The Collegian
Friday, September 25, 2020

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Impact of COVID-19: International Office of Education

<p>Graphic by Nolan Sykes</p>

Graphic by Nolan Sykes

As COVID-19 spread across the world, the University of Richmond has modified global engagement opportunities. 

On March 19, students were notified that UR canceled its summer study abroad programs and EnCompass maymester trips. 

The decision to cancel these programs comes after UR canceled international travel during Spring break and strongly advised students studying abroad during the Spring semester to return home.

Spring break international travel

All University of Richmond-sponsored international travel scheduled over spring break — including trips to Israel, Guatemala, South Africa and the Galapagos Islands — was canceled on March 1 in an email sent by Jeffrey Legro, provost and executive vice president, and David Hale, executive vice president and chief operating officer.

Hale said concerns had been building over the past month.

“It became an acute concern relative to travel when the CDC came out late Sunday, March 1, and issued a warning that said, ‘Higher ed institutions should consider postponing or canceling student trips,’” Hale said.

Many students were surprised by the cancellations.

Sophomore Izzy Brazzel was supposed to go on the Office of the Chaplaincy's pilgrimage to the Holy Land. She said she had not been worried that the trip would be canceled.

“The Dean of the Office of International Education came into our classroom on [Feb. 25] for the class period and reassured us that the trip was still on,” Brazzel said, adding that the assurance made the cancellation sting.

Senior Brier Clough said she had been looking forward to the Galapagos Islands trip with her Conservation Biology class for more than a year, especially since she did not study abroad because of her STEM major.

Clough said that she was surprised that the situation was not handled case-by-case.

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Hale said that he and Legro made the decision but had consulted Martha Merritt, dean and Carole M. Weinstein chair of international education. He said that they did not consult coordinators and professors and had canceled all trips because of the rapidly changing situation.

“It was a really hard decision and we did not take it lightly,” Hale said.

Merritt wrote in an email to The Collegian that international travel and programs have been canceled on a rolling basis in an effort to hold-off on cancellations until necessary. 

“We have canceled programs on a rolling basis, since we try to keep things alive until it’s clear that we cannot responsibility mitigate risk for participants,” Merritt wrote. “I think a fair number of people were surprised and disappointed when we canceled UR-sponsored spring international travel, but within about two weeks, as a faculty member later wrote to me, she couldn’t imagine that any group could have gone. We sweep up a lot of information and have a very experienced team to analyze it, and we also ‘read’ indicators on the ground from our partners and other observers.”

Director of Religious Life Josh Jeffreys was set to lead the pilgrimage to the Holy Land and said he and his students were disappointed that they could not go on the trip. 

“I do appreciate the fact that I’m sure it was a serious conversation, and at the end of the day they acted in a way that will help protect the safety of our students,” Jeffreys said.

Junior Aidan Bursten was traveling to South Africa over break for his American studies minor. He said it was a big deal for him to travel internationally without having to ask his parents for financial support.

“The urgency of the situation dictated us finding out on such short notice, so I don't really resent the way I found out," Bursten said. "I feel like it was just a matter of unfortunate circumstances."

Bursten said he had been scrambling to find a way back home to Florida. He expected the school to help, as he said he could not afford the expensive round-trip flights to Florida on short notice. The faculty member leading his trip encouraged him to reach out to Hale and Legro, who referred him to Richmond College Dean Joe Boehman.

Bursten knew of no other people staying on campus and wanted to see his family, he said. He said that Boehman had acted, “inconsiderate of my mental health, because if I were to stay on campus by myself, it would be a really depressing time.”

Bursten said that Boehman had said to him that there had been nothing that UR additionally could provide him aside from housing.

The future of each of the trips is uncertain. In a March 25 email, Study Abroad Manager Patrick Schweiger wrote to The Collegian that refunds were being made for all student expenses associated with UR-supported spring break trips.  

The difficulty with rescheduling the trips is with seniors, as at this point, trips would have to take place after graduation, Jeffreys said. Jeffreys said pilgrimage organizers were still trying to figure out how to move forward but that any decisions about the Chaplaincy’s pilgrimage program could not be made until there was more normalcy globally and on campus.

UR summer study abroad 

Merritt informed faculty and students that UR summer study abroad programs were canceled in an email on March 19. The programs were set to take place in France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Cuba, Russia and Japan.

In an email to The Collegian, Merritt wrote that it was tough to notify faculty and students of the decision.  

“We cancelled summer study abroad programs, which affects about the same number of people as spring but in a different way because the summer trips carry more academic credit,” Merritt wrote. “I haven’t had much negative feedback on this one yet, probably because people understand the magnitude of the coronavirus pandemic, but it’s tough to send those messages.”

Merritt has dealt with complications with international programs before but said the COVID-19 pandemic has presented unprecedented challenges.   

“A global pandemic is a challenge on a scale none of us – neither in the field of international education nor anyone living – has experienced,” Merritt wrote. “My work during the Arab Spring was extremely intense, three long days wresting students out of Egypt with many complications, but this has been a long and painful sadness. Since the very nature of what we do in OIE depends on global mobility, it’s been a stressful period of constant monitoring and projecting where trouble will be in another week or month. 

“Now that the pandemic has fully ramped up, the answer to that question is everywhere.”

Olivier Delers, associate Professor of French and faculty leader of the UR summer study abroad program in France, said he and other faculty members were discussing how to potentially adapt the summer programs to remote instruction. 

“For my program, I’m still considering offering one of the classes, the French 300 level class, and I am hoping that there will be enough students interested that it makes sense and it would be remote,” Delers said. “... I’ve also thought about teaching a course in English with a colleague that would be sort of a general literature, cultural course that would work as a possible replacement for the study abroad experience, but there’s really nothing that can replace living or being in a different country.”

Delers said a drawback of switching to remote instruction was that students would not have the opportunity to learn in a different educational environment. 

“The [online] course will be taught by me,” Delers said. “Even though I am French, I’ve taught in the U.S. for 20 years now, so it will be based on the American way of teaching, the American model of teaching. So they won’t have that experience of learning abroad from a different educational perspective.” 

First-year Will Carlson was supposed to participate in UR’s study abroad program in Russia. Carlson said faculty have not yet communicated to the students in the program about continuing instruction virtually but said it would be difficult to teach the courses anywhere but in Russia. 

“At that point, I probably wouldn’t take them at all because the two courses were going to be an accelerated Russian class taught by a professor in Russia, a non-Richmond professor, and then the other one was going to be about the culture of St. Petersburg, and that was going to be taught by a Richmond professor who was going with us but that class was basically ‘walk around and look at museums and cool stuff in St. Petersburg’ class,” Carlson said. “So, obviously that can’t happen if we’re not there.”

Carlson plans to study abroad through UR multiple times in the future but said that this was one missed opportunity to do so.

“I understand that going isn’t a good idea and that international travel is pretty, you know, irresponsible at this point, but it still, you know, bums me out,” Carlson said. “Because for a lot of prospective global studies majors and people who are trying to do that track, the thing that employers want and people who do internships want is in-country travel experience and then language skills and this would’ve been the perfect opportunity to learn Russian in Russia.” 

EnCompass programs

Merritt informed students and faculty that the trips for the EnCompass maymester programs were canceled in an email on March 19.  

Merritt wrote in an email to The Collegian that the cancellation of the EnCompass programs was particularly challenging. 

“One of the great privileges of my career has been to build the EnCompass programs, fully-funded journeys for students less likely to travel abroad,” Merritt wrote. “EnCompass trips are led by faculty and so reflect terrific engagement with place and the nature of productive travel. Two of these trips, to South Africa (a local/global journey co-created Dr. Todd Lookingbill and the Center for Civic Engagement), and to Cuba led by Drs. Herrera and Méndez featuring a theatre festival, reflected many months of work on the part of the faculty and students.”

Todd Lookingbill, professor of biology, geology and the environment and faculty leader of the South Africa EnCompass program, wrote in an email to The Collegian that the course was moved to remote instruction.

“We have moved the course 100% online for now through a series of Blackboard readings and discussion boards and virtual assignments using tools like GIS StoryMaps,” Lookingbill wrote. “Students also have the opportunity to withdrawal from the half-unit course since it is now substantially different than originally formulated. Our hope would be to revisit the South Africa EnCompass idea at some point in the future.”

First-year Cody Chau was supposed to go on the trip to South Africa as a part of the EnCompass program. Although students in the EnCompass program had to attend five events and write response papers throughout the Spring semester, the bulk of the learning was set to take place abroad, Chau said. 

“The South Africa trip was honestly, like, obviously the most important part,” Chau said. “That’s where we were going to get the majority of the course work done for the class. It was mainly all there and all the learning was there.”

Chau said the trip to South Africa would have been his first time outside the U.S.

“It was going to be the first time, and a lot of people in my group actually, a decent amount, it was probably going to be one of their first times ever leaving the country,” Chau said. “And you know, a lot of that is due to various things. I know me, like myself and a few others, it’s the financial burden to not be able to go out of the country, so it was a great opportunity if you don’t want to study abroad but also get to do something you’ve never done before.”  

This is the fourth installment of a five-part series to be published about COVID-19.

Contact newsletter director Eileen Pomeroy at eileen.pomeroy@richmond.edu and managing editor Emma Davis at emma.davis@richmond.edu.

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