U-M Engineering students visit DeMan Coffee plantation in Nkubu, Kenya. Image credit: Austin Thomason, Michigan Photography
The University of Michigan has decided to suspend its undergraduate study abroad programs for the winter term 2021 due to ongoing concerns about COVID-19, the continuing travel restrictions and the planning time needed for students.
According to Amy Conger, associate vice provost and director of global engagement, it was a difficult but necessary resolution considering the global health risks.
"We’re trying to make careful decisions that are in everybody’s best interest,” she said. "Because there’s still uncertainty, we just don’t want to put the students at risk.”
Conger said that almost every country is under a U-M travel restriction right now and that it’s difficult to do an accurate risk assessment of COVID-19 conditions, predict entry and exit bans, and confirm the availability of quarantine housing and other safety measures at all of the study sites.
"We also have to remember, it can take nine months to a year to plan a program,” she said. "And most of our students usually have to make financial commitments at least three or four months before travel.”
Conger discussed the cancellation of U-M’s study abroad programs.
How does the university decide if study abroad programs will proceed or not?
Significant planning goes into each study abroad program. Students often plan at least a year ahead to prepare their applications, map out their courses, make financial arrangements and select housing that takes their time abroad into account.
U-M schools and colleges also need time to design the learning experiences, reserve sites, hire instructors, secure accommodations, etc. Contracts are signed and students make deposits several months in advance of departure.
If there is significant uncertainty about conditions at the host location, including COVID-19 issues, schools and colleges may elect to cancel a program in time for students to avoid financial commitments and make alternate plans for the upcoming semester.
Does U-M have any timeline for putting students on planes again? Maybe in the spring term?
Unfortunately, we don’t have a clear timeline. We can’t accurately predict what the COVID-19 conditions will look like in countries throughout the world. For the winter 2021 semester, we were trying to operate in a hopeful way. Many of our study abroad offices opened applications so that students could start preparing. But at the same time, there was still a possibility that the programs would not run. As we got closer and closer to the commitment deadlines for those programs, we saw we would not be able to run them considering that the safety conditions of those countries were still not stable.
COVID-19 has impacted countries differently. Does U-M have a policy of reviewing programs on a case-by-case basis?
In a typical year, U-M offers programs in over 80 countries. We are continuously reviewing each country and will gradually be lifting restrictions as the State Department, the CDC, our security firm, and other sources indicate that it’s safer to travel. It’s going to be more a process of slowly opening up. And if the travel restriction is not lifted, then by default, we can’t run a study abroad program because we don’t want to place students at additional risk during their travel experience.
After travel warnings and restrictions lift, will U-M study abroad programs have to consider a whole new set of issues around student health and safety before resuming in-person programming?
Our global engagement team and our study abroad professionals across campus are all building in additional COVID safeguards into the programs. For example, some countries might require visitors to self-isolate for a certain period of time before they go to campus. So when our colleagues design a program, they must build in that self-isolation time before they commence the project or the study.
This is just not a typical year. We used to tell study abroad students that unexpected things could arise during their travels. Well, COVID-19 is not unexpected anymore. COVID-19 is a very real possibility. We just need students to plan their future experiences with eyes wide open and our offices are working with them to create contingency plans, so that if their study abroad can’t proceed, they have backup plans.
Following this reasoning, what advice would you give to students eager to start planning travels for summer or the next academic year?
If students have particular locations in mind, it’s important to start following reliable local news from that country carefully. We also advise them to keep communicating with their study abroad adviser and academic adviser to map out a back up plan if the travel cannot happen. We’re hoping that things will stabilize for the next academic year, but we all will need to operate with some additional flexibility.