Following Cancellation of Spring Study Abroad Programs, Students Consider Alternatives

Over two dozen students had their spring 2021 study abroad plans nixed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Students reported feeling disappointed by and understanding of the college’s decision not to support their programs. The Office of Global Education (GEO) has since identified a number of fellowships and internships for students to look into for the summer. A decision about fall 2021 programs will come later this year. 

Over the past year and a half, students and the GEO have faced multiple disruptions to study abroad programs. In October and November of 2019, students in Chile and Ecuador were faced with student-led protests, blocked transportation and limited class schedules, prompting institutions in those countries to enact curfews until the end of the semester. In early February of 2020, the partners of the college’s study abroad program in China suspended the spring semester due to the novel Covid-19 epidemic at the time. Programs during fall 2020 and the latter part of spring 2020 were similarly affected by the pandemic. 

Over two dozen students planned to study abroad during the spring of 2021, according to the Director of Global Education Office Janna Behrens. The college opted to cancel its support for the majority of study abroad programs in late December, mere weeks before some programs began. Four students are currently enrolled in spring programs in South Korea. Two students are currently completing year-long programs with the support of the college: One is on a niche domestic program studying remotely, and another is an international student studying abroad in Europe. 

Without sponsorship from the college, students must pay for a program’s tuition themselves and take a semester off from Amherst. During a normal year, the college chooses to support programs by consulting the U.S. Department of State (U.S. DOS) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) travel advisories. The highest travel warning for the U.S. DOS is “Level 4: Do Not Travel,” and the highest travel health notice from the CDC is “Level 3: Avoid Nonessential Travel.” During the pandemic, the college has also consulted Covid ratings, the peer school network, AIG Travel Guard (the college’s emergency medical assistance provider) and program providers and exchange partners (who have provided detailed on-the-ground details), Behrens said in a statement to The Student.

The decision to revoke the support of some programs was made by the international risk management group at the college. The group consists of Provost and Dean of Faculty Catherine Epstein, Chief Student Affairs Officer Karu Kozuma, Director of Media Communications Caroline Hanna, Chief of Staff Bett Schumacher, Associate Provost Austin Sarat, Director of Emergency Management Matt Hart, Director of Immigration Services Hanna Bliss and Janna Behrens. It is advised by Deputy General Counsel Justin Smith. 

“Around Thanksgiving, the CDC published new country-specific Covid ratings on a scale from one to four and only permitted travel to countries with a level 1 or 2,” Behrens said. “The new CDC Covid ratings came very late. The risk management group met in mid-December, which gave us time to review student petitions to the travel policy, review the new CDC Covid ratings, review U.S. DOS travel advisories and hear from our program partners and others in our network.”

There was always a possibility that the abroad programs would not be supported by the college, and the GEO advised planning students to make back-ups plans to study at Amherst. Nonetheless, students whose abroad programs lost the college’s support noted the late decision date as the crux of their disappointment.

Lucy Carlson ’22 was incredibly disappointed when she learned the college would not support her study abroad experience. She is an English and Asian languages and civilizations major who knew she wanted an immersion experience in Japan even before arriving at Amherst. In November 2020, she committed to the Middlebury program in the Mitaka region of Japan, near the suburbs of Tokyo. The language intensive program takes place at the International Christian University. 

Though Carlson acknowledged the difficulties of experiencing an abroad semester during the pandemic. “Because I need financial aid and credit, I needed the college to sponsor the program. I didn’t want to take a semester off, either.” 

The decision came just in time for Carlson to indicate that she would return to campus. “The college had certain deadlines by which we had to confirm if we would be on campus, and if we would be a student that semester. I was worried that if the college made the decision after that deadline, which was in early January, I wouldn’t have been able to come to campus. Worst case scenario would have been if they canceled study abroad after the deadline to enroll in the spring semester,” she said.

The semester abroad would have been canceled anyway, Carlson said. A month after Amherst’s decision, Middlebury suspended its program once Covid cases in Japan began to rise. When new strains of Covid were found around the world, Japan closed its borders. Middlebury, known for its language-intensive abroad programs, has since canceled every program it runs.

Taylor Thomas ’22 planned to study at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Her program was scheduled to run from Jan. 11 to May 22. She enrolled in two Scottish history and culture classes and one philosophy course at Edinburgh. She had received her housing and flatmates, and made plans to explore the city. Two weeks before she expected to depart the U.S., she received an email from the college that confirmed her program would not be sponsored. 

“The program I applied through had everything ready to go for us students,” Thomas said. “We already had booked our flights, received our housing info and had a couple Zoom meetings with the program managers and other exchange students. Everything was a go, two weeks out from my departure.”

Thomas was especially disappointed that the program, even without the college’s sponsorship, would accept students for the spring semester. “My host institution was willing to bring foreign students onto their campus and accept the risk, while Amherst, the college I would not be physically attending that semester and still paying the same amount of money to, said ‘Sorry, we won’t support you financially or academically,’” she said. “There is little to no loss to Amherst if I studied abroad, so why not let me go?” 

Hannah Zhang ’22 made plans to study in Copenhagen, where she could have taken classes to support her degree in English and Russian. She planned to leave for Denmark on Jan. 15, but received the college’s notice on Dec. 30 that her travel would not be supported. 

The news was upsetting for Zhang, who looked forward to escaping Amherst, getting to know a new city and taking specific classes. “There was a comparative literature class with a professor who specializes in Russian literature. It was exactly what I wanted to learn and explore,” Zhang said. 

Zhang noted that she understood the college’s decision. “At the time, cases were starting to rise again. I understood how the college would feel if they sent us and we got stuck there,” she said. 

The GEO is already looking ahead to the fall 2021 abroad programs, though still warning students to be prepared for their plans to be canceled. “Some fall programs have already announced their continued suspensions, often because of government travel restrictions (e.g., New Zealand, Australia),” Behrens said. “Most programs, though, are encouraging students to apply and they have plans to run. Study away programs have three semesters of experience adapting to the pandemic, e.g., moving courses to a virtual environment, adapting cultural activities to be socially distanced, following the host country’s public health guidance.” 

In the meantime, students can take advantage of a variety of summer study away options identified by the GEO, though they are not sponsored by the college. The college “does not grant credit nor award financial aid for summer study — whether in the U.S. or abroad — we encourage students to participate in summer programs,” according to the GEO website. 

Summer study away programs include fellowships and research internships, both of which can be found in a range of countries. In the U.S., students might consider a semester at sea, language programs at Middlebury and others.

After Carlson had her plans canceled in late December, she applied to the Shoyu Club of Japan Fellowship. The Shoyu Club, not the college, sponsors the travel. Through the fellowship, two Amherst students study Japanese during June through the Ishikawa Japanese Studies Program. Whether the program will run remains uncertain, though Carlson said she felt fortunate and lucky to be given the opportunity to study what she’s interested in. 

Other students turned away from their spring programs are looking to the fall semester to go abroad. Thomas expects to arrive in Edinburgh in the fall. “I am still planning on going to Edinburgh in the fall. Because of what happened last semester, I am very apprehensive as to the viability of the opportunity, but will try my hardest to have it happen,” she said. 

“Studying abroad has always been something I envisioned occurring in my college experience, and I won’t give up on the chance to have such a unique and special experience easily. In that sense, I do feel as though I have missed a dream because of the college’s decision this semester. Going later doesn’t necessarily bother me because in this time of unprecedented reality, going away Senior Fall is nothing out of the ordinary anymore. Covid has changed a lot of aspects of college life and it wouldn’t be wise to dwell on the what-ifs, but rather hope to have a better future.”