Claire Boyle got on an airplane to Italy not knowing if she would actually be allowed to enter the country.
While University of Colorado Boulder typically sends 1,000 students to study abroad during the spring semester, Boyle, a junior, was one of just 70 students who were allowed to study in other countries this spring.
“Until the day before we went we had no idea if we were actually going,” Boyle said. “We basically just went to the airport and got on a plane, not knowing what was going to happen.”
Coronavirus had immediate and drastic impacts on study abroad programs at CU Boulder and across the country. As the severity of the pandemic set in in spring 2020, students left their programs with little to no notice and future study abroad programs were put on hold.
But the pandemic also created once-in-a-lifetime opportunities and opened doors for more accessible study abroad options in the future.
When Professor Laura DeLuca found out in the fall that her May seminar in Tanzania would be canceled, she began working with the campus’ Education Abroad office and her colleagues in Tanzania to build a virtual experience that was as close to the real thing as possible.
For three weeks in May, DeLuca and 11 students met every weekday on Zoom to study, meet and learn from the Maasai ethnic group and other indigenous communities, including the Hadzabe people, who live on the edges of national parks and other protected areas in Tanzania. Students went on virtual safaris and snorkeling tours, made chapati in their kitchens in real time with Maasai women and had conversations with community elders.
Other virtual programs connected students with communities in Brazil, France, Colombia and China.
“We had never offered programs like that before and we weren’t quite sure how students were going to react,” said Sylvie Burnet-Jones, director of Education Abroad at CU Boulder. “I think the success of these programs is due in big part to the individual faculty. They’ve created amazing programs, not just ‘let’s teach this class online,’ but working with the onsite providers. With some programs there’s a live activity with the other country every day.”
The success of those virtual programs also raises the question of whether study abroad programs, which often come with five-figure price tags and which can be inaccessible to students with disabilities, could be more inclusive if offered virtually.
“Some students will never be able to study abroad by going there, but we could look at these programs as opportunities to offer a global experience to students who are not able to travel internationally,” Burnet-Jones said.
In Italy during a pandemic
Boyle arrived in Italy, made it through customs and spent her first two weeks in Florence quarantined with her roommates in her apartment. Those two weeks were the only two weeks during her three-month stay that Florence was in the less restrictive yellow zone. It was also the only time that museums and many restaurants were open during her stay.
Arriving in a new country and immediately quarantining for two weeks was among the hardest experiences during her trip, Boyle said. Not being allowed to go outside, ordering groceries online in a different language and people-watching through her apartment was rough, even more so when Florence increased restrictions.
“I never stepped foot into a museum the three months I was there, I never sat inside or outside a restaurant,” she said. “None of the restaurants were open except for takeout, and a lot of them didn’t even open for that because they didn’t think that was the way to serve food.”
But for all the ways that studying abroad during a pandemic was challenging, Boyle said, it was also remarkable. She learned how to cook Italian in her apartment and experimented with new ingredients, walked all over Florence, had picnics in the park and befriended the owners of the panini shop below her apartment.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she said. “Florence will never look the same as how I experienced it. Just locals, no tourists, barely any students. It felt like I was living as a real Italian.”
Her study abroad program only had 12 students, a fraction of its normal size. She had classes with one or two other students and was able to dive into her studies in a new way.
“I would never change my decision. I still would go, 100%. I still talk to people over there, like the three owners of the panini shop — they text us every week. It would not have been possible to form that kind of a relationship if it was a normal time,” Boyle said.
CU Boulder advisers were only willing to send students abroad this spring who showed maturity and responsibility, Burnet-Jones said. Students received training on country and program-specific coronavirus rules, and Education Abroad staff were up front that a student’s semester could change on a dime.
“All the feedback we got from people on sight and students on sight was that they had a wonderful experience,” Burnet-Jones said. “One student talked about going to the Forum in Rome and nobody being there, no tourists — to walk around and be almost the only international visitors there.”
Grief, gratitude for virtual study abroad
Students in DeLuca’s global seminar may have been in the United States, but every day of the course they were talking with and learning from people in Tanzania.
Junior Lily DeMuth was looking for an interactive, upper-division anthropology elective when she signed up for the remote global seminar. She had taken a global seminar previously and was convinced by DeLuca’s passion for the project to sign up for the virtual experience.
“I enjoyed my last global seminar so much that I didn’t see why I wouldn’t give it a shot virtually. It’s such a weird experience, why not try it and see how it goes?” she said.
DeMuth said she was surprised by how much she loved the class, between meeting new people, going on virtual safaris and talking with a Hadzabe hunting and gathering group.
“Never in a million years would I have been able to have that opportunity if I hadn’t taken the class,” DeMuth said.
DeMuth described it as being as close to an in-person experience as she could get without actually being in Tanzania. There’s little things, like the weather and the food, that can’t be translated to a virtual format.
DeLuca has led five global seminars in Tanzania and hasn’t been able to visit since before the pandemic. She misses the less tangible parts of the in-person experience, like the freedom summed up in the Swahili proverb “Haraka, haraka haina baraka,” which translates to hurry, hurry has no blessing — the sense that time doesn’t really exist.
And as much gratitude as she saw from her students, there was also a sense of grief that the group couldn’t be there together, in person.
“In the field you don’t have to worry about students meeting each other when they’re hiking and eating together,” DeLuca said. “A study abroad program is about cross-cultural skills and language but also about connecting with your group.”
But junior Celeste Haberman said she feels closer to her global seminar classmates than she has in other classes at CU Boulder.
“Because it’s such a small class we really get to know each other and become friends, which is rare in a big school,” she said.
Haberman had signed up for the in-person global seminar and saw it as “my light at the end of the tunnel with COVID.”
She stuck with the virtual class after seeing how hard DeLuca was working to put it together and because she wanted to learn about the indigenous communities of Tanzania. Haberman is planning to attend the Tanzania seminar in-person next year.
“I feel like this is just a taste of the experience and it’s getting me excited for next year,” she said.
The anthropology focus is also what made the class work so well, Haberman said.
“Anthropology recognizes that people have problems and issues and a life, so it feels very human when you’re in it,” she said. “Seeing people have fun in the kitchen and dance and sing and love each other, we forget about that when we’re trying to be perfect and get that A.”
Future virtual programs possible
The future for virtual programs like DeLuca’s is still up in the air, Burnet-Jones said.
“We are still going to go on-sight, but maybe we will keep offering a couple virtual programs to improve access,” she said.
One of the questions about the virtual programs is how well they will be received by students when students once again have the option to go in person.
“I understand why the response was positive now because there is no choice, so it will be interesting to see in the future, when there’s a chance to go abroad, how popular these programs remain,” she said. “Will we have to create new programs that are only virtual?”
DeLuca said she likes that the virtual programs are more inclusive and far less expensive, though students did pay an additional fee for the study abroad virtual experience.
Maybe it’s a matter of doing both, DeLuca said.
“The study abroad space can be elite because of its expense and this could democratize it further,” she said. “We are providing content that’s way more engaged than when you normally sign up for a summer class. But when I think of seeing that first zebra or giraffe, dancing with Maasai women — those are experiences that can’t really be replaced.”