UM’s Safe Travel Plan, virtual experiences have helped students study abroad during the pandemic | Tech US News


UM student Promise McEntire spent part of her studies in Burkina Faso.  Image courtesy: Promise McEntire
UM student Promise McEntire spent part of her studies in Burkina Faso. Image courtesy: Promise McEntire

University of Michigan graduate student Promise McEntire spent the 2020-21 academic year in West Africa. A PhD student, he was in Burkina Faso researching the role of cultural producers in the negotiation of the country’s cultural identity in the context of globalization.

The rapid spread of the coronavirus that disrupted education abroad that winter semester nearly derailed his study plan. But McEntire felt confident to stay and acted quickly. He complied with the Safety Travel Plan that the university put in place to ensure the safety and well-being of all students abroad and followed all protocols.

McEntire promises
McEntire promises

“I knew if I left, I wouldn’t be able to come back so soon and finish my research,” McEntire said. “The first year I spent at my field site was really hard. It took me a long time to get the hang of things and everything was starting to go well. Then when the COVID hit, I felt like I had to stay. I felt safe staying.”

McEntire is among 140 U.M. students who participated in study abroad programs during 2020-21 for academic credit. Data from that reporting cycle documents the full effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on American study abroad — it’s the most recent academic year with complete statistics, according to the annual Open Doors report from the Institute of International Education, a New Yorker. on a non-profit basis. For context, nationally, 14,549 American students studied abroad in 2020-21, a sharp decline from the 347,099 American students who did so in 2018-19.

This number illustrates the impact of the pandemic as a stark contrast to UM’s typical travel volume of more than 3,000 students traveling for academic credit (for example, 2018-19). Budget constraints imposed by the university and border closures in many countries have led to the university allowing essential travel for research students whose progress is time-sensitive. During the 2019-20 academic year, 1,547 students participated in study abroad programs and before the pandemic, in 2018-19, there were 3,429 students.

Valeria Bertacco.  Image credit: Fernanda Pires, Michigan News
Valeria Bertacco. Image credit: Fernanda Pires, Michigan News

“The 2020-21 academic year was a challenging one for the field of international education. The University of Michigan saw a sharp decline in study abroad volume compared to previous years, similar to most American and international institutions,” said Valeria Bertacco , vice-chancellor of committed learning at UM. “During that time, our colleagues have been creative in developing numerous virtual experiences, allowing students to acquire some of the skills they often acquire when traveling abroad while learning and participating remotely. I am grateful for the excellent work of the Security team at UM travel by adapting our travel policies several times throughout the year in response to global border dynamics and vaccine availability so that travelers can continue their experiences as soon and as safely as possible.”

Patrick Morgan, UM’s head of international security, said the travel environment during that academic year was fraught with challenges. Most countries did not allow international travelers to enter, and many required travelers to quarantine upon arrival for two weeks or more.

“This was a time before a vaccine against COVID-19 was available, and students did not have the protection against serious illness that the vaccine offered,” Morgan said. “Out of concern for the well-being of our students and considering these challenges, the university has incorporated the suspension of non-essential travel during the 2020-21 academic year.”

For most of the year, only graduate students like McEntire could travel for essential reasons.

“Our university takes research seriously and I am very grateful to be able to continue my fieldwork in Burkina Faso,” she said. “I saw a dramatic improvement in my relationships, which led to better quality research. People trusted me much more to stay during the pandemic. As a result, they were more willing to help me with my research.”

More data

Commissioned by the U.S. Department of State, the Open Doors report is a comprehensive census of education abroad in the United States, but does not provide a total count of UM students who have gone abroad. Students who are not US citizens and those who go abroad for non-credit educational experiences are not included in the report.

Adding these students to the study abroad total, UM had 480 foreign travelers in 2020-21, 340 more students than were included in the Open Doors report. These students participated in 542 trips, indicating that several UM students participated in more than one international experience.

UM students traveled to 77 countries during this period. The top three destinations were China, South Korea and Costa Rica.

Naomi Rosen in Tel Aviv, Israel.  Image courtesy: Personal archive
Naomi Rosen in Tel Aviv, Israel. Image courtesy: Personal archive

Majoring in international studies and history, Naomi Rosen chose Israel to study a particularly important issue globally during the pandemic: the mental health crisis. During the summer of 2021, he traveled to Tel Aviv to intern at TARA, a strategic consulting firm that pairs nonprofits and NGOs with the appropriate government ministries to help these organizations achieve their goals and solve their problems. As an intern, she conducted research and wrote essays to summarize and compile the data she collected, as well as meeting with key clients.

“My experience has been influential in shaping my career and educational goals,” Rosen said. “I am now more interested in global health issues and more motivated to master both Hebrew and Arabic. I researched the states of mental health resources and services in other countries to compare their situations with Israel. I was exposed to a line of work which otherwise I had not been particularly interested in and greatly improved my Hebrew skills.”

Back on track

Bertacco added that student demand for study abroad has returned and, in some cases, is even exceeding pre-pandemic levels, which makes her hopeful for the future.

“We are continually working to improve our security protocols and update our travel policy, opening travel to international destinations as soon as UM’s International Travel Safety Committee has deemed it safe,” he said. “As a result, in 2021-22, nearly 3,000 students participated in an international experience, and the number of applications for 2023 continues to increase. I couldn’t be more excited about the strong uptick in international experiences for our students. Through these high-impact experiences, the students immerse themselves in new cultures, learn new perspectives, develop valuable skills and expand their worldview.”


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