The promise of studying abroad has always been a draw of college life: universities advertise their study abroad programs to incoming first-years, many parents urge their kids to travel, and certain majors even list a semester away as a requirement.
However, travel restrictions and COVID-19 regulations have drastically impacted present and future study abroad experiences. According to Director of Study Abroad Emily Gorlewski, 116 students are going abroad in the spring, a relatively high number compared to previous semesters. All of the usual programs are offered, except China, Australia, and New Zealand, where travel is restricted. Come spring, many students will be packing their bags for Europe.
“The UK is still the most popular destination, within the most popular region of Western Europe,” Gorlewski wrote in an email to The Argus. “We encourage students to stretch for destinations that are going to be more culturally different for them, but ultimately we don’t know what someone’s experiences have been and they have to choose what’s right for them.”
The University sends somewhere between 90 and 120 students abroad in a typical semester. In addition to a selection of pre-approved programs, the University offers three different programs in three countries: Madrid, Spain; Bologna, Italy; and Paris, France. The Bologna program is run in tandem with Wellesley College, while the Paris and Madrid programs are co-organized with Vassar College.
Alternatively, many students opt for pre-approved programs in other countries. For example, Carlotta Gidal ’23 is currently studying abroad at Oxford University through Middlebury College.
“I’ve always known I wanted to study abroad,” Gidal said. “CSS [College of Social Studies], as a major, basically has taken the Oxford tutorial system and transplanted it into Wesleyan. After a really positive experience in that major sophomore year, I thought, ‘why not shoot for the moon a bit and apply to Oxford,’ and it worked out and I landed in the UK.”
Although study abroad is back up and running much like before the pandemic, COVID-19 has impacted how certain schools conduct their programs, necessitating a keen focus on pandemic protocols and guidelines. For instance, similar to those at other institutions, Wesleyan-approved programs stress the importance of mask-wearing, testing, and social distancing. Levels of risk vary depending on the destination country, but Wesleyan’s emphasis on these protocols remains relatively static. However, program protocols are designed to be fluid and adjust in response to the pandemic, including the possibility of cases among students.
“We expect the programs, including our own, to have high standards for health and safety,” Gorlewski wrote. “While this is the case, we also expect that there may be breakthrough infections and we will have to deal with those, but the programs are prepared for this.”
Students abroad are expected to abide by their respective University’s regulations and guidelines, even if they are not involved in explicitly Wesleyan-facilitated programs.
The pandemic also impacted the timing of students’ study abroad plans. For instance, Bobby Bourque ’23 planned to go to Italy in his sophomore year but could not do so due to the pandemic. Bourque then attempted to go this fall semester but decided not to due to scheduling conflicts and planning. Despite the uncertainty, Bourque is slated to go to Bologna this spring through the University program.
“I decided when everyone was saying ‘I don’t want to do it,’ to not do it in the fall,” Bourque said. “Over the course of my time at Wesleyan, my interest in the Italian major grew so now I’m like ‘I definitely want to go,’ and it was sort of the perfect timing, because I want to have a full senior year here so it was kind of pushed up and it’s kind of like the last opportunity.”
Abroad programs allow students to pursue their academic areas of interest in a new country. For example, Bourque is planning on taking four classes in Italy, three of which are conducted through the Eastern College Consortium (ECCo) — a program designed to provide an immersive experience for Wesleyan, Vassar, and Wellesley students in a way that emphasizes culture and learning — with the final credit coming from the University of Bologna itself. One of the ECCo courses is a mandatory writing-intensive course, while the other two come from a selection of four offered courses.
“As an Italian Major, we are encouraged to study abroad in Italy,” Bourque said. “All of the classes automatically count towards the Italian major, and one of four courses we take can be anything offered at the University of Bologna. That gives me a fun opportunity to study stuff that is not offered here. The options are Urban History of Bologna, Modern Italian Art, Italian Cinema, and Italian Theatre.”
Studying abroad during a pandemic, undoubtedly, has its challenges. For Gidal, differences in COVID-19 regulations between institutions involved in her abroad program have led to a degree of disconnect with other students studying at Oxford, where she is currently situated.
“At the beginning of the semester, Middlebury separated us all into households, into family units, and told us that we couldn’t really interact with people outside of our family unit when we were indoors, but that’s a restriction that does not apply to Oxford students,” Gidal said.“We’ve since circumvented that restriction.”
Initially, this adjustment came with a degree of stress for Gidal in terms of socialization. However, these issues were alleviated over time.
“When you get here, you’re just trying to meet everybody, and…if you can’t socialize in each other’s buildings, as we’re all spread out in between, you have to socialize over a meal or going out on walks,” Gidal said. “But, you can only go on so many walks, and so we found ourselves spending so much money the first week or two, because we were trying to figure out how to socialize out of the cold and not spend money. The way Oxford is set up is that there’s no real indoor socializing spaces, outside of the ones that are in your residential area, so we had to get really creative, so we weren’t financially burdening each other.”
Nonetheless, Gidal emphasized that there is an intrinsic value of going abroad, despite the difficulties that it could pose.
“You shouldn’t be afraid to replant yourself in new spots, immerse yourself and make the best experience wherever you are,” Gidal said. “Go abroad and you’re not gonna miss out on your college experience. It’s just only going to be an enrichment.”
Gorlewski echoed Gidal’s sentiments, highlighting the value of studying abroad regardless of how COVID-19 impacted Wesleyan students.
“This year we are seeing students who are choosing not to study abroad because they may already have missed time on campus,” Gorlewski wrote. “This is totally understandable, but study abroad is still a high-impact experience that you can’t really get any other time in your life. If there’s any doubt in your mind, just go for it.”
Oliver Cope and be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gloria Cui can be reached at email@example.com.