A Year of Study Abroad on Standby
When I was younger, I loved fast-paced sports, sledding down snowy hills, racing around softball and soccer fields, and dreaming of becoming an Olympic speed skater. Quick bursts of speed – not long-distance marathons. However, a year ago this week, Covid challenged us all to undertake a marathon of our own, both personal and professional – one that none of us could have expected or trained for, and which has required us to dig deep for the long haul.
Between January and March 2020, we were repeatedly stunned by the decisions we had to make almost daily to suspend plans and programs and bring students home. Our office was full of news updates, meetings, and action around the clock. We quickly transitioned from the hustle of 50-plus onsite programs to 100 percent online courses and an office that we had to leave behind with little notice.
We walked away thinking that the impact on us – as an organization and individuals – would be short term, that we would return quickly from our temporary remote working status to our previous way of life. Somehow weeks turned into months, and with a mix of surprise and resignation, we settled into our new remote lifestyle as it grew more familiar to us despite its challenges of zoom fatigue, lack of department potlucks and hearing friendly chatter in the hallways.
So now that we are one year into our new way of being: What have been some of the changes and discoveries for you?
For me personally: instead of buying many cups on campus each day, I now adore making a big pot of coffee and drinking it throughout the day at my own pace. I have used my microwave and tried out yoga -- both for the first time. I have become increasingly grateful for quiet neighbors, and the morning sun that is my alarm clock most days.
The largest change I feel for USAC has been working without students – on our programs and in our offices. However, I’m proud to say that students have remained a focal point for us as we navigate through this year of change. Students have always been at the center of what USAC stands for and the work we do and that continues to be true. We spent a student-less summer in 2020, but then saw a slow glimmer of hope with a small group abroad in the Fall and a larger group this Spring in over 10 countries. Covid still wanders the world in waves, yet fortunately, vaccines are becoming more available (kudos to the fast-moving scientists among us!). As such, we have our eye on the future and are happily welcoming more student applications for future sessions.
Through the power of virtual communication, we have been able to connect with record numbers of students, universities, and colleagues across the world, and this is just one of many unexpected silver linings we have discovered in this unconventional year. Our virtual workshops, guest lectures, and internships have won us a national award to be proud of. We have initiated new partnerships across the US and world and introduced new program options in Portugal and Scotland. We have connected with new donors and alumni, which is already resulting in more student scholarships and financial support. Overall, we have proven, together, how well the USAC team can overcome challenges through creativity, innovation, and perseverance.
What we thought would be a sprint has turned into a marathon—that is not finished yet. Study abroad is not at risk of ceasing indefinitely. We -- at USAC and the entire field -- are not giving in or giving up. Student interest is strong. With patience and endurance, we will regain our full stride and see our enrollments rise again, hopefully to record levels. This is due in large part to the USAC community, our university partners, and colleagues and friends worldwide -- so thank you for your efforts, collaboration and tenacity.
Through our work in international education, we encourage and teach students to fearlessly face change…and how flexibility and adaptability will take them far in their education and in life. We have all been reminded of this life lesson over this year of surprises and challenges. So, let’s all keep putting one foot in front of the other, and together we will finish this marathon.
Alyssa Nota, Ph.D.
President/CEO, University Studies Abroad Consortium