Global City

Students and study abroad offices navigate changed plans and uncertainty amid a second semester without overseas study

While upperclassmen are looking to post-graduate fellowships and international work and study opportunities, underclassmen are making the most of virtual “study abroad” programs.

USC now enters the fifth academic week of its second fully remote semester without study abroad. As many students have struggled to adapt to online learning, others attempt to reconcile with changing plans and a complete reimagining of what their semesters in college will look like. Without international study abroad currently offered at the University, questions remain as to whether study abroad will be offered again in the near future and how students are coping with this change.

On September 1, 2020, USC extended its suspension of all study abroad programs through Spring 2021. This decision included both inbound and outbound study abroad programs, but did not include Maymester or summer abroad programs, the continuation of which the University will determine at a later date.

The University’s decision to suspend its programs is supported by global and national health experts recommendations for helping prevent the spread of COVID-19. Current CDC guidelines restrict any foreign national having visited China, Iran, the European Schengen Area, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Brazil and South Africa within the past 14 days from entering the United States. The U.S. Department of State has issued travel advisory warnings for most international destinations, with a majority of countries listed under a Level 4 avoidance warning.

The USC Overseas Studies Office has not made any decisions about upcoming summer study abroad at this point in time. According to the Overseas Studies website, the University is monitoring the state of COVID-19 spread and is relying on “U.S. Department of State Travel Alerts and Advisories, U.S. Centers for Disease Control advisories, U.S. embassies’ and consulates’ Public Announcements, private companies such as International SOS, the travel advice of other governments, news sources, the resident directors and international student offices at the study abroad sites, and other information sources” to help inform policy changes regarding study abroad programs.

Lauren Opgenorth, associate director of internships and experiential education in the USC Career Center, has expressed optimism about summer study abroad opportunities. Since 2001, the USC Global Fellows Internship Program has been managed through the career center, providing funding for USC undergraduates to participate in a ten week internship experience in Asia during the summer. In summer 2020, the program pivoted to a virtual internship experience, still offering students a chance to experience a digital international work setting, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Even though [the students] did not have the travel component, they were still able to gain internship experience, talk to professionals in the field and network amongst their colleagues,” Opgenorth said.

She said that students who participated in the summer program, which typically sends students to Hong Kong, Shanghai and Taipei, had a unique pandemic opportunity that allowed them to gain meaningful work experience.

“[Students] were still able to engage internationally, gain professional experience, and really dive into this world of virtual and what that might look like,” Opgenorth said.

Regarding the Global Fellows Program this year, Opgenorth deferred to the University’s study abroad policies.

“Ultimately it’s going to be a university decision regarding summer programs,” she said. “Most recently we’ve seen information about the Maymesters, so really what’s next on deck is summer.”

USC Global Fellows Program applicant Jake Wisnik, said he was hopeful about the program and while he is looking forward to potentially gaining work experience amid the pandemic, the travel component is exciting, as well.

“I’m really hoping if I’m selected to do it that we will be able to actually travel to Asia,” said Wisnik, a sophomore majoring in international relations. “I really want to explore Hong Kong and work there.”

However, Wisnik also expressed doubts about the program switching to an online format.

“Of course it’s not the same online, but I still think the fact that they are adapting it to online and not canceling it all together is pretty awesome,” he said.

Should the position be moved to a fully online position, Wisnik, originally from New York, expressed an excited but concerned approach over the format of an online international work experience.

“I definitely have to evaluate what that will look like… of course Hong Kong and New York are not very aligned when it comes to… the 9 to 5, but at the same time, it would definitely still be super interesting,” Wisnik said. “If there was a good work around and I was able to have a meaningful experience still working at the company I would still be really interested.”

Wisnik is not alone in the hopes of a slow transition back to study abroad. Studying abroad at USC is extremely popular among the entire student body. On an academic level, it allows students to become more well-rounded and encourages high academic vigor and language pursuits. Beyond its academic value, study abroad exposes students to new cultures and environments, and helps students learn to adapt to a steadily growing global community. Many students choose to study abroad in some capacity, whether it’s for a semester, year, summer or Maymester program. USC also offers unique opportunities like the Problems Without Passports summer programs and alternative winter and spring break trips.

Some student’s study abroad plans have already been canceled, affecting their college trajectory and plans. Marie Zaragoza was supposed to go abroad in fall 2020 and applied to go to Morocco a year in advance. Zaragoza, a junior majoring in international relations, had always planned to go abroad in college.

“Being able to immerse yourself in the culture and in the language is just an incredible experience that is unmatched by any in class learning and specifically for Arabic,” said Zaragoza, an Idaho native. “USC only teaches modern standard Arabic which is what is written and what is read.”

When faced with online study abroad options, Zaragoza has declined digital ‘study abroad’ opportunities.

“The whole point for me was to go there and be around people who were speaking the language and living their lives, so to have it be in an online context would be just like taking another Arabic class,” she said. “And as much fun as I’ve had with those classes, that’s not what I was trying to get out of studying abroad and so I think I would just wait to spend time in the country in an in person format again.”

Zaragoza, like many USC upperclassmen, in particular, said she also feels as though she is missing out on her college experience at USC.

“I’ve missed so much of in-person college that the last thing I want to do is go to a different college when I still don’t feel like my time at USC on the actual campus has been completed,” she said.

Zaragoza’s plans to study abroad have shifted since her study abroad opportunity to North Africa was canceled. Originally planning to work in the United States after college, Zaragoza now is considering fellowships and opportunities that could replace her college study abroad experience, and allow her to gain international experience upon graduation.

Heather Knutson also discussed similar plans to go abroad following college.

“I’m actually considering applying in the future to grad schools abroad overseas,” said Knutson, a senior majoring in Mathematics and Computer Science. “Because I do want that study abroad experience, but grad school is somewhat short so might as well spend grad school somewhere else, right?”

Knutson participated in an online Maymester in Spring 2020. Her Maymester, originally scheduled to take place in Kyoto Japan, switched to an online format. When asked if she would consider a study abroad online Maymester again after having taken one in the online format, she explained the core differences with her online experience.

“I would, but not because it’s an online study abroad experience, but just because the material in the classes are really cool,” she said. “They are so focused on a specific area, and I feel like most classes you take aren’t that focused. But since it is supposed to be an online study experience it is super focused. Like this one was focused on Kyoto rather than just Japan or Asia in general. So if this was an area I was super interested in I think it would be really helpful.”

Other students, such as junior Jake Wasserstein, were able to study abroad before COVID-19, but have also faced setbacks in study abroad programming since the pandemic began. Wasserstein discussed that during his freshman year he was able to study in Belgium for the summer through the Department of Political Science and International Relations’ Brussels Program, but his plans for junior year study abroad were canceled.

“I was planning on doing a full year abroad. Buenos Aires, Argentina in the fall, and then Madrid in Spain,” Wasserstein, an international relations global business major, said.  “Obviously all of that has since been canceled, so I’m doing an online Maymester with Professor [Pamela] Starr called Financing Development in Mexico.”

Wasserstein initially had doubts about pursuing an online program, but after discussing and researching the program further he is now excited to take the course.

“It’s still going to run as usual, obviously we miss out on being there, but we get a lot of benefits the program would have had,” Wasserstein said.

With his emphasis on Latin American studies, this Maymester program fits with Wasserstein studies at USC.

“It has [a] finance concentration, it has the IR working with development, and Spanish… I’m looking to do a deeper dive into a country specifically, because some of my past classes look at the region as a whole,” he said. “I don’t think I will get the boots on the ground experience, and I don’t expect to. But I’m looking to get a lot out of speaking with people who are really in the field and really working within finance and development and growth in Mexico.”

When asked if he would consider studying abroad again in the future, Wasserstein, similarly to Knutson and Zaragoza, is looking to study abroad after college.

“I’m not sure if it would be with USC, as next year is my last year and I’m on track to graduate early right now… What I’m considering instead is potentially trying to do a fellowship,” Wasserstein said. “Whether it’s Fulbright, Princeton in Latin America, or the Peace Corps. Some sort of program that really throws you into another country and teaches you like everything about it and allows you to really immerse yourself. And I think by the time I would be applying to those realistically everything will be a lot more open considering that’s two years out.”

The USC Overseas Studies Office is still currently accepting applications for fall 2021 study abroad programs. Although fall applications have opened, the University has not yet made a decision on whether or not the suspension will be extended through Fall 2021. If the suspension is discontinued, there is always the possibility that certain programs will no longer be feasible, given border closures, worsening outbreaks, visa processing issues, travel advisory notices and host institution closures, among other factors. The office has indicated it will keep students as informed as possible on updates and that they will notify applicants regarding any changes.

The current rate of COVID-19 vaccinations is approximately 1.6 million doses per day. The increasing vaccination rate across the United States indicated hopeful signs of the potential for the University to resume in-person classes and green light certain study abroad programs. As the COVID-19 vaccine becomes more widely available, some countries or airlines may require traveller vaccinations, creating a barrier for students to study abroad. Additionally, if study abroad is offered this summer or upcoming fall semester, students will have to adhere to international COVID-19 guidelines and travel restrictions.

USC’s Overseas Studies Office has indicated on their website that even if USC determines study abroad programming may resume, students must be prepared for some degree of unpredictability, given the nature of the pandemic.

“Studying abroad in fall 2021 will be very different from the experience of study abroad in the past,” the website reads. In a continually unpredictable pandemic, students have had to change their college study abroad plans, but have also found resiliency to be hopeful for study abroad opportunities in the future.

“There is a whole world out there,” Wasserstein said. “LA is great, USC is great, but there are so many places to see and people to meet. It’s a bit cliche, but you only have one life so you might as well try to learn as much and do as much as you can.”