Although most of the University of Richmond's traditional study abroad programs for fall 2020 had to be canceled or postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, some international students were able to study abroad in their home countries or neighboring countries this semester.
Michele Cox, director of study abroad, said the Office of International Education had pivoted to focus on opportunities for international students when it became clear over the summer that some students would not be able to return to the U.S. for in-person classes this fall.
“A number of students couldn’t get back to the U.S. for various reasons, so we needed to try to find opportunities for these students," Cox said. "We wanted to give them options so that they could still study abroad at one of our partner institutions."
Most study abroad program deadlines had passed at the beginning of 2020 and many study abroad programs do not accept domestic students, Cox said. Yet, the OIE contacted several of its long-standing study abroad partners, and several were willing to work with the OIE given the unusual circumstances, Cox said.
Ultimately, 19 students chose to study abroad at partner institutions this semester — 14 in China and 5 in the United Kingdom, Cox said. Other students were interested, but due to travel logistics, course requirements and other considerations, many decided to take UR classes online, Cox said.
Andrew Jackson is a junior studying at the University of St Andrews in St. Andrews, Scotland, this semester. He is one of three UR students studying there but the only Scotland native, study abroad adviser Amy Bergmann said.
“At the time [the option to study at St Andrews] was offered to me, travel to the U.S. was looking pretty dire," Jackson said. "This option came up, and I figured, 'If I can get all the class requirements and get some in-person teaching and have some extra family time as well,' I figured it was worth it."
St Andrews operated fully online for the first two weeks of the semester before switching to a hybrid approach, Jackson said. The university is taking the pandemic seriously; the classrooms have been modified to promote social distancing with reduced capacities and seating, and nearly 60 students have already been fined for gathering without properly social distancing, Jackson said.
Jackson said he had felt comfortable with St Andrews' plan for dealing with the pandemic, and that the stranger part, in some ways, had been studying abroad in his home country.
“It’s quite strange explaining to people that I’m a study abroad student from Scotland," Jackson said. "It’s definitely difficult for even me to get my head around. But the funny thing is I’ll catch myself using American phrases or slang, and they’ll catch me too, and I’ll get a little poked at for that, but it’s not too bad at all."
Although he is happy about the opportunity to study at St Andrews, he misses his friends and clubs at UR and plans to return next semester, Jackson said.
Alina Enikeeva, a first-year from Russia, is also attending St Andrews.
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“I didn’t even come to Richmond yet but I am already studying abroad, which is fascinating,” Enikeeva said. “Over the summer, I didn’t know whether I was going to come to the U.S. or study remotely. At the peak of uncertainty and my frustrations, this message from the international education office came and offered the opportunity to study abroad for the first semester.
"I felt like, ’Oh my God, this is going to be a great alternative.' Because I knew I couldn’t get a U.S. visa but the UK is a little easier.”
Although Enikeeva has never been to UR, she feels connected to it, she said. She is in contact with the two other UR students attending St Andrews, and they have told her about life at UR, she said.
Enikeeva also expressed gratitude toward the OIE.
“I don't even know them in person and they don't know me," she said. "And I've never been to Richmond, but I feel so supported, and I feel so grateful that I am a student of the university."
Ryan Zhao, a junior from China studying in Beijing this semester, was also appreciative of the OIE and the opportunity to attend in-person classes.
“Obviously there’s the sad part, right, this COVID-19 is causing big trouble for everybody," Zhao said. "For me, I can’t go back to UR and that is the unfortunate thing. But within this pandemic, there are also opportunities, and I think studying here is the fortunate thing in all this misfortune."
Zhao spoke to friends who attend other U.S. universities who were not given the opportunity to study in-person in China, and felt grateful that UR worked to give him this option, he said. Not only does Zhao take courses in-person, but he also takes two UR courses remotely, allowing him to maximize his time and ability to learn, he said.
Zhao took a gap year during the 2019-20 academic year to spend some time working in China, as he attended school in the U.S. since eighth grade and wanted to reconnect with Chinese society, he said. Had he known a pandemic was coming, he would have saved the gap year for this one, he joked.
“Going back to UR in the spring would be optimal,” Zhao said.
Zhao is waiting to see what happens with COVID-19 both in China and the U.S., but until then he is happy with the support he is receiving remotely from UR, he said.
Lucy Zhang, a sophomore from Beijing, is able to live at home while attending in-person classes alongside Zhao. For her, the opportunity to study abroad was especially great, as she would have been hesitant to return to the U.S. for school even if it had seemed logistically possible, she said.
“When I was in the U.S. and there was a travel ban, I was really worried about not being able to go home," Zhang said. "So the main reason I didn’t want to return to campus this fall is because I didn’t want to experience that once again."
Zhang returned to China in March and had to take an unusually long and indirect series of flights to do so, she said. The travel was incredibly stressful, and Zhang was terrified that when she finally arrived in China she would be turned away, she said.
Zhang is hopeful for a COVID-19 vaccine but is hesitant to travel as far as the U.S. before that, she said. It may be harder for Chinese students studying in the U.S. to return from the U.S. than to get into the U.S., Zhang said.
Zhang is enjoying her time at home and the study abroad experience, she said.
“I get to know another kind of lifestyle," she said. "It is in my home country; it is one of my favorite schools here; and it is what my future may be like. It is fascinating to know, if I didn’t opt for studying abroad in the States, what would my life be like."
As of now, the OIE does not have a prediction for what the spring will look like for UR's international students, Cox said.
“We want to make sure we keep in contact with [the students studying abroad currently] so that they still feel part of the community and feel cared for,” Cox said. “We don’t know what is going to happen in the spring, and all the indicators suggest that things could worsen in the U.S., so we will be helping the students on an individual basis. It will all depend on visas, flights and housing situations.
"We’re going to help them as much as we can.”
Contact features writer Grace Kiernan at email@example.com.
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