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International travel programs resuming flight

International Programs participants holding a globe

Tina Williams, ba ’95 (center), is joined by students Abigail McCrory (left) and Shela Pierre Noel in the International House. McCrory went on an international business trip to Europe and Pierre Noel studied abroad for a semester in France. Photo by Jeremy Wangler

From The Ichabod - Spring 2022
By Chris Marshall

Studying abroad is an essential experience for students in several majors, but during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the thought of international travel felt like a foreign concept.

During the 2019-20 academic year, Washburn University had as many as 200 students studying overseas at one time. That number was reduced to a handful of individuals who chose to remain in their host countries as the virus swept the globe. The last group program to return before travel restrictions heightened was a spring break trip in Cuba, and all 2020 summer programs were cancelled.

“There were definitely a lot of challenges as COVID made its way across the world,” said Tina Williams, ba ’95, study abroad coordinator in the Office of International Programs. “It came on our radar in January 2020 because we had students out in the world in those places that were affected before it came here to the United States. We’d been watching it for quite some time and had some time to prepare.”

Unlike some institutions, Washburn’s international studies program never came to a complete halt. About 10 students studied abroad virtually, meaning they attended remote classes with international universities and did internships with international companies - methods that still provided new global and cultural perspectives. Washburn was also able to send students to long-time partner universities they were confident could provide a safe environment.

As virus cases dropped and restrictions eased in recent months, more students have expressed interest in traveling. Eighty-five already signed up to study outside of U.S. borders in summer and fall 2022.

The first group to test the waters by hopping the pond was an international business program to France, Germany and Belgium, led by Michael Stoica, Distinguished Professor of Marketing Business in the School of Business. The summer 2021 trip was not without obstacles, but ultimately, the students who made the journey came back with valuable lessons, both for themselves and for Washburn’s future international expeditions.

“We had so many meetings about whether it would happen, so the fact we got to go was pretty exciting,” said Abigail McCrory, one of three business students to make the trip with Williams and Stoica. “We wrote letters to the dean saying we were still on board to go. They made the decision, then it was a whirlwind checking flights and booking, and it all worked out.”

In normal years, Belgian students come to Washburn, and members of Stoica’s class travel to work for a business from Belgium. A majority of the coursework was conducted online in 2021, but David Sollars, dean, School of Business, understood the value in the cultural experience and approved a two-week trip to Europe.

“It was the will of the students that made it happen,” Stoica said. “Once we had approval, we were watching restrictions and for local government to allow us to go.”

The group frequently monitored requirements when traveling from place to place and navigated unanticipated virus fallout, such as Paris protests aimed at France’s changing health protocols. But once students settled into each location, they were able to focus on some of the more traditional concerns.

“The first days were nerve-racking, and I was timid,” said Kera Hicks, a business major on the trip. “I almost didn’t want to order coffee, just because I didn’t want to say it wrong. But by the end, you get braver and speak the language for basic necessities, and it helped me grow as a person. Now that I’m back, I applied for a job I wasn’t qualified for, and the only reason I went for it is because, if I can travel overseas during COVID, I can do anything.”

Hicks, a 35-year-old mother of four, is no stranger to life-changing experiences, but as someone who had never left the United States, her story illustrates what can be gained through immersion in another country.

“You don’t understand how different society is,” she said. “Traveling to another country, you see their life doesn’t revolve around work. Getting that perspective changed how I view things. Growing up, you’re taught to prioritize schoolwork and work over everything else. Going there, you learn that’s not all life is.”

In some ways, the international travel program also gained new perspective during the pandemic. Williams said online international programs are here to stay, even as COVID-19 concerns decrease, and trip locations also have some added flexibility. For example, a nursing course this summer will travel to Puerto Rico, which is not considered an international destination, but still provides a unique cultural experience somewhat closer to home.

“Those are ways for students who may not be able to get away for two weeks to study abroad and have an international connection and have experiences,” Williams said. “I’m ready to have all of our programs fully functioning. We welcome the continuation of online and virtual programs as well. From necessity comes the invention of new opportunities.”

The Ichabod Magazine Winter 2022 cover - Memorial Union with snow, pine needles in the foreground

The Ichabod tells our story with features on alumni, faculty, staff, students and friends, along with the latest campus news. View the current and past editions

 

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