By Lauren Do ‘21 (she/her), Staff Writer
Katie Frank ‘21 always viewed studying abroad as a crucial element of her college experience, planning to spend this fall semester at the University of St. Andrews in St. Andrews, Scotland. Unfortunately, the pandemic cancelled Frank’s exciting plans, and, like many other college students in the world, she will no longer be studying abroad.
For many Davidson students, studying abroad during their junior fall is one of the experiences they look forward to the most. For most planning to study abroad this fall, however, COVID-19 cancelled that long-awaited, semester-long trip.
According to Davidson College’s Director of Education Abroad Naomi Otterness, the college typically sends over 200 students abroad each fall. However, that number dwindled significantly this semester.
The Education Abroad Office was one of the first college offices to alert administration about the spread of the virus. Otterness shared how her staff responded to the growing crisis and their emphasis on the importance of communication between students, program directors, and families.
When the Education Abroad Office first learned of COVID-19 in December 2019, many of the programs had yet to begin. For some students, their spring 2020 programs were cancelled before they even departed.
“We worked with those students, trying to place them in alternative programs, not knowing at the time how it would spread across the world,” Otterness stated. “Three-way communication, sometimes four-way with the families involved” are needed to ensure the well-being of abroad students.
Throughout the period between the outbreak and students returning home from their studies abroad in the spring, the office did not have a need to correspond with government agencies. One exception was in Morocco, where a couple students were temporarily barred from traveling. That being said, Otterness assured that the office was still “monitoring U.S. Department of State websites about updates from the consulates abroad about the situations there.”
Currently, “we do have a few students studying abroad. We’ve been in close touch with those students,” Otterness said. Although many assumed that studying abroad this semester was off-limits. Otterness noted that some “students decided to go despite the college’s recommendation not to travel during this time.” She added, “but we also don’t prevent people from doing that if that’s what they want to do.”
According to Otterness, students currently abroad this fall signed waivers and documentation ahead of time, making them responsible for themselves if they need to evacuate their host country.
“That said, my office is always trying to do our best to help. If someone got in a really hard bind, we would do our best,” Otterness affirmed. Yet, she acknowledged that “they went into study abroad with the understanding that it is their responsibility [and] knowing these additional risks.”
Frank noted that these messages from the college helped her make her decision to stay at Davidson. “The study abroad office kept emailing us telling us to keep monitoring the country we’re supposed to be going to,” Frank said. The office encouraged students to communicate with their host programs regarding refunds and resources for getting there and back.
Frank commented further on the office’s emphasis on student responsibility in studying abroad. In reference to their email sent on May 20th, she said, “It basically said that you can’t join a class at Davidson halfway through the semester if your program gets cancelled. It was pretty clear what they expected, and it was more of a ‘you can go at your own risk’ situation.”
Nevertheless, Frank noted that the study abroad office was very helpful when she decided to postpone her program to the spring, which she has now fully cancelled in favor of remaining on campus for the school year.
Another student who found himself unexpectedly on campus this fall, Nick Boyd ’22, was originally planning to study abroad in Morocco this semester. Boyd’s intended program, Middlebury in Morocco, was cancelled in mid-July of this year.
Boyd was also planning to attend the Qasid Arabic Institute in Amman, Jordan this past summer. While he was unable to travel to Jordan, Boyd completed the program virtually to help prepare his Arabic for his next study abroad experience.
Both the Davidson Education Abroad office and Middlebury program directors reached out to Boyd and explained the steps he could take to defer his study abroad acceptance. Fortunately, Boyd was able to defer his acceptance to the spring semester, but he will now be studying with Middlebury in Jordan due to a lack of interest in Morocco among the program’s students and COVID-19 concerns.
Jake Tice ’22 was also planning on studying abroad through one of the Education Abroad Office’s Middlebury partner programs. Tice was originally supposed to stay in Moscow for the entire 2020-2021 academic year.
“My program got cancelled by Middlebury,” Tice said, “and Davidson kind of shut down most study abroad programs indirectly.” Tice describes this decision to remain at Davidson as being a result of the college’s inability to provide financial aid funds for abroad studies at this time.
Despite losing the fall semester of his year-long program, Tice still hopes to study abroad in the spring.
Although he was disappointed that he could no longer study abroad this semester, Tice reflected on his positive experience with the college’s response to his staying on campus. He started communication with the Residence Life Office (RLO) around May. “I just emailed someone in the housing department, and they set me up. I was assigned housing by July,” Tice said.
Unfortunately, for students who chose to remain on campus past the time of the housing lottery, finding options was not as simple. Frank was one of those students, and she ended up choosing to find off-campus housing after contacting RLO.
However, in the favor of all who were originally planning to study abroad, the college was prepared for the chance those students may need to remain on campus.
“They had us sign up for classes in March with the other students, which was really nice,” Tice said. Frank also ended up feeling very relieved because of this preparation. “It seemed kind of annoying in the moment,” Frank said, “but classes weren’t really an issue. I thought it was really smart.”
For those pondering studying abroad in the upcoming spring semester, the idea is not currently off-limits. According to Otterness, there are some programs being offered through the office’s partner programs. She explained that there are still some countries deemed low-risk by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and willing to take international students, including Thailand and Cambodia. She emphasized one study abroad program, DIS in Scandinavia, as being confident that “they can support students well and offer sort of a COVID-19 resilient type of experience.” However, the CDC still deems the DIS program countries as high risk, and therefore, Davidson will not provide students with any financial aid.
In terms of financial aid, the circulating rumors appear accurate. Otterness said, “Davidson has a statement that applies to faculty, staff, and students that no Davidson funds can go towards a program where travel is required.” However, it is unclear whether or not that applies to all countries, or only to countries deemed high-risk. She encouraged students to double check with the financial aid office prior to making commitments to study abroad programs. For many students, including Tice, studying abroad will not be an option without financial support from the school.
In the time of a global pandemic, Otterness encouraged students to take many considerations into account before making the decision to study abroad. “Travel right now for anyone carries very great risks. Not just risk of infection, but also the logistical risks, like getting stuck somewhere,” she said.
Otterness emphasized that students should have a strong support system and do some “very careful planning.” She added, “If you get sick, you have to make sure you have plans in place where you could stay abroad if you are unable to travel.”
Fortunately, application and decision deadlines reflect the uncertainty of planning during these times. Otterness remarked, “Around December 1st is typically a late-decision deadline, but it’s [now] one of the earliest deadlines I’ve heard.” Moreover, many programs will allow students to cancel up until the start of the program.
For those uncomfortable travelling but in need of a change of pace, remote study abroad options are available, and logistics and experiences will vary by program.
The Education Abroad Office has seen relatively low traffic this semester, and according to Otterness, “it looks like there won’t be very many” studying abroad in the spring. “We had quite a few students defer [to the spring],” she said, “but not many. Most chose to remain at Davidson in the spring.”
For some students, studying abroad is a requirement for their major, but Otterness believes traveling abroad in January is not the only option for current third-year students. “I have not heard of those academic departments shifting the requirement,” she said, “but they’ll be looking at flexible ways for students to satisfy that.” She cited the possibility of remote study abroad programs and “possibly taking into consideration a senior’s request to study abroad during the [previous] fall semester.”
As Otterness expressed, study abroad is still up in the air, and many students still do not have concrete plans in place. However, the college’s preparations have made many students’ lives easier. Although having to remain on campus isn’t ideal, Tice said, “it was kind of as good as it can be.”