USF modifies study abroad programs amid COVID-19

Studying abroad through USF will look different this summer, as students will be able to attend seven in-person trips and many virtual excursions despite the mitigation efforts that will be required. UNSPLASH/Margo Brodowicz

Even with travel restrictions in place due to the pandemic, USF approved seven study abroad programs for summer 2021 for students who seek to expand their education beyond campus borders.

While this year’s selection will be restricted to seven programs due to safety concerns around COVID-19, students will have the opportunity to explore programs outside of their comfort zone from visiting the Florence Cathedral to exploring marine life in the Galapagos Islands.

The chosen programs had to be approved by the USF COVID-19 Task Force according to KiKi Caruson, interim vice president of USF World. They are USF in Florence Science, USF in Florence Business, USF in Florence Psychology/ Social Behavioral Science, USF Caribbean Marine Conservation in Curaçao, USF Romania Human Osteology and Bioarcheology, the Green Program in Iceland and USF in the Galapagos Islands.

Selection criteria also included USF’s ability to provide a safe experience and their in-country partners being able to supply academic and student support services amid the pandemic. Caruson said even if there will be fewer students going on study abroad trips this year, she is happy USF World could still have some options available.

“We will have far fewer students traveling overseas this summer compared to pre-COVID periods, but we are ecstatic that we are able to offer even a limited group of programs,” Caruson said. “Our goal has not changed: to provide USF students with safe, high-impact experiences abroad that contribute to academic and career success as well as to personal growth.”

There are about 150 students expected to travel this summer and the majority are heading to Florence, according to Jim Pulos, associate director of Education Abroad. He said that besides the academic and cultural opportunities students usually have while studying abroad, this summer they should also anticipate social distancing requirements and smaller class sizes.

“As in the United States, students can expect social distancing requirements, mask requirements, COVID testing requirements and [other usual mitigation procedures],” Pulos said.

“Students are discouraged from independent travel prior to, and during the program. All students are highly encouraged to get a COVID-19 vaccine and students going to Florence will be directed to ‘COVID-tested’ flights through Rome.”

Faculty members who are part of the programs will also follow safety guidelines and leave the U.S. already vaccinated, according to Pulos. In addition, Pulos said each program has its own mitigation strategies regarding COVID-19 that have been reviewed by the International Risk and Security Office and the COVID-19 Task Force, including having travelers take COVID-19 tests and maintaining social distance in the communities that will be visited.

In the Florence program, — which is the most popular one among students this year — a mitigating measure in place is the mandatory vaccination of all staff and faculty at the Florence University of the Arts – American University of Florence. Pulos said the host institute also adjusted program tours to make them safer.

“Our partners have modified the location of their embedded site visits to keep them within Florence, region of Tuscany, rather than to surrounding regions,” Pulos said.

“As Florence is a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization world heritage site with an abundance of cultural and historical sites and world-class cuisine, there is much to see and do within Florence. It also is expected to have fewer tourists, which makes it a unique opportunity for our students and faculty to experience the city without crowds of tourists.”

Other study abroad opportunities were reshaped or canceled because of the ongoing pandemic. The Judy Genshaft Honors College (JGHC) won’t be sponsoring any trips this summer, according to Megan Braunstein, academic adviser and international programs coordinator at the Honors College. With the uncertainty of travel restrictions, she said the college decided not to move forward with the programs.

“We didn’t really feel comfortable telling students back in January and February, ‘Yes, put down several hundred dollars on a program deposit, as well as start investing in flights and things like that,’ when we just weren’t sure if we were really going to be able to do it or not,” Braunstein said.

Instead, the college will host an online global exchange program where engineering students will be learning from faculty members at the Osnabrück University of Applied Sciences. During this program, Braunstein said students will work on projects, listen to guest speakers and gain insight about engineering from professionals.

“Originally, we had intended for the students to go to Germany for six weeks, but due to COVID they told us, ‘It’s not looking good in Germany, don’t set your expectations with the students that they’re going to be able to come here,’” Braunstein said.

“And so they said, ‘You know what, let’s just plan for a virtual experience. That way, we’re not going to disappoint the students at the last minute, and we’ll still be able to have enough time to prepare a really robust virtual experience for them in that time.’ So we’re very excited about the opportunity that [the students are] going to have.”

During the spring semester, the JGHC pivoted other study abroad opportunities to virtual learning experiences. A course that was planned to be offered in South Korea transitioned to a series of workshops about the culture of that country while a medical service trip to the Dominican Republic that usually takes place at the end of the spring semester became a virtual shadowing experience during which students observed interactions at a Dominican clinic.

Braunstein said there is no timeline on when all the JGHC study abroad programs will restart, but she hopes that by winter break, it will be able to host one.

“There’s still uncertainty there, it’s not only about the U.S. regulations, but also about the regulations in the Dominican Republic and the other countries that we would intend to study abroad in,” Braunstein said. “That’s still very much changing from day to day, so that’s why I’m a little bit hesitant to say that fall or winter is definite for us. But we’re optimistic, our fingers are crossed.”

While USF World wants to give all students the chance to travel, the limited amount of trips means that students nearing graduation will be prioritized for selection.

“This summer, study abroad will not be for everyone, but students who are nearing the end of their USF careers,” Caruson said.

“Those who will not have another window to travel overseas because of scheduling and degree requirements and those who are intrepid travelers who have realistic expectations about the experience and the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic will have the chance to study abroad as long as national borders remain open and conditions allow for travelers to leave and return to the United States safely.”