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Study abroad students take off to new experiences, despite COVID-19 restrictions

At the beginning of this Fall semester, students braced themselves for long, masked flights and jetted off to different corners of the world — for Boston University’s Study Abroad program had resumed operations for students after almost a year and a half.

Students at Study Abroad Expo
Students attending the Study Abroad Expo at Marsh Plaza Wednesday. Boston University’s Study Abroad program has returned in-person after almost a year and a half – but it doesn’t come without restrictions and termination of certain locations for the Fall semester. LUWA YIN/ DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF

However, BU Study Abroad has not returned without restrictions. Due to differing COVID-19 guidelines across the globe and the increased prevalence of the Delta variant last summer, students are getting a different experience than in previous years.

Gareth McFeely, the executive director of BU Study Abroad, said the COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenge for the Study Abroad office to manage due to budget cuts and a decrease in staff members.

He said the Study Abroad office was operating remotely until around June of this year, but returning to in-person had brought several questions about housing, COVID-19 protocol and more.

“We felt that we were able to make good decisions for all of those questions,” McFeely said. “But we had the factor of not being certain if countries would welcome our students … [or] international students generally.”

He said that some locations offered in the Study Abroad program — such as Sydney and Shanghai — are still not open to students at this time. Only nine out of more than 30 cities offered are currently housing students for the Fall semester.

For those hoping to escape Boston for the semester, the programs admitting students did welcome them — but not without some snags.

Jacqueline Mang, a junior in the College of Fine Arts, is currently in Venice on the Graphic Design track. She said she was thankful that her family decided to head over to Italy early because her peers encountered an unforeseen hurdle in their travel plans.

“I know that [people] who came with the group flight had to get a last-minute COVID test because all of a sudden they required a COVID test to be able to get on the flight,” Mang said. “I heard it was stressful and last minute.”

The Padua and Venice Italy program, which McFeely said had two different departure dates, encountered issues due to changing travel policies. He said in between the two departure dates, Italy’s entrance guidelines changed to require a recent negative COVID-19 test result.

McFeely confirmed that this hitch did not impede anyone from ultimately reaching Italy in either the Padua or Venice programs despite the change in COVID-19 guidelines. The Study Abroad office also contacted students leaving for other countries in the following week to encourage them to get tested in case other countries put similar guidelines in place.

Some students had to reevaluate their Study Abroad plans as the future became unsure last March. Regina Acosta, a senior in The Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences, had to shuffle some things around last year.

Acosta originally planned to go abroad last Spring but hesitated to apply after seeing Fall 2020 plans canceled last year.

“I’ve been remote for a year and a half in Texas,” Acosta said. “So I realized, with time, that Study Abroad [last Spring] was not going to happen.”

Acosta is currently in Geneva, Switzerland on the Public Health track and said that because of COVID-19, students have to take extra protocols to ensure their safety.

Students in Geneva pick up a weekly rapid COVID-19 test to conduct themselves and return a couple of days later, Acosta said, adding that about 20 students are studying abroad there currently — a decrease in participants compared to previous years.

McFeely says that he does not expect that changing COVID-19 guidelines and the recent Delta variant will affect admissions in the Spring.

“More of the restrictions are likely to come from individual students and maybe their families, who might remain nervous about whether this is the best time to travel abroad,” he said.

In regards to the Spring, McFeely said that the office is in “full planning mode” and keeping watch of countries whose borders are still not open to BU students and programs.

Although the University’s Study Abroad program returned with unexpected challenges and restrictions, McFeely said students interested in the program are encouraged to keep an open mind when applying.

“This is the time of uncertainty … We can do great planning together, we can have detailed conversations with students if they have particular concerns,” McFeely said. “But we certainly have had to develop a mindset of great flexibility, adaptation on the fly, and we’re trying to encourage all of the students who would like to come with us on programs in the Spring to think in those same terms.”

Though COVID-19 may have complicated the path there, Acosta said studying abroad in Geneva is “really great” and connects you to “an international hub.”

“Geneva is a wonderful place, in the sense that it’s so beautiful, we’re up in the mountains,” Acosta said. “It’s definitely a place that’s very proud of their culture. It has a lot of great vineyards and amazing lakes and it’s right next to France, so it’s just like a train ride away, and you really get to take in that difference.”

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