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Then vs. now: UNC Study Abroad Office transitions to virtual opportunities

Emily Rosario 3.jpg

Emily Rosario is a junior studying abroad at Seoul National University in South Korea. Photo courtesy of Rosario.

Even during a pandemic, UNC students still have the opportunity to experience studying abroad. 

Whether from their computer screen or in another country, the Study Abroad Office has adapted during COVID-19 to offer students opportunities for a "global experience."

Heather Ward, the associate dean of study abroad and international exchanges, said the UNC Study Abroad Office still offers some traditional study abroad programs. 

“Separately, we have introduced virtual study abroad or virtual exchange opportunities this year for students so that they can enroll in courses at a global partner university from here in Chapel Hill,” she said. 

Traveling during a pandemic

Ward said UNC has 16 undergraduate study abroad programs in 12 countries in spring 2021.  

Students wanting to study abroad sign an agreement stating they will follow local health protocols and COVID-19 prevention rules at their host universities, Ward said. Students must also maintain GeoBlue medical insurance, which covers treatment for COVID-related illnesses.

The main focus is communicating to students the risks of studying abroad during a pandemic. Ward said she believes it is important for students and parents to have accurate expectations.

“We are doing everything possible to make sure these programs are safe,” Ward said. “Students have the support from our office and locally that they would need through this unusual time.”

Hana Khan, a junior studying at Korea University, said after her program was canceled last year, she wanted to try to study abroad again. Khan said her study abroad advisers warned her about the limited number of programs this year.

“It was like, ‘Apply, and we encourage you to do so, but it might not go through, and we might have to look at alternatives,’” Khan said.

She said the study abroad office spoke with students about following their host country’s COVID-19 guidelines and protocols.

“They really expected the students, once they go abroad, to just be respectful,” Khan said.

Khan said she took multiple COVID-19 tests and quarantined for two weeks when she arrived. Now that she is out of quarantine, she must have temperature checks daily.

Emily Rosario, a junior studying abroad at Seoul National University in South Korea, said the University is doing the best it can to keep students abroad safe amid the pandemic.

“There’s a whole process once you arrive in Korea,” Rosario said. “It’s being heavily regulated right now.”

She said all of her classes are online until COVID-19 levels decrease in Korea.

Rosario said she recommends students do lots of research and have back-up programs before they decide to study abroad.

“You still have to figure out the customs, the regulations, how you would be able to interact with those regulations in the country,” Rosario said. 

Ward said there are 44 students studying abroad who required physical travel from the U.S. to their host country. But the study abroad office also allowed 17 international students at UNC who were unable to come to the U.S. to enroll in study abroad programs in their home countries.

“We also have UNC international students who went home at some point last year and have not been able to return to campus, and in order to maintain their UNC enrollment, we were able to place them in study abroad programs in their home countries,” Ward said.

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Virtual alternatives

Ward said despite the pandemic, UNC still wants to continue its Global Guarantee — the University’s promise to make a global education available to every student.

Katie Bowler Young, the interim senior director for global partnership and programs, said one way the University is keeping this promise is by launching the Connecting Carolina Classrooms with the World initiative.

“We looked at ways that we could enhance offerings that worked in this period of the pandemic with its constraints and to do it in a way that we could continue to build upon to expand Carolina’s portfolio of global education opportunities on the long term,” Young said.

A part of Connection Carolina Classrooms with the world is the Collaborative Online International Learning.

“COIL connects a classroom at Carolina with a classroom at a partner institution in which the faculty members work together to develop a module, or a component of a course, in a way that gives students a sustained opportunity to engage with one another and learn from and with each other,” Young said.

Young said 21 COIL courses launched at the undergraduate, graduate and professional levels. 

Students in these courses work on group projects, put presentations together and interview one another. She said it allows students to share and hear the ideas of students from different social, political and cultural backgrounds.

“This approach is barrier-free,” Young said. “There isn’t an additional expense for a student to take a COIL course.”

The study abroad office has also implemented virtual study abroad programs. Ward said virtual study abroad programs allow students anywhere in the world to enroll in courses or research projects with a partner university abroad.

“In a virtual study abroad course, students learn alongside students in the home country,” Ward said. “In most cases, they offer some interesting learning opportunities that students might not have from here in Chapel Hill.”

Ward said she expects COIL and the virtual study abroad program to remain after the pandemic is over.

“We share the feeling that there will be more opportunities than ever before to connect our students to the world,” she said.

This is the second article in a two-part series about the experience of studying abroad during a pandemic.