Studying Abroad in The Time of COVID-19: Looking Back and Ahead

by, Carlos Pinto-Corredor, Contributor

Due to the pandemic, study abroad programs have been greatly affected for  the foreseeable  future.  The spread of COVID-19 around the world has affected Manhattan College students since March, and the Study Abroad office now faces several challenges in developing future international programs.

How It Was

The Spring 2020 semester started with a study abroad delegation in Peru with stops in cities like Cusco, Arequipa, and Lima. The delegation was there for 15 days as part of the Organizational Leadership program in the School of Continuing and Professional Studies.

“At that moment COVID was a topic on the news, but just about the situation in China. It was not a big concern,” Ricardo Dello Buono, director of Study Abroad at Manhattan College, said.

In February, another SCPS-delegation visited Havana, Cuba. They were there the last week of February and the first week of March. This group was in an eight-day program, studying some of the transitions among private businesses and startups taking place in Cuba. 

“When we arrived in Havana all of the airport employees without exception had a mask on. We were like wow! What’s going on here?” Dello Buono said.

At that time, Cuba had no reported cases of COVID-19, but the virus had already begun to move into Italy, Spain, Europe, and other countries, including the United States. Upon returning on March 7th, the Havana delegation was the last Manhattan College group to study abroad.

There were 23 students overseas when Manhattan College decided to transition all courses to remote learning — 17 students were in Madrid, one in Budapest, one in Granada, two in Barcelona, and two in Paris.

“We decided that they needed to come home,” Dello Buono said. “It was also against time because it was in the same week President Trump announced that the U.S. was closing borders.”  

Organizing for the return of study abroad students was not an easy process for the Study Abroad team, in part because some of the international programs were run by partner institutions.

Additionally, it was determined by the CDC that airports were a dangerous place for travelers where the transmission of COVID-19 was higher. The students studying in Madrid that came home quarantined for two weeks and arrived back in the United States just before international flights were cancelled.

Some MC students, however, had to remain abroad. One student in Barcelona had to remain within the campus while taking virtual classes; another stayed with family members in Paris before returning to the U.S.; and a third student had to remain on a cruise ship in the Caribbean in what later was called a “sea-mester.” The Study Abroad office tracked all students and brought them home in an attempt to avoid all kinds of risks related to COVID-19.

“None of our students got sick in any of our programs,” Dello Buono said. “Manhattan College made the right decision at the right time. The courses continued for everybody. All of the students continued their studies.”

This Photo captured by Carlos Pinto-Corredor depicts a distant reminder of pre-pandemic study abroad trips once run by Manhattan College.

The Study Abroad office cancelled six programs for this past summer. The very first program cancelled was one in Sichuan, China. Then, one program in Italian language and another in communications were both coordinated in Rome, but ultimately had to be cancelled. The cancellations did not end there — two religion courses, one in Florence and another in Lisbon, and a new course in physics education in Northern Ireland were also eliminated. Likewise, Manhattan College students and faculty could no longer participate in the summer academy program at La Salle University of Bogota, Colombia, and the Study Abroad office had to cancel the semester-long programs in Madrid, Barcelona and Lyon, France.

How It Will Be

COVID-19 has impacted a number of study abroad programs moving forward, although they have not been cancelled entirely. Normally, the college offers 10 programs for the winter intersession, but this year, there will only be five available. Since Sept. 23, the Study Abroad office, in collaboration with faculty members, has held in-person and virtual sessions to present each option to Manhattan College students.

The five programs include two courses in Venice, one religious studies course and a digital arts research course; two more religious studies courses in Rome and Paris respectively; and the course “Food and Literature” in Barcelona, Spain, led by English professor Emmett Ryan. 

“This class allows you to learn about people that are different from you through their food and through their culture,” Ryan said. “We hope we can travel; but in reality, if it seems like it is not safe to do so, we will wait until next year or maybe until next summer.”

Part of the curriculum for this English course includes visiting rural areas of Barcelona, where there is a less risk of contracting COVID-19 generally speaking, and an excursion in the cities. All of the courses will follow CDC guidelines such as social distancing, wearing masks, and having outdoor meals. This also means adhering to local regulations while visiting museums and cultural places.

“It will be something like our campus life now,” Dello Buono said. “We will follow all these measures.”

Manhattan College is watching for the evolution of the second wave taking place now in Europe. The hope is that this wave will be shorter in duration and less severe in impact. If there are signs of improvement in early November, the MC administration will decide whether the groups are traveling or not. These courses generally accept a maximum of 14 students.

“We have to be very respectful of the students’ intention to travel, but I have no intention in traveling if I think it is dangerous,” Dello Buono said.

Part of the Study Abroad office’s efforts are to track and analyze data on COVID’s impact on each of the study abroad destinations. The office also monitors COVID-related updates by the State Department, the World Health Organization, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Erin Kehoe, the assistant director of Study Abroad, is one of the individuals tasked with closely following all of this data.

“Our role is to gather the information, analyze it, synthesize it into a recommendation and leave that information to the upper administration ultimately to decide on approving a program or deciding that it’s not going to go,” Kehoe said.

Some of the data being tracked at each of the destinations is the incidence of COVID-19 and the existing restrictions. According to the State Department, people who have U.S. passports are not able to travel to the Schengen zone now. The Study Abroad office also analyzes visa restrictions, entry and reentry regulations, flight prices and availability, travel restrictions, testing requirements, airport statuses, local norms, and general and specific safety factors/

“We are purchasing an extra international insurance that provides more coverage for COVID-related care,” Kehoe said. “We are trying to have all the possible precautions to keep our groups safe.” 

Although the community remains optimistic, the official ruling on planned study abroad trips will be released in November. CARLOS PINTO-CORREDOR / THE QUADRANGLE

According to CDC data, Europe is at the moment in level 3, which means that COVID-19 risk is high and travelers should avoid all nonessential travel there. For this reason, if there is no substantial improvement, three of the five courses offered (ENG 292, RELS 200, and RELS 300) will transition remotely during the winter intersession because some students need them to continue with their academic plans.

Traveling abroad isn’t a cheap decision. The cost for most of the programs is $4,115. Due to COVID-19, students can cancel their plans without problems, liability, or additional charges. If those three courses go remote, they will be synchronous with the same material and the same requirements — but no travel.

“The good news is that we will have some scholarships available,” Dello Buono said. “We will have some private donations to offer the scholarships, not to everyone but it will be competitive. So, we are going to try to offer them as best as we can.”

Cautiously optimistic, the Study Abroad office is planning itineraries for spring 2021 just in case COVID-19 is a lot less problematic by then. They want to offer more of the exchange programs made available to them as a member of the International Association of La Salle Universities, which includes 67 universities around the world.  Barcelona is one of the spring destinations for business, communications, and English courses. Madrid will have a program in physical education for teachers connected with kinesiology and Manhattan College has a consortium agreement with some institutions in Paris so students can study French and in engineering programs there. 

Receiving more international students on the MC campus is part of the challenge that COVID-19 brings for the Spring semester.

“We do actually have some students who are planning to come and study with us in the spring semester,” Kehoe said. “So, we are closely working with those students and their home universities to go through the application process. They are very eager to come and study with us, but they also need assistance with these new administrative issues that have popped up because of the pandemic.”

Last Updates

On October 7, Steven Schreiner, provost, and vice president for academic affairs at Manhattan College, sent an email to the campus community announcing important changes in the academic calendar. Classes for intercession will start on Jan. 4, 2021, and will end on Jan. 25. The spring semester will start on Jan. 27, 2021 with no spring break.

“This was not an easy decision but is a necessary one to help keep our community safe,” Schreiner said.  “Students planning to study abroad during the Intersession or Spring semester should check with the office of Study Abroad regarding any adjustments to travel date.”  

Similarly, on October 14, Michael Grabowski, Ph.D., chairperson of the communications department, sent an email to the communication majors about study abroad opportunities for the next semester.

“Communication majors may study abroad in Barcelona, Spain at Universitat Abat Oliba. Courses are offered in advertising, journalism, public relations, media, and international business, in addition to Spanish language courses,” Grabowski wrote.

The deadline to apply for a study abroad program for the 2021 intersession was Friday, October 23. Students sent in their applications as uncertainty continues to grow as new reports emerge about the rise of the second wave of COVID-19 infections in Europe. While optimistic but prepared for anything, the Manhattan College community is awaiting a decision on study abroad travel that will come in November.