International Student Exchange Programs Are Still Worth Doing, Even in a Pandemic

As Selenica Maruza readied for her journey from Harare, Zimbabwe to Boston, Massachusetts in mid-December, she jangled with nerves and anticipation. Nine months after the World Health Organization had declared COVID-19 a pandemic, and with the virus surging in much of the world, she was embarking on an adventure that was years in the making—studying abroad as a Humphrey Fellow at Boston University.

Of course she was nervous, Maruza told me over Zoom. “The thought of traveling, the thought of flights.” But, she knew that if she was careful, if she was responsible, she wouldn’t have to miss this opportunity. “The same precautionary measures I took back home are the same I take [in Boston]. Paying close attention to prevention protocols and making sure that I take my immune boosters. But, to say [COVID-19] would make me have second thoughts: No,” she said.

While COVID may have put extensive exploring on hold, study abroad still offers the chance to experience new places. Selenica and other Boston University Humphrey Fellows with their host families in Hopkinton, Massachusetts.Courtesy of Selenica Maruza

Study abroad and cultural exchange experiences have been associated with enhanced creative thinking, better employment opportunities, improved confidence, and more. And before the pandemic, international programs were on the rise. In recent years, the U.S. hosted more than a million college students and tens of thousands of high school students from all over the world, and almost 350,000 American youth opted to study abroad annually.

But, as the novel coronavirus swept the globe, everything changed. Boston University’s ongoing Humphrey Fellowship program went remote while host families and community liaisons like Janet Ferone helped students navigate closed borders and canceled flights. Similarly, while ISEP—a non-profit organization that facilitates student exchange and study abroad programs at more than 300 universities in over 50 countries—only suspended its South Korea program, most students were urged to return to their home countries or stay put if they had not yet departed, explained Melody Stratton, the organization’s Director of Strategic Communications. “Our priority of course was [the] health and safety of students, but we didn’t believe a unilateral approach was appropriate,” Stratton said.

“Don’t be afraid of the external circumstances surrounding you. This teaches resilience. Despite the COVID situation, despite the program not being in person as I would have wanted, you still need to be able to glean what you want from it. This is a chance to readapt and to see a new perspective.”

Others rode out the pandemic in their host countries, either by choice or necessity depending on the nature of their host and home countries’ restrictions. Many of the usual activities that help familiarize students with their locale—think potlucks and holiday parties—have been replaced by Zoom get-togethers. But programs are working to fill in the cultural gaps, dropping off typical foods or props (such as noisemakers and party hats for New Year’s), and using virtual forums to chat about the associated traditions. And, while most students who signed up to study abroad would likely prefer to be out exploring rather than masking up for a walk to the grocery store, some of those who were willing and able to stay may have unlocked unique opportunities to engage with the culture.

“Honestly, that’s a moment that I’ll never forget because they showed me really the beauty of human hospitality and human kindness.”

Naledi Mthembu—a Howard University student studying at Massey University in New Zealand through ISEP—was well into the semester when cases started to rise. As the nation went into lockdown, her New Zealander flatmates went home to be with their families. “So, I was gonna be the only one left in this apartment for Lord knows how long, and it was a very scary time because I’m obviously so far away from home. But then one of my flatmates and her family decided that they would invite me over to stay with them during lockdown. So I ended up staying at this off-the-grid property up in the north part of New Zealand with this Kiwi family and they really just welcomed me in, and they were like, ‘We just don’t want you to be alone.’ Honestly, that’s a moment that I’ll never forget because they showed me really the beauty of human hospitality and human kindness, and made me feel more a part of New Zealand culture,” Mthembu said in a virtual panel featuring ISEP alumni.

Another ISEP student, Joaquim Pedro de Miranda Baldoino, arrived at the University of Wyoming in January, planning to study there for two semesters. So, when COVID-19 cases began to rise, he had to choose—return to his home university, Brazil’s Fundação Armando Alvares Penteado, or hunker down. He opted for the latter, and in so doing found himself surrounded by chances to make American friends. “In the first semester, most of my friends were also international exchange students, and before the pandemic, all of them left. I stayed because I was also here for the fall semester. But I met a lot of people, and because of that, a lot of locals,” he explained on another ISEP alumni panel. Indeed, although his classes have stayed remote, he has been able to connect with people virtually and in-person via church, the debate team, and even joined a fraternity.

Study abroad students find safe ways to scratch their social itch and engage in cultural exchange during the COVID pandemic. Joaquim Pedro de Miranda Baldoíno made friends through church, debate, and even a fraternity. Courtesy of Joaquim Pedro de Miranda Baldoíno.

As people adjust to a life of uncertainty and with vaccine rollouts underway in a number of countries, the future of study abroad is brightening. ISEP anticipates sending 20% of its average student enrollment abroad in spring 2021 and hopes to be back up to 50% by next fall. High school programs such as EF Education First have already welcomed students back to the U.S., and are placing more for the 2021-2022 school year. And Maruza and her cohort of international fellows are gearing up for a semester of (online) business courses and COVID-safe cultural immersion.

“Cultural exchange is something which I feel, if given an opportunity, everybody should jump onto because there’s so much to learn about yourself and the other person,” Maruza said. “Don’t be afraid of the external circumstances surrounding you. This teaches resilience. Despite the COVID situation, despite the program not being in person as I would have wanted, you still need to be able to glean what you want from it. This is a chance to readapt and to see a new perspective.”

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