Isabella McGinniss was set to study abroad in Florence, Italy this coming fall. She was looking forward to strengthening her Italian skills and taking a weekend trip to visit Paris, France, with family members.
Then, she received an email from Binghamton University’s Office of International Education and Global Initiatives (IEGI).
IEGI announced this week that all University study abroad programs for fall 2020 are canceled, a decision made amid wide-ranging concerns on how the coronavirus will affect the world for months to come. The move leaves students like McGinniss, a sophomore double-majoring in political science and English, in an uncertain position.
Ryan Yarosh, senior director of media and public relations, noted that the cancellation will help ensure the health and safety of students. Because the cancellation was announced five months before any program would begin, Yarosh wrote in an email that students will still be able to schedule their fall courses. Course registration for undergraduate students begins at 9 a.m. on April 13, and if a student planned to go abroad next semester but had their program canceled closer to its start date, the courses at BU they need to fill requirements or want to take could be full by that time.
“Making this decision now provides students with clear guidance for the fall semester,” Yarosh wrote. “Equally important, this decision ensures that students have time to complete their fall 2020 course registration and possibly prevent any losses associated with nonrefundable expenses.”
McGinniss wrote in an email that she was disappointed that her program was canceled, but understood the reasons behind the decision and appreciated that the timing will allow her to select courses freely for next semester.
“I think that their reasoning is completely valid and reasonable as there is so much uncertainty regarding COVID-19 and how long we are going to be expected to be sheltered in place,” she wrote.
In the email sent by IEGI, education abroad advisors also stressed that students are discouraged from attending non-BU study abroad programs, even if they have not been formally canceled.
“Unfortunately, due to the rapidly changing and largely unprecedented global situation surrounding [COVID-19, BU] has made the extremely difficult decision to cancel all campus-administered education-abroad programs for fall 2020,” wrote Callie Frost, an education abroad adviser in BU’s IEGI office, in an email. “We are additionally requesting that [BU] students refrain from participating in any other education-abroad programs for the fall 2020 semester.”
Along with fall study abroad programs, summer 2020 and spring 2020 programs were also canceled earlier in the semester, leaving students like Matt Harrison, a junior double-majoring in mathematics and economics, in a confusing situation. Harrison was studying at the University of Queensland in Australia when he received an email in mid-March informing him that his program, along with all study abroad programs across the SUNY system, was canceled.
SUNY offered students studying abroad a waiver allowing them to stay in their study abroad countries if they accepted the liability associated with doing so. After debating whether to stay or return home, Harrison ultimately signed the waiver, deeming Australia to be safer than New York state based on the number of patients confirmed to have COVID-19.
But Harrison changed his mind after he received an email from the U.S. Department of State, informing him that if he chose to stay abroad, he may not be able to return to the United States until the pandemic died down.
“So, I left Australia because the U.S. government sent me an email that said ‘Leave now or be stuck abroad indefinitely’ even though I signed the waiver,” Harrison wrote in an email.
Now, Harrison is in the United States and is taking his classes at the University of Queensland online. Harrison wrote that he watches recorded lectures because of the 14-hour time difference between Australia and his hometown, but he has concerns about how he will manage his final examinations at the end of the semester.
“Discussions still happen via Zoom, but it’s not feasible to get up at 2 a.m. every night,” Harrison wrote. “I asked my professors for alternative times to take exams and most of them were receptive or may accommodate, but one professor is just like, ‘Go ahead and suck it up.’”
Connor Bisaillon, a junior majoring in economics, is in a similar situation. Bisaillon was studying in England with the Lancaster exchange program. On March 11, he received an email from IEGI instructing him to return home immediately. Bisaillon returned to the United States, but his program is on a monthlong Easter break and he is still waiting to hear how his final exams will work out.
“Some of my professors have posted their lectures and review material online for the next term already, but we haven’t received an official word on how our final exams are going to go or anything yet,” Bisaillon wrote in an email.
Despite the uncertainty, Bisaillon said he is thankful to the education abroad advisors at IEGI and believes canceling the program was best for everyone’s health and safety.
“My adviser checked in early on in the chaos to support me in making sure I would be able to complete my classes even though I wouldn’t still be abroad,” Bisaillon wrote. “[IEGI] has been really supportive so far and it’s just tough with this break at [my] exchange university.”
Although most program attendees and fall applicants said they understood the University’s cancellation decision, some are hoping that they will be able to explore alternate options. McGinniss wrote that she would like to have the option to defer her program to a different semester.
“My only complaint is that they withdrew our applications rather than giving us an option to defer it to a later semester,” she wrote. “I am worried that I will have to go through the process all over again which would be unfortunate as I spent so much time and effort filling out the application last semester.”
Others, like Harrison, believe fall study abroad programs should remain a possibility if the COVID-19 situation gets better.
“For fall, I think a precautionary cancellation of study abroad is in order since no one really knows how this whole thing is going to go or how long it may last,” Harrison wrote. “That being said, if we find ourselves in a position where this has all blown over before then, and society has resumed and travel bans have been lifted, [BU] should be open to reinstating their study abroad program as soon as possible.”