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MSU study abroad office offers virtual experiences, students reflect

March 26, 2021
Photo by Hope Ann Flores | The State News

Each year, thousands of students graduate from Michigan State University. With them, they take knowledge, skills and experiences that will shape the rest of their lives. For many students, study abroad is one of these experiences.

Michigan State's study abroad program is growing, offering hundreds of available studies across the world. According to the Office for Education Abroad Website, MSU offers over 275 credits worth of programs around the world with various program types and experiences. This includes both study abroad and study away programs for various different amounts of time. Trips can range from weeks to months to a semester depending on the specific program.

Social work senior Julia Shine went on a study abroad trip to Greece over the summer of 2019. The trip was six weeks long and gave students the opportunity to work at a refugee camp as well.

Shine said that her program was based on one of Greece's largest islands, Lesbos. After taking a trip to Santorini and visiting the mainland, her group worked at a refugee camp.

"When we came back, we worked in a refugee camp, ... which was such a cool experience," Shine said. "We built up an entire classroom in the camp for all of the unaccompanied minors there. ... We got to talk to so many different people."

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Students who traveled during spring semester 2020 had their programs cut short due to COVID-19. International relations and French senior Kathleen Fallon participated in a study abroad program in Lille, France, before being sent home.

"It was the best two months of my life," Fallon said. "It was a super enriching experience, both socially and academically. I learned a lot about the social differences around academics between us and greater Europe."

Fallon said that there was denial about the severity of the virus.

"Europe obviously got hit first, and there was a huge level of denial because nobody knew how severe it was," she said. "We all were really hard-headed about it in retrospect and we were like 'I don't understand why I'm being sent home.'"

The pandemic has vastly affected the Education Abroad Program. There are numerous changes moving forward.

"The most obvious impact is the reduction of education abroad programs not being able to run due to health and safety considerations, as well as travel restrictions," Office for Education Abroad Communications Manager Cheryl Benner said. "This not only affects students wanting to study abroad, but it also affects our exchange students who want to come here to Michigan State. For some students, especially seniors, this past year might have been their last time to participate in a program."

While the global pandemic has caused the Education Abroad Program to face various challenges, they have adapted and revamped programs to run safely and still give students somewhat of an abroad experience.

Benner said an adjustment made to the study abroad program offers students virtual learning opportunities without requiring travel. The programs are with institutions MSU already has a relationship with and ends up being less expensive.

"Many also offer experiential learning components like research and internships which provide skills to be more competitive in the job market," Benner said. "We also established new programs to assist MSU international students who couldn’t return to East Lansing due to the pandemic. These programs allow students to take classes at more than 20 of MSU’s partner institutions around the world."

There are numerous Education Abroad trips planning to run this summer and in the fall. Applications are open currently and health professionals continue to review the specific programs. More updates will be available closer to the trip's departure date and on the website.

"We know many students want to study abroad but just aren’t ready to go abroad right now, even as things start to open up," Banner said. "And that’s okay. International travel is still very complicated. But it’s not impossible. And for those who are ready and up to the challenge, we are here to help them navigate the process. And we’ll be here when the time is right for everyone else. The benefits gained from an education abroad experience are not only life-changing, but offer so many transferrable skills that are valuable when students begin to launch their careers in our globalized world."

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