The US university still sending students on study abroad

“Students seem excited, even if the experience will look different”

Many people were looking forward to 2021, hoping to travel freely and without concern over health and safety. While widespread travel may not be the case just yet, a handful of universities are allowing for limited student travel.

The University of Tennessee at Knoxville (UTK) is just one of these universities. In a normal year, UTK would send a couple hundred students abroad per semester. This semester, their Center for Global Engagement was able to send dozens of students to a small number of destinations including Ireland, Poland and South Korea.

Anne Hulse, Interim Director of the Center for Global Engagement’s Programs Abroad Office said that many factors were at play when deciding whether or not they would allow students to travel. Terra Dotta’s Emily Robinson explains.


An individualised approach allowed for consideration of travel restrictions, onsite pandemic conditions, partner universities and provider insight, and the overall experience of the student.

Hulse commented that this approach took months and months to prepare for and has proven time consuming, but it allows for the sought-after study abroad experience.

Hulse added that spring faculty-led programs were postponed, and that they have particularly leveraged partnerships with universities and third-party providers because of their onsite knowledge of the current pandemic situation.

This includes UTK students who are direct enrolees for the spring semester at University College Dublin in Ireland and UTK students studying at the Cracow University of Technology in Krakow, Poland on an exchange program.

There is also a cohort of UTK students studying at Korea University in Seoul, South Korea through an affiliate provider program.

The approval process for the programs they are offering was quite extensive and involved consulting with university administration and risk management.

Hulse also reached out to peer institutions and colleagues in the field of international education to gauge how others were navigating the process.

Special Precautions

The communication throughout the pre-departure process has been more frequent for students that are embarking on their journey, and they were required to attend a virtual orientation where additional precautionary measures were covered.

Once they arrive at their destination, UTK is requiring students to follow local, regional, national, and sometimes international, guidelines.

The Center for Global Engagement has tried to provide students appropriate tools and resources as well, such as:

  • State Department and CDC Website Guidance or the aligning organisation for their destination
  • Insurance coverage information that has 24/7 assistance
  • On-site contact information
  • UTK’s Center for Global Engagement 24/7 emergency line
  • Health and safety pre-departure orientation

Hulse said that they have emphasised to the students that pandemic guidelines can be stricter and that they could even face a fine in particular countries for not wearing a mask or social distancing, but she believes that these students understand the gravity of the situation.

UTK also chose to make academic contingency plans, so no matter what the situation is, the student and the university are prepared and the student will not fall behind academically.

Student sentiment

As Hulse and other advisors carry out conversations with students throughout the pre-departure process, she mentioned that students seem excited, even if the experience will look different.

Because Covid-19 precautions are now the norm, Hulse said that hopefully this will make the students even more prepared.

Of the 20-30 students going abroad this semester, many of them had programs cancelled previously, which has given them extra motivation to do what they need to do in order to make their international experience happen.

Hulse called the cohort a “special group with a lot of resilience.”

Best practices for the return to travel

Hulse outlined a couple of best practices that have particularly helped their office as they navigate their return to travel:

  • No matter where you are in the process, consult within your networks at your university (health centres, risk management, etc.) so that those stakeholders are involved in the conversation. Hulse added, “get your allies together and ask hard questions”.
  • Access networks outside of your institution. See what they are doing and take advice.
  • Engage with your partners abroad, as they are imperative in this process. They are on the ground and know the situation firsthand.
  • Communicate with program participants. Many of them will be new to study abroad, and now it’s study abroad plus a pandemic.
  • Stay adaptable and create contingency plans in the event you do need to pivot.

Looking ahead

As UTK and other universities prepare for future terms, Hulse said that the number of incoming applications is relatively healthy and looks promising – a positive sign that many in the field of international education have been hoping for. Hopefully this year holds a light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s important to carry all that we have learned with us as we prepare for the return to travel.


About the author: Emily Robinson is a marketing associate at Terra Dotta.