Baggage claim at Philadelphia International Airport is completely empty on March 15, 2020. The pandemic has greatly limited the ability of students to travel abroad. (Jake Epstein/B&W Staff)

COVID-19 pandemic shakes up study abroad experiences at Lehigh and elsewhere

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Lehigh announced that international travel and study abroad to countries with designations by the State Department level four or a CDC alert level three warning will not be approved for next semester. 

Most countries in the world fall into one of these categories, leaving all but one in-person study abroad program canceled for Lehigh students this spring. The various warnings by the U.S. government indicate there should be no non-essential travel to these countries as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

But besides the health precautions, there are logistical barriers stemming from the pandemic that prevent study abroad. 

“Beyond the travel alerts, there are lots of issues with travel restrictions in general,” said Katy Rene, the assistant director of study abroad at Lehigh. “Passport services, flight availability, restrictions on U.S. citizens traveling to different parts of the world. Even if the travel alerts were dropped in the next few weeks, students would still have likely had a really difficult time getting where they needed to be.” 

Even though Lehigh has restricted students from study abroad programs, there are some that are still running in person that other schools are participating in. 

The School for International Training is one of the study abroad organizations that Lehigh students normally enroll in. 

Mory Pagel, the executive director of institutional relations and strategic partnerships at the School for International Training, said most of the colleges and universities they typically work with have followed the same path as Lehigh in canceling applications for their students due to COVID-19 precautions. 

The School for International Training still ran two abroad programs this fall and 20 students were involved, Pagel said. In a normal semester, around 60 students would participate, but Pagel said as of now they are planning to run 19 programs in the spring. 

Pagel said this could change before the spring actually comes around. 

They are only operating at 10 to 15 percent of their typical student body, he said. The remaining 85 to 90 percent of their student body is coming from schools like Lehigh who have not permitted their students to study abroad this spring, Pagel said.  

When Lehigh had announced its decision to cancel applications for the spring, there were only around 15 to 20 students with active applications at that time, Rene said.  

Last spring when abroad programs had to be pulled, many schools and programs took large financial hits after bringing students home, said Natalie Mello, the vice president for programs, training and services at The Forum on Education Abroad. 

The Forum on Education Abroad is a non-profit organization that has developed guidelines on conducting schooling abroad during the pandemic. 

 “Many organizations, number one, can’t withstand another financial hit like that,” Mello said. “So, they’re going to be very, very cautious before sending students out.”  

Lehigh intentionally selected program providers students could apply to that had full refund policies if they got canceled, Rene said. She said students who had applied before Lehigh’s announcement came out could be fully refunded for any deposits put down. 

As for the partner international institutions that are not receiving incoming students from places like Lehigh, they are experiencing a loss. 

“It’s devastating because for some, it means they may be out of work, and there’s a ripple effect,” Pagel said. “It affects their employment, that affects their economic situation and it’s really hard.” 

The programs that are running this year look different than a typical year. At the School for International Training, they have an extensive risk management plan on how they can mitigate risk, Pagel said. 

Pagel said there are lots of modifications to programs. Homestays are no longer permitted, excursions have been cut back, students will not be able to travel independently or use public transportation and virtual tools will replace some in-person work, he said. 

“The health and safety of any of our students is our top priority for spring, so we will only continue to offer immersive programs in locations where it’s safe and where we can mitigate students’ health risks,” Pagel said.

There is one alternative program Lehigh is offering for those seeking an international experience. The Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences is the only in-person program still running this spring. In Bermuda, there is little travel health concern and the risk is low.

Tracks are offered for students with and without a science background. Students participating would also be taking Lehigh classes remotely in conjunction with their in-person labs at the institute. 

Rene said virtual international internships are also being offered. Students doing this will be enrolled in the Lehigh internship course and get a faculty mentor, Rene said. The internships would be at no additional cost for students. 

Many of the abroad providers, like the School for International Training, are also offering international internships.

“One of the things that has been so wonderful with our domestic partners is the creativity and the innovation that we’ve learned that it’s possible to have an international experience without getting on a plane and going there,” Pagel said.

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