The secret to rebuilding study abroad: case study in Ireland’s Phobal

“As we dust ourselves off, we find ourselves trying to embrace and rebuild study abroad in a new way”

Study abroad isn’t what it used to be.

With the collapse of many programs and the seat-of-your pants decisions to cancel, withdraw, shift, digitise, and more in the last two years, many study abroad programs were forced to reduce staff and/or create efficiencies and alternatives to students’ amplifying experiences in the world. Karin Fischer gives a strong voice to the stress and devastation of Covid on study abroad offices in her Chronicle of Higher Education article, raising more questions for the field of international education about our future, and the student experience.

But as we dust ourselves off and re-emerge from the deep restrictions on student travel, we find ourselves looking across the field’s lost landscape, trying to embrace and rebuild study abroad in a new way – more resilient and adaptable, with a new and active commitment to spaces that matter.

And we’re rebuilding study abroad for students who have clearly been traumatised, having been forced to live some of the most critical years in isolation. The stories of their senior years of high school or first years of college are about things that happened on Zoom rather than in a dorm, a classroom, or some interesting spot on campus. Most student affairs professionals will tell you that students have lost a measure of social and academic confidence, and are less likely to engage in campus activities that help to provide social support and connection that’s critical to thriving in college.

As new study abroad approaches emerge and we find critical ways to build deep and meaningful global experiences for students who also need structures and supports to help them to emerge from their trauma, one solution is to double down on providing students what they have wanted from study abroad for decades: Community

For years, students have studied abroad with the aim of making friends, discovering the life and quirks of the world, and connecting to places and people. Study abroad programs have capitalised on this desire, with focused efforts toward students volunteering, home stays, and explorations of students’ home communities.

But in this emerging world, students need an invitation into their global community that is deeper and more nuanced than before – one that understands the need to heal, build confidence, and push them to connect in meaningful ways.

Case Study: Arcadia Abroad Ireland

As one case study, Arcadia Abroad Ireland (AAI) has pivoted to foregrounding Phobal, or “community”, a concept that both spans the country and focuses on each student’s perspective in connecting with their own experiences, people, and places. Phobal isn’t just what everyone does together, but what each person brings with them.

All AAI students explore Phobal from the moment they arrive, with a Failte “welcome” for them during orientation; build Phobal through active and shared journeys such as cooking lessons; join in Ealu “adventures” that explore and celebrate Ireland through music, dance, and surfing(!); and conclude with a bittersweet Slainte “farewell”, bringing their amplified experiences, growth, and Phobal home again.

And Ireland has a lot to teach us about Phobal.

In this deliberately enhanced aspect of AAI’s approach to students, “it’s critical that students connect with each other and understand that it must be meaningful in order for them to amplify themselves”, says Thomas Kelley, resident director for Ireland. Students join their Irish home communities through events run through the Dublin Center, deepening connections with long standing in-country staff to reflect on their identity both in the world community and in their own communities at home.

“It may look like surfing in County Clare,” says Jane Gunn-Lewis, director of Arcadia Abroad New Zealand whose work in community building served as a foundation for AAI’s development, “but it’s more than that. It’s healing together by sharing an experience and building connections past their challenges of the past few years.”

Arcadia Abroad Ireland’s message of community building through Phobal is working. AAI has seen increasing numbers of students engaged with staff and participating in co-curricular activities, with positive impacts resulting in increased academic success and personal transformation.

Arcadia Abroad Ireland Student Participation Growth






Fall/Spring Semester Engagement






What we learn from AAI’s example is important to growing study abroad in the emerging world.

Students are ready to travel again to amplify their learning, and are eager to engage, connect, and build community in new ways that push the boundaries and push themselves.

So the secret to the new era of study abroad actually hasn’t been a secret for quite some time.


About the author: Dr Sandra Crenshaw is the Director of Academic Enterprise and Enrollment Communication in The College of Global Studies at Arcadia University, as well as Arcadia’s Accreditation Officer.