Study abroad is back, but has it changed post-COVID?

Without question, the COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted international student exchange. Most exchange programmes in the US were suspended from spring 2020 until summer-fall 2021.

Quite incidentally and often unmentioned, face-to-face exchanges and travel by scholars and staff had come to a halt as well.

Many positions in exchange programmes have been eliminated and, unfortunately, some programmes have had to close permanently.

Many programmes have since reopened, albeit often still under ever-changing COVID conditions and with smaller numbers than before. The big question now is what will happen in the future when the pandemic dies down.

There are two basic possible answers to this question: either everything will be the same as before, or some things will fundamentally change. In the latter case, there are, again, two alternatives: previously existing trends could be either a) amplified, or b) questioned and, perhaps, reversed. The biggest question in this context is certainly how sustainable the digitisation push will be and how much ‘virtual’ will remain permanent.

It is difficult to make predictions, but there are some important questions we can ask in the light of both the pandemic, recent trends and our knowledge about what works well in student exchanges, with a focus on students and on US-Europe exchange programmes:

1. Will things entirely go back to ‘normal’?

People tend to repress traumatic experiences and wish for nothing more than for everything to be the same again. But, in this case, there could be real consequences and repercussions – such as programme closures or budget cuts, but also a change in thinking as a result of the experience of these exceptional times.

In 2020, under the pressure to deal with the situation as quickly as possible, not many people had the time to think about what the repercussions of all this would or could be, but now is the time to reflect.

Of particular importance is the question of how home institutions will position themselves in the future.

The financial aftermath of the pandemic will continue to plague colleges and universities for years to come; there may be re-allocations, cutbacks or deferrals. Trends in language instruction at US institutions, global competition and profit-making trends may be increased or shifted.

In earlier times, study abroad programmes were seen as a way to enhance an institution’s reputation and bring in money. Now there may be occasional voices in faculty and college governance that believe international programmes actually cost money and take resources away. Could there be distributional struggles ahead?

On the other hand, internationalisation has become such an important and accepted factor in international education that it cannot be ignored.

Here’s a suggestion on how to look at it positively: you only really learn to appreciate things that are important to you when they are gone, when you miss them. Countless students who were deeply saddened by having to cut short their stay or check off their long-standing plans reminded international administrators how important their work actually is. Many of the latter can present anecdotal evidence of this.

We humans learn through shocks and crises and the first step to learning is being forced to take a step back and look at the familiar in a new way. Many actors in the field have taken the study abroad industry for granted for decades, certainly noting that it has changed gradually, but they have not often had the leisure or cause to look at that change holistically.

The vacuum that we have just experienced was a good moment to ask ourselves the most important questions anew: what is study abroad, really, and what can and should it achieve? Is it more about studying abroad or about being abroad?

What is the relationship between academic and personal growth? What is the aspired (inter-) cultural competency and how is it achieved? What does ‘internationalisation’ actually mean at its core? And, for administrators specifically: which formats have which conditions and costs as well as which profit?

2. Will study abroad become more ‘virtual’?

This shutdown situation has shown one thing for sure: digital technology is great. It has helped everyone involved – students, faculty, administrators – a lot in this difficult situation. It has enabled us to offer courses fully digitally and ensure academic continuity for the students.

Digital learning wasn’t entirely new, of course. Pioneers had been raving about the possibilities offered by e-learning for years, praising, among other things, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). But, now, this historically unique experiment that was forced upon us has shown us what it is like to study entirely online.

A minority of students even welcomed this and can imagine continuing it and there was already a prediction at the end of last year that online learning would increase rapidly in the future, albeit as an additional element.

Regardless, the fear that on-campus learning will no longer be in demand seems unfounded, as recent studies in different countries have consistently and sadly demonstrated that many students have suffered tremendously from the isolation of learning only in front of a computer and have even experienced a strong increase in psychological stress. ‘Zoom fatigue’ is a real thing.

This also disproves the claim that young people nowadays – so-called digital natives – have long since shifted their lives to the internet, because, if that were the case, all studies would not show that young people have suffered so much from the lockdowns.

All this is even more true for study abroad, even though online courses, online internships, online guided tours or virtual exchanges were also developed or refined and in high demand during the pandemic period.

Study abroad is not only about studying in another country or culture, that is, taking courses that usually have an attendance time of a few hours a week, but it is also about living in another country.

Online classes cannot replace the classical purpose of a stay abroad, namely: to be in a different place, in a different environment, to gain hands-on experience and, last but not least, to become more independent.

And language skills are always at the top of our students’ wish list because it is indisputable that, although you can also learn a language in a seminar, online or through films, it is never as good, fast and comprehensive as in the particular country, where you experience the language every day, seven days a week in all facets of your everyday life.

Thus, a fear that study abroad in presence will be replaced with online offerings seems unfounded, as studies indicate as well.

3. Will pre-COVID trends increase or reverse?

The answer to this question is completely open. It could go either way.

The first exchange programmes established after World War II mostly followed the classical model of a one-year study stay at a foreign partner university, completed in the local language, with direct enrolment and full immersion.

This was successively extended and supplemented by many other formats, from third-party providers, so-called centre or island programmes to pure internship programmes. This included, especially in recent decades, a tendency towards shorter stays abroad, towards lowering language expectations and offering more courses in English or providing custom-designed courses.

On the one hand, this differentiation certainly helped to increase rapidly the number of stays abroad because offers were made for a wide variety of students’ needs. Certainly, a number of students who, otherwise, would not have dared or succeeded in doing so came to study abroad, and that is an enormous success.

Going even further, it has been argued that a virtual experience can spark interest in a foreign country and break down psychological barriers. Thus, it could be an incentive to go abroad rather than a substitute.

On the other hand, some educators complained that academic standards were falling and that a consumerist approach to study abroad was taking hold, that is, that there was a regression to the lowest common denominator.

They are afraid that lowering the bar for students evermore, giving them only what they are used to, as opposed to challenging them with uncomfortable situations for learning purposes, will not serve them well eventually. It might fail to fulfil the expectations of learning independence and skills of navigating cultural differences that are central to intercultural communication.

Here, the question arises whether a possible development towards ‘digital study abroad’ will reinforce all this. Or maybe the opposite will happen: students will finally want to experience the ‘real thing’ again after all those tiring Zoom courses.

Perhaps students have also understood what the real intercultural aspect of studying abroad is, which cannot be learned entirely on the computer, nor in short, almost tourist-like stays, but through prolonged and reflective living and working in a foreign cultural context.

However, the advent of smartphones and video calls which increased the accessibility of contacts has led a minority of students to not fully immerse themselves in their host country and environment, but to continue to live their ‘online lives’ at home.

The advent of low-cost airlines in the past decade has led to increased travel by students within their exchange region (for example, across Europe). Whether and how this kind of travel will continue after the pandemic is also an open question, considering that things are not exactly looking good for airlines and small airports, either.

Recent climate debates and criticisms of flying as harmful to the environment may lead students to take fewer such weekend trips and to focus their attention more on their immediate surroundings.

Young Germans are frequently using the word Flugscham (flight shame). Whether or not that will put social pressure on their peers remains to be seen.

It is probably not as ‘cool’ any more in some circles as it used to be frequently to put up pictures from weekend flight trips on your social media accounts. Having worked at an organic farm nearby might get more likes.

Finally, there has been an ever-increasing drive for more security, less ambiguity, less leaving the comfort zone. Most providers tried to meet this increased need for safety from students and parents with ever new safety and security protocols and ever more intensive on-site support.

Again, the pandemic may affect this in two possible ways: on the one hand, students may be even more fearful and anxious than before, about illness, and even shy away from integrating more deeply into the host community. Or they may long for freedom and not want to give up this contact again.

Recent studies on risk management might shed light on this. Perhaps students might even get the idea of wanting to be abroad again for a longer period of time, half a year or a whole year.

A lot will depend on how the actors and stakeholders in the field communicate these issues, what energies – the positive or negative ones – they will pick up on and fuel. That is why such reflection and communication is important and necessary now.

4. Has the pandemic had positive side effects?

A common complaint pre-pandemic was that some programmes, themselves, felt too disconnected from their home institutions, almost isolated and cut off from communications and developments at home.

In a strange twist, this may be ameliorated by the repercussions of the pandemic forcing so many activities to take place online.

Now, resident directors (RDs) and staff abroad can participate in online workshops and (faculty) meetings, and be involved in committees and commissions, and so on. This can lead to better collaboration and connectedness, and perhaps mitigate any distributional struggles mentioned in answer to the first question above.

On the other hand, RDs had formerly enjoyed a lot of independence, far away from the home institution and used to be respected for their ability to work autonomously.

Now, they may feel more supervised and monitored by constant Zoom meetings with their superiors back home which also take up their time and might amplify an already growing trend towards bureaucratising the role of study abroad directors.

All this could happen if, and that is an important point, their home institution uses that increased communication to dictate processes and impose their own concepts onto the foreign workplace. Which leads to the next question.

5. Will the division of tasks between home institutions and resident directors change?

RDs were in the spotlight in unusual ways during the first wave of the pandemic in spring 2020, and did great things: the achievement of managing a large-scale, short-term student evacuation operation on a historically unprecedented scale can hardly be overestimated.

In addition, they have mostly assisted home institutions in providing academic continuity, by helping students finish the endangered spring semester elsewhere or even offering online courses themselves, to help students get their much-needed credits.

Their skills and knowledge of local conditions were more important than ever, especially since their employers or clients back home were, after all, dealing with even greater problems in maintaining the overall institution and were dependent on their expertise.

This could lead to an adjustment of the distribution of tasks in the future – in conjunction with more intensive communication online.

Ideally, all this may result in home institutions gaining an increased appreciation of the competencies, skills and professionalism of their local representatives and the importance of their knowledge of local structures and cultures which, in turn, may lead to an increased appreciation of their work.

6. Will cooperation between administrators in host countries intensify?

Although the various programmes and providers in Europe are, in a way, competitors (for the coveted students), they have built up contacts in many ways over the years to exchange experiences. This is highly visible in national associations of American study abroad programmes, but even more so in the umbrella organisation European Association of Study Abroad, or EUASA.

This increased networking takes a lot of work off the home institutions because their programme directors can gain quite a few helpful and time-saving suggestions in this network through the exchange of (Europe-wide) information and best practices with their colleagues in similar positions.

For some programme managers, the exchange with colleagues has also been an important source of mental support in times of uncertainty and isolation.

Defining study abroad

At the end of the day, American colleges and universities are not helpless in the face of these developments. A lot depends on how one positions oneself in the coming semesters and years, what strategies one develops and, above all, what understanding of study abroad one conveys to students and parents, how one represents this, what kind of commitment one displays and how one continues to define study abroad.

Therefore, perhaps one should not succumb to the temptation to push aside the experiences and lessons of the past year-and-a-half. Instead, the goal should be to pursue them further and set the course for the future at the same time. To do this, we might try to answer the questions posed here for ourselves.

Dr Janine Ludwig is the academic director of the Durden Dickinson Program in Bremen, Germany, and blogs here.