UM’s safety travel plan, virtual experiences have helped students study abroad during the pandemic

Promise McEntire, a student at UM, did part of her studies in Burkina Faso.  Image Courtesy: Promise McEntire
Promise McEntire, a student at UM, did 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. As a doctoral student, she was in Burkina Faso to study the role of cultural producers in negotiating the country’s cultural identity in the context of globalization.

The rapid spread of the coronavirus that has disrupted studying abroad this winter semester has nearly derailed her study plan. But McEntire felt safe to stay and acted quickly. She completed the Safety Travel Plan that the university has in place to ensure the safety and well-being of all students abroad and followed all protocols.

McEntire Promise
McEntire Promise

“I knew if I left I couldn’t come back so soon and finish my research,” McEntire said. “The first year I spent at my field site was really difficult. It took me a while to get used to it and everything was starting to go well. So when COVID hit I felt I had to stay. I felt safe staying.

McEntire is among 140 U.S. students at UM who participated in education abroad programs in 2020-21 for college credit. Data from this reporting cycle documents the full effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on American study abroad: This is the most recent academic year with comprehensive statistics, according to the annual Open Doors report. from the Institute of International Education, a New York-based nonprofit. For context, nationally, 14,549 American students studied abroad in 2020-21, a sharp drop 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 over 3,000 students traveling for college credit (eg, 2018-19). The budgetary restrictions imposed by the university and the closures at the borders of many countries led the university to allow essential travel for student researchers whose progress was urgently needed. In the 2019-2020 academic year, 1,547 students participated in study abroad programs and before the pandemic, in 2018-2019, there were 3,429 students.

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

“The 2020-2021 academic year has been challenging for the field of international education. The University of Michigan has seen a sharp decline in study abroad volume compared to previous years, similar to most U.S. and international institutions,” said Valeria Bertacco, UM Vice Provost for Education. engaged learning. “During this time, our colleagues have been creative in developing many virtual experiences, which have allowed students to acquire some of the skills typically learned while traveling abroad while learning and engaging remotely. I am grateful for the excellent work of the UM Travel Safety team in adapting our travel policies several times during the year in response to global border dynamics and vaccine availability to allow travelers to continue their experiences as early and as safely as possible. .”

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

“It was a time before a COVID-19 vaccine was available and students didn’t have the protection against serious illness that the vaccine offered,” Morgan said. “Out of concern for the wellbeing of our students and mindful of these challenges, the university has instituted a suspension of non-essential travel during the 2020-21 academic year.”

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

“Our university takes research seriously and I am very grateful to have been able to continue my fieldwork in Burkina Faso,” she said. “I saw a dramatic improvement in my relationships, leading to better research. People trusted me a lot 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 the total number of UM students who went to foreign. Students who are not U.S. citizens and those going abroad for non-credit educational experiences are not included in the report.

Adding these students to the total study abroad tally, UM had 480 overseas travelers in 2020-21, 340 more students than was 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 have 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 Archives
Naomi Rosen in Tel Aviv, Israel. Image Courtesy: Personal Archives

Majoring in international studies and history, Naomi Rosen chose Israel to study a topic of particular global significance during the pandemic: the mental health crisis. During the summer of 2021, she traveled to Tel Aviv for an internship at TARA, a strategic consulting firm that matches nonprofit organizations and NGOs with relevant 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, in addition to meeting with key clients.

“My experience influenced my career and educational goals,” Rosen said. “I am now more interested in global health issues and more motivated to become fluent in Hebrew and Arabic. I researched the state of mental health resources and services in other countries to compare their situation to that of Israel. I was exposed to a line of work that had not otherwise particularly interested me, and I improved my Hebrew skills considerably.

Get back on track

Bertacco added that student demand to study abroad has now returned and in some cases is even surpassing pre-pandemic levels, making her optimistic about the future.

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

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