspended their programs and routed their students home. The number studying abroad dropped by about half during the 2019-2020 academic year, according to the Association of International Educators.
This fall, Fordham University only re-opened its London program. Joseph Rienti, director of the study abroad office, said the enrollment for that campus was higher than usual. For the approaching spring term, Rienti said they’re opening about half of their foreign study locations, but for a full roster of students that matches the total of a typical semester when all their international destinations are offered.
“I am not all surprised with the amount of students I’ve seen show interest in study abroad,” said Christopher Nicolussi, who oversees New York University’s office of global programs, one of the largest in the country. “Even during this pandemic, we have students coming every day saying I really want to do this, how can I do this and where can I go?”
At Rutgers University, students were constantly checking in with the global study abroad office, asking executive director Dan Waite when they could go, especially seniors who were running out of semesters to travel.
But travel is not totally back to normal yet. While students can travel around their host countries, they are restricted from voyaging outside of it. Nicolussi said he is asking students to stay in their host countries because of sudden border closures due to rises in coronavirus cases and new variants.
Despite the risks and restrictions, Dr. Wafaa El-Sadr, an epidemiology professor at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, said the experience of learning in another language and culture is worth it. The benefits go well beyond the thrill of being overseas. Increased foreign language proficiency, better employment prospects and personal growth are the most cited reasons, according to the Institute of International Education.
“Study abroad is more important now in the COVID era where we have learned we are all so interconnected,” said El-Sadr. “And with due diligence, I think it can be done safely and successfully.
Before embarking on foreign study, El-Sadr said students should closely watch the COVID-19 situation in their destination country. They should also be in good health, and if they’re not or have underlying health conditions, they should reconsider depending on the infection rates at their intended destinations
Vaccination is a requirement for most universities and countries, and Dr. Julian Klapowitz, a travel medicine specialist in private practice in Manhattan, strongly recommends Americans get the booster before going abroad.
While it’s unlikely a teenager or a person in their 20s will be severely ill or die from the coronavirus, Klapowitz urged caution but encouraged students not to wait for COVID-19 to go away. He said it will be around for years.
“If one of my own kids wanted to travel abroad and they were vaccinated and boosted, I would actually be okay with that,” said Klapowitz. “In fact, I’m taking my own family to Kenya on safari, one of which is a college student.”
Klapowitz warns that there’s an elevated risk outside of the U.S. depending on the available health services and how seriously that country is taking the pandemic. Students should continue to monitor the infection and vaccination rates throughout their foreign study, and keep abreast of evolving protocols from their schools and their host country.
In Italy, where Rutgers University student Alice Lee is currently studying, she has to carry proof of vaccination, wear a mask in class and get regular temperature checks and testing.
As an added personal precaution, Klapowitz recommended packing a supply of masks, medicines for flu-like symptoms, personal medical records and contact information for who to call or where to go for medical attention.
That information was vital for Lee when her roommates were ill from a coronavirus infection. They phoned the number of an on-call doctor provided by Rutgers University, and medical attention came immediately to care for them.
After almost two years of the coronavirus, seniors like Coralie Jean-Francois are confident that universities and their students can deal with the rapidly changing pandemic world. She is following the news as she prepares to leave the country next month, hopeful that in her graduating semester, omicron won’t cancel her last chance to study abroad.
“Now I am more prepared to go. I’ve learned to adapt quickly to new situations and protocols - what to do and what not to do,” Jean-Francois said. “And even if I don’t go to France before I graduate, I will find a way to go after college.”