Planning without a crystal ball: study abroad must remain flexible

“Navigating this phase requires flexibility and proactive collaboration regarding study abroad policies and information”

I contributed a blog a few months ago about responding to crises in international education – namely Covid-19 – and focusing on staying connected, open-minded and organised amidst feelings of uncertainty to help our international ed community through to the other side, writes Kerry Geffert, product evangelist for Terra Dotta. While we’ve collectively survived the initial stages of the pandemic, we must build on this mindset to move through the next phase – from response and into recovery.

Keeping things in perspective and understanding that there are pathways forward will be critical for international education staff making decisions that are in the best interests of students and faculty. In speaking recently with collegiate study abroad staff – both from institutions and program providers – it is clear that student outcomes and growth remain our guiding principles. And that students still very much want to have a study abroad experience.

In a recent Terra Dotta webinar with study abroad leaders, the message came across loud and clear: navigating this phase requires flexibility and proactive collaboration regarding study abroad policies and information, even as it changes on a near-daily basis. As we take the next steps in supporting each other in fostering continued opportunities in study abroad, here are some ideas for keeping forward momentum and reimagining meaningful study abroad opportunities:

Don’t pull the plug

While it may seem difficult to envision study abroad programs when travel isn’t currently an option, there are ways to adapt. Resist the urge the cancel programs if possible, and instead take the opportunity to reimagine possibilities.

For example, a full-time study abroad course or internship that was planned to be held on site overseas could be transformed into a part time internship that begins virtually and ends with a partial on-site experience.

These types of approaches will still enable students and faculty to benefit from cross-cultural experiences in an enriching way and may actually open up more possibilities for students to participate than ever before.

Manage new levels of risk 

Institutions have an entirely new set of study abroad program risks to consider as a result of Covid-19. What happens if travellers need to go into quarantine or be brought home prematurely again? There is a very real financial impact to these types of risks and many institutions will need to reassess their insurance needs.

Colleges are also navigating how to work with students who still want to participate in partner-led study abroad programs that are currently unauthorised by their institutions.

This issue came up when Covid-19 hit and some students opted to stay in their countries of study rather than return home as instructed by institutional policy. Proactively evaluating overseas transfer credit according to accreditation rules will be key, as well as consulting legal and risk teams to examine policies to remove liability from the institution while also protecting its reputation.

Embrace study abroad partnerships

Relationships between institutions and study abroad partners have traditionally involved a common set of expectations and deadlines around fees and information exchange under “normal” circumstances.

As many institutions look toward Spring 2021 for resuming some version of more traditional study abroad programming, now is a great opportunity to deepen existing partnerships to understand the levers that both sides can pull for collective success moving forward.

This may mean providers becoming more flexible with deadlines and commitments and universities understanding and accepting financial constraints and other limitations. By working together as true partners, study abroad professionals on both sides can help deliver enriching student international experiences while accommodating the realities we are all facing.

Overall, while our global education community is undoubtedly faced with new challenges, there are still many ways to move forward and offer culturally enriching experiences abroad. It will most definitely look very different than our pre-COVID world but with the right preparations, financial considerations and an open mind, new possibilities are promising for the future of study abroad

About the author: Kerry Geffert is a product evangelist for Terra Dotta.