The Impact of COVID-19 on Education Abroad

student with elephant in Thailand

2020 has been an exceptionally challenging year for international education and student travel.  As COVID-19 rapidly spread around the world during the spring semester, Study Abroad & Global Engagement (SAGE) worked diligently to safely return nearly 200 KU undergraduate students who had been pursuing educational opportunities in 25 countries around the world. Through close collaboration with partner institutions and organizations abroad, students returning to the United States were able to complete their academic coursework online, enroll in additional KU courses as needed, and receive the support services essential to making the transition to a new learning environment and to reflecting on and making sense of the abrupt changes to their plans for their study abroad experience.

As it became clear that COVID-19 would be present for the foreseeable future, SAGE made the difficult decision to cancel all summer and fall 2020 international study, internship and research programs.  The suspension of travel affected approximately 800 KU students, forcing students to postpone, or in some cases forego, plans for international study during their undergraduate careers.  It also posed a critical question to KU Study Abroad staff: How do we support global learning and ensure KU students achieve the global competencies necessary for academic and career success in the context of a worldwide pandemic, public health restrictions, and suspended travel?  

In response to this question, SAGE chose to lean in to our existing programmatic strengths while creating new and innovative virtual international education opportunities.  The Global Awareness Program (GAP), a campus-based certificate program comprised of language study, internationally-focused coursework, and internationally-oriented co-curricular activities, shifted to a fully online and interactive platform, allowing students to continue pursuit of international engagement.  Through lectures, language exchange, cooking classes, musical performance, town halls and more conducted synchronously and asynchronously by local and international experts, KU students were able to grow in their cultural knowledge, expand their understanding of critical global issues, and develop cross-cultural communications skills.

Similarly, SAGE launched new credit-bearing global remote internship programs and virtual study abroad programs.  Through global remote internships, KU students were placed with international companies, charities, and governmental organizations around the world aligned with each student’s professional interests and career goals.  Through mentored work experiences, students collaborated and learned from professionals in an international context, acquired experience in their chosen field, and gained exposure to and appreciation for diverse work cultures and practices, all while staying local.

Virtual study and research abroad programs also provided global education opportunities to students in an online space. Through these programs, students completed coursework in a wide variety of disciplines through KU partner institutions abroad and took part in curated activities to foster learning, cross-cultural engagement, and student interaction with the host region, community or institution.  Activities varied by program and on-site partner, but typically included guest lectures by host country subject matter experts, virtual company/industry tours and interaction with executives, city tours and cultural activities, sporting “watch parties”, virtual buddy programs, virtual host families, and much more.  Forty KU undergraduate students took part in virtual internship and education abroad programs during the summer term, and an additional 24 students will be participating in virtual programs in January 2021. Of particular note, virtual programming attracted students who for personal, financial or other reasons may not have chosen to participate in a more traditional international education experience.

The desire for international travel has not abated among KU students, and SAGE is optimistic that we will see a quick return to pre-pandemic levels of faculty, staff and student engagement in education abroad programs once travel is safe and accessible again.  However, while 2020 presented challenges, it also drove innovative programming that will endure long beyond COVID-19 and that will have a meaningful impact on our students and institution for years to come.