The Collegian
Saturday, July 11, 2020

COVID-19 causes study abroad plans to waver

University of Richmond students who plan to study abroad during the fall of 2020 semester are facing the possibility, and in some cases the reality, of program cancellations because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 cases are continuing to climb around the world, causing most countries to close their borders, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This has caused problems for students in programs with early start dates.

Michelle Cox, the Director of International Education, wrote in an email to The Collegian on April 10 that the Office of International Education is planning to send updated information first on May 15 and then on June 1 to students who intend to study abroad in the fall, as well as on an as-needed basis, Cox wrote. Cox and the OIE does not know specifically what information will be communicated on these dates, she wrote.

Cox wrote that the OIE will take factors such as air travel and global travel alerts into account when informing students about their specific program. The OIE is also not planning on charging students program deferral or cancellation fees during this time, Cox wrote.

Sophomore Josh Higdon was planning on studying abroad at Universidad Católica Argentina (UCA) starting in July. However, because of the early start date, Higdon had to defer to the spring semester.

Higdon said that the UCA mid-July start date would have required him to apply for a student visa no later than June 5. Higdon said that the Argentina consulate is currently closed because of COVID-19, and therefore is unable to grant nonessential visas. Higdon decided to defer on April 8, and he said that he was the last student in his program to defer.

Higdon, a recipient of J. Gray Wright Scholarship to study abroad in the 2020-2021 academic year, said that the scholarship application, which was due around the same time as his study abroad application, required him to write about what he would do with the scholarship money if he was awarded it.

"So I was planning out [my time in Argentina] and I was really pumped to go abroad,” Higdon said.

Sophomore Meena Darvesh did not have the opportunity to choose whether to defer. Darvesh said that she was planning to attend the University of Otago in New Zealand for the fall 2020 semester starting on June 29. Her academic plans in the fall were canceled by the University of Otago because of visa office closures, Darvesh said. 

“To be honest, it was kind of expected," Darvesh said. "It was just a matter of time when I was going to be getting the email."

The University of Otago offered UR students the option to take online classes, Darvesh said, but she decided that deferment to Spring 2021 was the best option for her.

Darvesh said she panicked when she had been notified of the cancellation because she now had to register for fall classes at UR. UR students planning on attending the University of Otago program in the fall were notified of the cancellation at 12 p.m. on April 22, Darvesh said. Registration for current sophomores closed at 2 p.m. that same day, according to the UR Registrar's website. 

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Since the program was canceled before registration closed, Darvesh said that she was required to register with the rest of the sophomore class, leaving only two hours for her to plan out her next semester at UR.

“I was crying, I was stressing out, I was trying to find classes to take,” Darvesh said. “I thought to myself that there was still a chance that I was going to be able to go. Some of the classes [I wanted] were already taken.”

Registration was one of the main reasons Higdon decided to defer his study abroad program earlier in April.

“I just would not be able to graduate on time with my current majors and minors if I didn’t get certain classes,” Higdon said. “If I didn’t get Cognitive Science and Spanish 497, I just couldn’t graduate.”

Despite the disappointment the cancellation of a study abroad program can cause, Higdon said he realized that it was the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"I can’t blame anyone," Higdon said. "This is something we can’t control."

Cox and Ellen Sayles, associate dean and director of education abroad, wrote that many study abroad programs with early start dates have either been canceled or are facing the possibility of cancellation.

Sophomore Valentina Zuluaga said that she was the sole student in the UR study abroad program at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile for the fall 2020 semester. The OIE has informed her that her participation in the program relies on both the status of the COVID-19 pandemic and the country’s continuing political unrest surrounding rising metro fares, she said. Zuluaga said that UR seemed hesitant about allowing her to apply at all.

Chile’s borders are closed because of COVID-19, so Zuluaga is unable to obtain a visa, she said. However, Zuluaga is not facing the same obstacles as Higdon and Darvesh. Since the PUC-Chile year does not start until early August, Zuluaga said her deadline to obtain a visa was much later than Higdon's or Darvesh's and allowed her more time to wait for consulates to reopen.

Despite the growing possibility of her program being canceled, Zuluaga said that she has decided to continue as if her program will still happen.

“I just thought that I should keep going with my process as usual in case, in the off chance, I can still go,” Zuluaga said. 

Contact International Editor Susanna Getis at susanna.getis@richmond.edu.

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