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Students continue study abroad programs during pandemic

September 29, 2021
<p>Garcia in Barcelona, Spain in 2020. Photo courtesy of Abbey Garcia.</p>

Garcia in Barcelona, Spain in 2020. Photo courtesy of Abbey Garcia.

During the spring 2020 semester, environmental studies and sustainability senior Abbey Garcia studied abroad in Spain for about two months before she was sent home in March due to COVID-19. 

Garcia is minoring in Spanish and studied abroad in Valencia, Spain through one of Michigan State University’s Education Abroad programs.

“Instead of leaving in May, we got two months of our program cut short, and when we got home, they just switched our classes to online,” Garcia said. “So at least we were still getting our full learning Spanish and getting our course content in, but the actual study abroad experience was cut a little bit short.”

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The Office for Education Abroad at MSU offers programs all over the world for students to earn college credit towards their degree, Communications Manager for the Office for Education Abroad Cheryl Benner said.

Benner described the chaos that ensued when students were forced to cut their programs short in March 2020. 

“I’ve been here for a long time — we’ve never had to pull students home so quickly,” Benner said. “There was no precedent for this.”

Elke Schmidt, the coordinator for Global Health, Safety and Security, or GHSS, said 2,907 students participated in Education Abroad programs to at least 60 countries during the 2018-19 academic year. 

In the 2020-2021 academic year, there were 108 students in 12 countries.

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Before Garcia had to come home, she stayed with a host family in Valencia and studied language and culture. 

“They had an apartment in the center of the city, and I stayed with them for the two months that I was there,” Garcia said. “They had grandchildren and it was really great because the dad was actually a doctor so he was really informed about all of the COVID measures.”

About half of Garcia’s classes were Spanish language and literature classes, and the other half were more culturally-based classes, including Spanish Media and Spanish Film Studies. Garcia said there were also options to take medical classes and business classes, but she focused on language and literature.

Garcia said her favorite part of the program was being fully immersed in a new culture. She had no idea what it was going to be like before getting there — everything was new.

“The food is new, people are talking very differently, you have to try to quickly adapt to a new language and a new environment,” Garcia said. “I think that’s part of the adventure — just being pushed outside of your comfort zone. Trying new foods and a different style of cooking and going to class and getting lost in the city.” 

While she was there, Garcia was paired with a language partner from the Spanish university, so she had an authentic interaction with a Spanish student.

“You can practice language, they’ll probably want to practice English,” Garcia said. “They kind of give you a little insight inside of what their life is like there, and you meet their friends and it’s just a great experience overall.”

Before she left Valencia, Garcia said COVID-19 safety precautions were starting to take effect.

“At the very beginning, it was kind of scary because there wasn’t a lot of knowledge about what you should do, what you shouldn’t do," Gracia said. "You started seeing hand sanitizer everywhere, and then they started wearing mask mandates. So it was a step-by-step thing, kind of as it was here.”

After her time abroad was cut short, Garcia went back to Spain in September 2020, independent from MSU. She said the second time around was different with COVID-19, but both programs were unique experiences.

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“I think MSU does a really good job with COVID and providing a safe environment,” Garcia said. “They made sure all of the students got home, and so going back a second time, it was definitely different. It was more of an independent program since I wasn’t going with MSU. It was a time when COVID was really at its height, and so some of the classes were online, which is definitely a different experience than having in-person classes, but it’s all part of the learning.” 

Garcia said she would encourage other students to study abroad if they have a chance because it is a great way to give their academic experience a new perspective. 

"It will make for a more rounded individual student and give you a lot of opportunities that you might not have in the United States,” Garcia said.

There are approximately 35 students studying abroad during the fall 2021 semester, in countries including Japan, South Korea, Spain and Hungary, Schmidt said. 

Before students study abroad, Schmidt said they are enrolled in a Spartans Abroad Pre-Departure Orientation on D2L. 

“It walks them through health and safety resources as well as policies and protocols,” Schmidt said. “Then it also talks about other pieces of their education abroad experience, such as culture shock and how we learn when we’re on an immersive experience abroad.”

While students are on Education Abroad programs, they are required to follow COVID-19 protocols set by the institutions and affiliate partners. These protocols might include a vaccination requirement or on-site testing. 

“Our partners abroad have been very proactive about developing COVID-19 policies and protocols, and communicating those with us and our office and the Office for Education Abroad, as well as the students about what that looks like,” Schmidt said. 

GHSS, formerly the Office of International Health and Safety, recently changed its name to include the words “global” and “security.”

Schmidt said GHSS added “global” to its name to emphasize it works with people while they’re in the U.S. and abroad. The word “security” was added as GHSS monitors issues globally, and students may encounter security concerns in addition to health and safety concerns. 

The Education Abroad Office works closely with GHSS to assess the health and safety of the programs before they are offered to students.

“When we have an incident such as this, it was very easy to work together, because we already work together doing all of this planning and communication,” Schmidt said.

An Education Abroad Expo is scheduled for Oct. 7 from 1 to 5 p.m. at the Breslin Center for students to learn more about studying abroad. 

Editor's note: This article was edited on Oct. 1 at 4:11 p.m. to correct the number of students studying abroad in the 2018-2019 academic year.

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