University of Michigan graduate student Promise McEntire spent the 2020-21 academic year in West Africa. A doctoral student, she was in Burkina Faso researching the role of culture producers in negotiating the country’s cultural identity in the context of globalization.
The quick spread of the coronavirus that disrupted education abroad that winter semester almost derailed her study plan. But McEntire felt safe to stay and acted fast. She completed the Safety Travel Plan the university put in place to guarantee the safety and well-being of all students abroad and followed all the protocols.
“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 in my field site was really hard. It took me a long time to get the hang of things and everything was starting to go well. So, when COVID hit, I felt I had to stay. I felt safe staying.”
McEntire is among U-M’s 140 U.S. students who participated in education-abroad programs during 2020-21 for academic credit. The data from that reporting cycle documents the full effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on U.S. study abroad: it is the most recent academic year with complete statistics, according to the annual Open Doors report by the Institute of International Education, a New York-based nonprofit. 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 as a stark contrast with U-M’s typical travel volume of over 3,000 students traveling for academic credit (e.g., 2018-19). Budget restrictions imposed by the university and closures at many countries’ borders led to the university allowing essential travel by student researchers whose progress was time-sensitive. During 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.
“The academic year of 2020-21 was challenging for the international education field. The University of Michigan observed a steep decline in study abroad volume compared to prior years, similar to most U.S. and international institutions,” said Valeria Bertacco, U-M vice provost for engaged learning. “During that time, our colleagues were creative in developing numerous virtual experiences, which allowed students to gain some of the skills typically acquired when traveling abroad while learning and engaging remotely. I am thankful for the excellent work of the U-M Travel Safety team in adapting our travel policies multiple times over the year in response to global border dynamics and the availability of vaccines so as to enable travelers to pursue their experiences as soon and as safely as possible.”
Patrick Morgan, U-M’s chief international safety officer, said the travel environment during that academic year was fraught with challenges. Most countries did not allow international travelers to enter, and many of those required travelers to quarantine upon arrival for two weeks or more.
“This was a time before a COVID-19 vaccine was available and students did not have the protection from severe illnesses that the vaccine offered,” Morgan said. “Out of concern for our students’ well-being and being mindful of these challenges, the university incorporated a suspension of nonessential travel during the 2020-21 academic year.”
During most of the year, only graduate students like McEntire were allowed to travel just for essential reasons.
“Our university takes research seriously and I am so grateful I was 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 much more for staying during the pandemic. As a result, they were more willing to help me with my research.”
Commissioned by the U.S. State Department, the Open Doors report is a complete census of education abroad in the United States but does not provide a total count of U-M students who have gone overseas. Students who are not U.S. citizens and those who go abroad for noncredit educational experiences are not included in the report.
Adding these students to the total education-abroad tally, U-M had 480 overseas travelers in 2020-21—340 more students than were included in the Open Doors report. These students participated in 542 trips, indicating that several U-M students engaged in more than one international experience.
U-M students traveled to 77 countries during this period. The top three destinations were China, South Korea and Costa Rica.
Majoring in international studies and history, Naomi Rosen chose Israel to study a topic particularly important globally during the pandemic: The mental health crisis. During the summer of 2021, she traveled to Tel Aviv for an internship at T.A.R.A—a strategic consulting firm that pairs nonprofits and NGOs with the proper government ministries to aid these organizations in achieving their goals and solving their problems. As an intern, she conducted research and wrote essays to summarize and compile data she collected, besides meeting with key clients.
“My experience was influential in shaping my career and educational goals,” Rosen said. “I am now more interested in global health issues and further motivated to become fluent in both Hebrew and Arabic. I researched the states of mental health resources and services in other countries to compare their situations to Israel. I was exposed to a line of work I had not otherwise been particularly interested in and improved my Hebrew skills greatly.”
Getting back on track
Bertacco added that student demand for study abroad is now back to and, in some cases, even exceeding pre-pandemic levels, which makes her hopeful for the future.
“We have been continuously at work to enhance our safety protocols and update our travel policy, opening travel to international destinations as soon as the U-M International Travel Safety Committee deemed it safe,” she said. “As a result, in 2021-22, nearly 3,000 students participated in an international experience, and application numbers for 2023 continue to rise. I couldn’t be more excited about the strong rebounding 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.”