Study abroad

For years, students have loved taking advantage of the various study abroad and exchange programs that Virginia Tech has to offer. These opportunities give us a chance to travel, engage in experiential learning, understand new cultures and meet people from all over the world. But the excitement of studying abroad was suddenly put on hold last spring when the pandemic proved too dangerous for students to travel and stay abroad. On the other hand, many international students have had to complete the past two semesters in their home countries, hopeful but uncertain about returning to Blacksburg this spring. 

Though infection rates have risen at home and internationally, Virginia Tech’s Global Education Office gave study abroad programs the option to go ahead this semester as long as they followed strict COVID-19 guidelines. 

Tyler Pugh, a senior in the Presidential Global Scholars program (PGS) who works for the Global Education Office, described how the office will administer upcoming programs. “They’ve been pushing programs to reevaluate the safety measures that would occur if students go on VT-sponsored trips,” Pugh said. “They reached out to everyone and asked them to consider what safety measures will be, what quarantine will look like, and if they can isolate properly for two weeks.” 

Many programs cancelled their plans for the spring, including the semester-long PGS program that would have been in Riva San Vitale, Switzerland. All programs that would have taken place over spring break additionally decided to cancel because isolation periods would have taken up most of the program’s time. At the moment, the Global Education Office wants to push for more programs without heavy restrictions by Fall 2021. 

One program that will still go ahead with travel plans in January is Pamplin’s spring 2021 program in Lugano, Switzerland. To accommodate pandemic restrictions and guidelines, students will quarantine in their hotel for 10 days after arrival in Switzerland. When students are able to attend classes, they will wear face masks upon entering classrooms. Because of travel restrictions throughout Europe, including the United Kingdom, students will no longer be able to visit other countries that the program once traveled to. 

Yasmine Katkhuda, a fifth-year architecture student from Jordan who studied abroad in Riva San Vitale last spring, reflected on how important traveling was for her program. “Our entire program was about travel; it was supposed to be one weekend in London, one weekend in Paris, and the next in Milan,” Katkhuda said. “I had a whole semester worth of trips and plans. I booked a festival in Venice, and then a weekend with my friends from high school in London.” When the threat of the pandemic took hold in Europe, Katkhuda’s travelling plans were canceled along with the program itself in early March. 

With fewer opportunities to travel and gather in large groups, students abroad this year will have to limit their traveling plans and activities most likely to their host country, while keeping in mind health and safety precautions. Despite the limitations, students should still have COVID-safe options to make the best out of their time. 

Pugh, who also studied in Riva San Vitale last spring, noted how students still found things to do even when their traveling options were restricted. “Over the last two or three weeks of the program, they told us we weren’t allowed to travel outside of Switzerland,” Pugh said. “So, on our weekend trips, we went to Zurich, Lugano, or we hiked a mountain in Switzerland. Those were just as fruitful and enjoyable as going to a new country.” 

For some, missing out on travel opportunities is one of the hardest aspects of studying abroad during the pandemic, especially when classes have transitioned to mostly online. Katkhuda recalls this being the hardest part of her experience, especially as an architecture student. “It was hard to think about everything that could have been but wasn’t, like all the travels you could have been on and all the places you could’ve seen,” Katkhuda said. “It’s all about being outside, walking through the streets, looking at the architecture and learning from experiencing rather than sitting at a desk. So, in coming back to Jordan, how do you translate travel and learning from experience into looking at screens?”

Meanwhile, international students like Katkhuda continue to face the difficulties of online learning with the uncertainty of whether they will be able to return to Blacksburg, hoping to finally see their college friends again. 

Katkhuda, who is still at home in Jordan, has been trying to return since the summer. “Over the summer, I thought, maybe I’ll go back to the U.S. for the fall,” Katkhuda said. “But, our airport here wouldn’t open, so I’ve just been stuck here. Each month, I keep thinking — maybe I’ll go back next month, maybe the next one. I ended up finishing the fall semester here in Jordan.” She hopes to be able to return by the end of January. 

As for study abroad students, the current restrictions will be difficult for them to face given what previous students encountered last year, but they still have much to look forward to. Pugh offered some words of reflection from his experience. “COVID reminded us that the plans you think you have for your life and what will actually happen can be completely different,” Pugh said. “But, I think it brought a lot of clarity and reflection to our lives. I realized how lucky I was to go. I would do it all over again if I could.” 

Hopefully, both study abroad and international students will be able to make the best out of the next coming semesters as we continue to accommodate and adjust our plans for the pandemic.