How to Study Abroad When You Can’t Leave Home

This article first appeared in the Wall Street Journal on Nov. 8, 2020.

Yulissa Garcia-Serrato and her classmates were supposed to meet the former Croatian president during their study abroad trip to the Balkan country this summer. But after the Covid-19 pandemic caused the program to switch from in-person to an online learning environment, the University of Oregon senior feared her virtual travels wouldn’t amount to much of a trip.

Until the day that former Croatian President Ivo Josipović, who is also a composer, showed up on the virtual study abroad Zoom class.

He was inspiring, Ms. Garcia-Serrato said, and talked to the class for nearly 90 minutes about politics and his career as a musician. Meeting him virtually was better than she expected.

“I set my bar very low,” said Ms. Garcia-Serrato. “I was really bummed out by not being able to travel abroad. But…these two courses that I took were very outstanding.”

Schools have had to use a variety of strategies to repurpose study-abroad programs for pandemic times, including remote museum visits, virtual homestays and online cooking classes.

At Howard Community College in Columbia, Md., the pandemic derailed a trip to Ghana an English class was slated to take this spring. Students voted to push ahead with a virtual trip that involved online tours and videos of the sites they would have visited. The school plans to use 3-D site tours and video calls with local experts in a course on art and architecture in ancient Italy and Greece this coming year.

Samantha Arner, a graduate student at Miami University in Ohio, was supposed to study conservation near the Great Barrier Reef in Australia this summer. When she found out she would have to do the program virtually, she instead chose to work with Kenyan organizations to develop a conservation campaign.

She ended up dialing into one meeting from a car dealership in her home of Naples, Fla., while waiting for maintenance on her 2020 Honda HR-V.

“I’m actually sitting in the car dealership, chatting to these people, you know, halfway across the world,” Ms. Arner said. “I’m trying to mute myself, un-mute myself, my phone’s dying.”

For Althea Stewart, who teaches a summer course in London about British theater for University of Oregon students, the thought of moving her class online invoked feelings of “at first, sort of absolute horror,” she said.

But Ms. Stewart, 79, got creative. She invited the cast of “Private Lives,” by English playwright Noël Coward, to do a reading on Zoom and then answer questions from the class.

The actors, she said, “were excited to be together again and told the students that, as well as saying, ‘Thank you for letting us work again.’”

There were technological difficulties—the actors Zooming in from Glasgow had poor connection. But the smaller virtual environment allowed students to ask bolder questions than they might have in person, where crowds and literary critics at after-show discussions often render students shy, Ms. Stewart said.

“They’d seen the actors coming to terms with Zoom, and they’d seen inside the actors’ homes, they’d met one of the actor’s dogs,” she said of the online meetings. “They asked really, really good questions.”

Ms. Stewart also filmed a virtual tour of London’s theater district for her class. Because of the time difference, she and a colleague prerecorded the tour and then edited down their three-hour walk into a video they sent to students. The tour took them to theaters that had been closed for months and an unexpected costume exhibit outside of the National Theatre.

At Shakespeare’s Globe, a reconstruction of the theater first built by William Shakespeare’s theater company, Ms. Stewart was allowed to take her tour beyond a cordon and up to the metal gates, which have figures of animals and fairies from the Bard’s plays on them. “It’s not impossible to give people a flavor of this country and its theater without them actually coming here,” she said.

Jessica Lusekelo, a University of Texas junior who studied abroad virtually in London this summer, said her program’s pivot to virtual was a “blessing in disguise.” A scholarship she thought was a sure thing fell through just before her trip turned digital. She didn’t know how she was going to pay her travel expenses without the scholarship, but the only cost for the virtual program ended up being her spring semester tuition, which she had already paid.

At Goucher College in Baltimore, studying abroad is a graduation requirement—part of what attracted Charlie Sloan to the school. Now a senior, he, too, was supposed to study abroad in Croatia this fall.

To ensure everyone can still fulfill the requirement, Goucher added a one-credit course this semester that brings together students from all over the world to talk about contemporary issues. He said that has been “such a good experience, especially now when you’re inside, you have no one really to talk to and you can’t really meet anyone new.”

Mr. Sloan, who is living at home in Pennsylvania, has also been watching YouTube videos of Croatian culture to get a feel for what it would have been like to live in the Balkan country.

Despite exceeding expectations, students and instructors acknowledge the virtual programs can’t replace the sights, smells and tastes of studying abroad in person.

On a virtual study-abroad program in Spain this summer, Sydney Padgett, now a Lewis & Clark Law School student, got the opportunity to reconnect with her Spanish host mom, Blanca, from a 2018 in-person study-abroad trip.

She said her host is known for being a fantastic cook—something Ms. Padgett couldn’t take advantage of through the computer screen.

“I was just here eating my Cheerios, drooling over Blanca’s beef Wellington,” said Ms. Padgett.