UM’s Safe Travel Program has helped students study abroad during the pandemic through virtual experiences

UM student Promise McEntire did part of her studies in Burkina Faso. Photo credit: Promise McEntire

University of Michigan graduate student Promise McEntire spent the 2020-21 academic year in West Africa. A doctoral student, she researched the role of cultural producers in negotiating the country’s cultural identity in the context of globalization in Burkina Faso.

The rapid spread of the coronavirus that disrupted education abroad that winter semester nearly derailed his study plan. But McEntire felt safe and acted quickly. He completed the security travel program set up by the university to guarantee the safety and well-being of all students abroad and followed all protocols.

Assure McKendre
Assure McKendre

“I knew that if I left, I wouldn’t be able to come back so soon and finish my research,” McEntire said. “The first year I spent at my field base was very difficult. It took me a long time to get everything right. So, when Covid hit, I felt I had to stay. I felt safe staying.

McEntire is one of UM’s 140 American students participating in study-abroad programs in 2020-21 for academic credit. Data from that reporting cycle documents the full effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on American study abroad: This is the latest academic year with complete statistics, according to the annual Open Doors report from the Institute of International Education in New York. Non-profit. For context, nationally, 14,549 U.S. students studied abroad in 2020-21, a steep decline from the 347,099 U.S. students who did so in 2018-19.

This number illustrates the impact of the pandemic in stark contrast to UM’s typical travel volume of more than 3,000 students traveling for academic credit (e.g., 2018-19). University-imposed budget restrictions and border closures in many countries have led to essential travel by student researchers to the university. In the 2019-20 academic year, 1,547 students participated in study-abroad programs and before the pandemic, in 2018-19, there were 3,429 students.

Valeria Bertacco.  Image credit: Fernanda Pires, Michigan News
Valeria Bertacco. Image credit: Fernanda Pires, Michigan News

“The academic year 2020-21 was a challenging one for the international education sector. The University of Michigan, like most American and international institutions, saw a steep decline in study abroad compared to previous years,” said Valeria Bertacco. “During that time, our colleagues were creative in creating numerous virtual experiences that allowed students to acquire some of the skills typically learned while traveling abroad and acquired while engaged remotely. With global border dynamics and the availability of vaccines, the UM Travel Safety Team excels in helping travelers continue their experiences quickly and safely. Thank you for your work.”

Patrick Morgan, UM’s chief international security officer, said the travel environment during that academic year was full of challenges. Most countries do not allow international travelers to enter, and many of those travelers must be quarantined for two weeks or more upon arrival.

“This was a time before a COVID-19 vaccine was available and students did not have the protection from serious illness that the vaccine provided,” Morgan said. “Considering the well-being of our students and these challenges, the university has suspended non-essential travel for the 2020-21 academic year.”

For most of the year, only graduate students like McEntire were allowed to travel for essential reasons.

“Our university takes research seriously, and I am very grateful to be able to keep my fieldwork in Burkina Faso,” she said. “I saw a dramatic improvement in my relationships, leading to better quality research. People trusted me more to stay with me during the pandemic. As a result, they were more willing to help me with my research.

More data

Commissioned by the US State Department, the Open Doors report is a comprehensive survey of study abroad in the United States, but does not provide the total number of UM students who have gone abroad. Non-U.S. citizen students and those traveling abroad for non-credit educational experiences are not included in the report.

Adding these students to the total study-abroad total, UM had 480 foreign travelers in 2020-21—340 more students than included in the Open Doors report. These students participated in 542 trips, indicating that many UM students engaged in more than one international experience.

UM students traveled to 77 countries during this period. The top three are China, South Korea and Costa Rica.

Naomi Rosen in Tel Aviv, Israel.  Image Credit: Personal Archive
Naomi Rosen in Tel Aviv, Israel. Image Credit: Personal Archive

Majoring in international studies and history, Naomi Rosen chose Israel to study a topic of global importance during the pandemic: the mental health crisis. In the summer of 2021, he moved to Tel Aviv for an internship at TARA – a strategic consulting firm that connects non-profits and NGOs with formal government ministries to help these organizations achieve their goals and solve their problems. As an intern, apart from meeting key clients, he also researched and wrote articles to summarize the data he collected.

“My experience was influential in shaping my career and educational goals,” Rosen said. “I am now more interested in global health issues and motivated to become fluent in both Hebrew and Arabic. I compared the levels of mental health resources and services in other countries to Israel. I took on a job I wasn’t particularly interested in and greatly improved my Hebrew skills.

Back on track

Bertacco said student demand for study abroad is now back, and in some cases, surpassing pre-pandemic levels.

“We continue to work to improve our safety protocols and improve our travel policy, opening travel to international destinations as soon as the UM International Travel Safety Committee deems it safe,” he said. “As a result, in 2021-22, nearly 3,000 students participated in international experiences, and application numbers for 2023 continue to grow. I couldn’t be more excited about the strong resurgence of international experiences for our students. Through these high-impact experiences, students immerse themselves in new cultures, Learn new perspectives, develop valuable skills and expand their worldview.

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