He was on a plane home within 24 hours.
His Northeastern classmate Hanna Elzaridi, however, wouldn’t make it back to her native Kuwait for another four months after border closures and a stay-at-home order in the United Kingdom delayed her departure.
For study abroad students around the globe, these stories are all too familiar. In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, overseas trips were either suspended or deferred entirely as the virus sent the world into quarantine. But now, thanks to growing vaccine distribution and the reopening of borders — even amid the spread of the delta variant — many students are reconsidering travel possibilities and asking themselves, “Can I plan a study abroad trip now?’”
For Aileen Chang, a sophomore at Stanford University, the answer was yes. After spending the spring semester attending class virtually from her dorm room in Silicon Valley, Chang leaped at the chance to go to the only study abroad program Stanford didn’t cancel this summer. She arrived in Oxford, England, in late June for 10 weeks.
“I applied winter quarter, but they didn’t tell us to book flights until a few weeks ago,” Chang said from a hotel in Oxford shortly after her arrival while she waited out a required quarantine.
In order for her to enter the country, Chang had to have at least one negative coronavirus test 72 hours before her flight from Honolulu.
“I took three covid tests from different providers in Hawaii hoping that at least one would be in the correct format that the U.K. would accept,” she says. But then her flights were rerouted from Seattle to Atlanta where she waited through an anxiety-inducing 11-hour layover. When she arrived at Heathrow Airport, she says her nerves only increased. “People in front of me were getting rejected because they didn’t have the right paperwork in order.”
Chang’s nasal swabs and forethought paid off. She was let in. “My nose hurts, but I’m feeling great. My view from my hotel window is amazing. I’ve never been to England before,” Chang said last month.
That’s the wanderlust reward so many students, reeling from more than a year of distance learning, are craving. And it’s why many universities are doing all they can to get students safely back on planes and overseas.
The Forum on Education Abroad, a nonprofit organization that champions and supports study abroad educators, recently did a “State of the Field” survey and found that of the 216 institutions that responded, 44 percent said they would resume study abroad programs this fall.
“We will be reopening some of our programs abroad this fall,” says Aron Rodrigue, Burke Family Director of Stanford’s Bing Overseas Studies Program, and a Forum on Education Abroad member. “Sixty-four students are planning to go.”
Across the country, the mood is similar.
Cautious optimism is what’s getting University of South Carolina sophomore Gwyneth Miller through the summer. A Chinese studies major, Miller has her heart set on spending the school year at National Taiwan University in Taipei.
“The plan is to leave sometime in August,” she says. “But my mind is racing. What happens if covid takes over?” Reports indicate that Taiwan’s vaccination rate is lagging with about 30 percent of the population having received at least one dose.
But health concerns aren’t enough to keep her from trying to study in her mother’s native land, the place where she longs to perfect her language skills and grow her cultural understanding. “If I can’t go, I’ll probably cry,” Miller said.
Managing student expectations has other universities, including Spelman College in Atlanta, taking a different approach. In 2019, 77 percent of Spelman’s graduating class had studied abroad. But for now, ‘Dimeji R. Togunde, Spelman’s vice provost for global education and a professor of international studies, says the college won’t reopen its study abroad programming until next spring at the earliest.
But vaccine inequity, particularly in places where students travel to connect with their heritage, also plays a role in Spelman’s decision to postpone trips. Togunde said the college also will consider only lower-risk destinations based on travel advisories from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and State Department.
But just because Spelman students can’t yet study abroad doesn’t mean their cultural education is on hold. Spelman has pivoted to virtual internships, selective virtual study abroad and “a systematic internationalization of the curriculum that infuses virtual exchange opportunities,” Togunde said. “They bring the world to the students.”
Still, the virtual options won’t keep passports from burning a hole in many students’ pockets. With a Northeastern GEP program trip to Hong Kong this year canceled, Jack Miller has opted to travel to the London School of Economics.
As for Elzaridi, she has decided to go to Boston and experience her third year of college at her American college, a study abroad in itself.
“No one knows what’s going to happen: third waves, vaccines, all of those situations,” she says. But for travel hungry students like herself, the time to hesitate has passed. Studying abroad, she says, “It’s worth the risk.”