Post-Pandemic Study Abroad

Studying abroad has long been a valued part of the college experience. First conceived as a “Junior Year Abroad” in the 1920s, studying abroad is an opportunity for students to engage in experiential learning as well as gain cultural competency and foreign language proficiency.  Colleges routinely highlight their study abroad programs at information session and on campus tour (virtual or in-person), boasting about number of programs offered, the continents on which they are hosted, and the percentage of students who participate in them. Better yet, financial aid typically follows students if they study abroad, making it affordable to those who could not otherwise fund it.

Colleges have offices devoted to international programs, and academic departments usually allot space on their web pages and Bulletin boards encouraging students to pursue study abroad options. The College of New Jersey touts ten reasons why students should choose to study abroad:

  • Study aboard is the optimal way to learn a language.
  • Study abroad provides the opportunity to travel.
  • Study abroad allows you get to know another culture first-hand.
  • Study abroad will help you develop skills and give you experiences a  classroom setting will never provide.
  • Study abroad affords you the opportunity to make friends around the world.
  • Study abroad helps you to learn about yourself.
  • Study abroad expands your worldview.
  • Study abroad gives you the opportunity to break out of your academic routine.
  • Study abroad enhances employment opportunities.
  • Study abroad can enhance the value of your degree.


But, as noted in a  recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “the pandemic has grounded study abroad.” While many colleges have announced plans to return to full in-person, residential learning this fall, and all are presumably working toward this goal, the future of study abroad is less clear. In fact, post-pandemic there may not just be a “restart” to study abroad but a “reset.”

One open question is whether students will want to study abroad in the next year or so. Some may be concerned about continued health risks and prefer to stay in the U.S. (Conversely, in the next year or so some countries may be reluctant to welcome American students given the U.S. handling of the pandemic.)  Others may want to stay on campus to make up for the time they were remote. According to The Chronicle, “educators worry that after a year of remote learning, students will have to pick and choose about what to fit into a shortened college experience, and study abroad could tumble down the list of priorities.”

More critically, the very nature of study abroad is being questioned, with some asking whether it is necessary to travel to another country to get the cross-cultural competency that has long been a hallmark of study abroad. According to The Chronicle, this “could mean “studying away” rather than studying abroad, getting a cross-cultural educational experience within the United States” working, for examples, with refugees, immigrant communities or migrant workers.

Another possible trend in study abroad ushered in by the pandemic: virtual exchanges. Students at Wesleyan University, for example, had the opportunity to take a class, Theater for Social Change, with students in Ecuador. The course was described as “Taught From Ecuador – With Local Participants.” As The Chronicle notes, “the real energy since the start of the pandemic has been in virtual exchange, which links American classrooms with university partners overseas. Professors have used online learning to team-teach courses, organize group projects with students in different countries, and host lectures by a rotating international cast of speakers.”

Even if study abroad largely returns to its pre-pandemic model, many question whether study abroad can actually serve its intended purpose when only a fraction (16% according to the Institute of International Education) of those who earn a bachelor’s degree actually participate in study abroad programs. Still others raise important questions about whostudies abroad. According to the International Coalition for Global Education and Exchange, less than one third of students who study abroad self-identify as racial or ethnic minorities.

One clear takeaway from the pandemic is the interconnectedness of the world in which we live. Viruses travel. People travel. The world is both vast and very small. Hopefully, whatever resets occur in study abroad will strengthen its ability to deliver on its core mission, now over 100 years old, to be, as Allen Neilson, President of Smith College wrote to parents in 1934, just nine years after it sent its first students abroad, “the most valuable year spent in College.”