In light of recent events, over the past few months, I’ve had many students reach out to me, asking for advice on what to do now that their study abroad plans have changed.
There is no simple answer to this, so here’s the truth: The possibility that you will study abroad at any time for the remainder of 2020 is unlikely.
In addition to mass cancellations of Maymester and Summer programs (a no-brainer), an increasing number of colleges and universities here in the United States and around the world are calling time early on all Fall/Autumn/Winter 2020 programs out of caution of a second wave of the virus….or end of the first wave (does anyone know what phase we are in at this point anyway?)
I would like to start by saying that my heart is broken for you. I know you’re upset, disappointed, and feel uneasy. Yes, there are more things important than life in student travel abroad, but as someone who has had this experience over and over, don’t let anyone shame you for what you feel.
As a study abroad advisor, my role is to not just help students plan their dream semester overseas, but in a time such as this, offer solutions and guidance to help fill the gap.
Enter Virtual Study Abroad.
I first heard about virtual study abroad in 2015. While at that time, I did not research it much, I knew that it would eventually be valuable in some way in the future for a segment of high school and college students.
As the overall cost of college rises year by year and financial markets shift due to uncertain circumstances, many families are searching for an alternative to traditional college abroad opportunities.
Similar to virtual internships, which have grown in popularity over the past decade, I respect students who choose this route. The fascination that a majority of collegiates now find themselves at a junction where they may have to take the road less traveled this year is bewitching to me and I’m ready to help you lean into this moment.
So before I give my thoughts, let’s further explore what virtual study abroad actually is and what it entails.
What is Virtual Study Abroad?
Virtual study abroad programs are designed to provide students with a complete experience of exploring international cultures and educational immersion from the privacy of their own homes. This can include online workshops that help students explore the history and current life of different countries, language courses, and photo essay analysis by location just to name a few examples.
Virtual study abroad programs take place on any platform, including Zoom, GoToMeeting, and a private platform provided by a college or university and they are usually a fraction of the cost of traditional study abroad experiences.
Education as a priority
The primary focus of virtual study abroad is to help bridge the gap between students who cannot afford (or in 2020 are not permitted to fly) to go overseas but want to complete credits that will count towards graduation that are either from a foreign university or serve as elective credits for courses that cannot be taken during the regular school year.
I want to emphasize that most virtual study abroad programs are strictly about education, which of course is the foundation of any study abroad program.
Based on my research, I also know that some organizations and schools are exploring ‘flexible or on-demand’ options this year. This would mean that students would be able to log in at their free will to review and complete assignments, but would still have deadlines each week. This would give students the chance to take their “regular classes” and then also build in study abroad components such as online seminars or online videos. Each college or private program is currently working on their own individual solution, so please know these vary based on your school and location in the world.
While the requirements vary individually, it seems that most institutions are allowing students to classify three to nine credits towards graduation for virtual study abroad. There is also some discussion for the fall to count virtual study abroad as a full credit semester for students that have had to unenroll from traditional programs.
Taught by experienced instructors
One of the benefits of virtual study abroad is that there is not a loss of quality. In a world where online learning is now mainstream without stigma (circa the early 2000s), colleges, universities, and study abroad-focused organizations are putting a high priority on ensuring these courses are led by experts. This includes teachers that currently live in the countries that students are learning about and other local experts that can truly create a virtual immersion experience to remember.
Virtual Study Abroad is Cost-effective
As mentioned earlier, the cost is a focal point of transitioning to virtual study abroad. On average, most programs that I’ve seen will have fees that cost between $600 per course and $2000 per course. While that may still seem expensive based on the current economic climate, it’s an absolute ‘steal’, if you need the elective credits, particularly if you are heading into a senior year where this may be your last chance to “study abroad” before you graduate.
Considering you save money on housing, travel, visas, and all other essential and non-essential expenses that are required for a traditional study abroad experience, it’s a cost-saver for sure.
So, Is it Worth It?
This was a tough one for me. The study abroad advisor and study abroad business owner in me says no, only because it does not fit into the scope of what I’ve always known and how most of us in this business have learned to guide students down the path of student travel abroad.
However, the mentor in me says it is worth a shot, but only if necessary. These are unprecedented times as we know and adjustments must be made to accommodate various areas of our lives, education included.
I WOULD recommend virtual study abroad to two types of students in 2020:
1. Rising college or university seniors because, with the exception of those that may be considering a graduate degree outside of their home country, this really is your last chance to “study abroad” in a capacity. You can always travel abroad, but getting it legitimately on your resume or a transcript is more unlikely after graduation. Spring 2021 traditional programs are not guaranteed at this point, so I would not bet on them, even as optimistic as I am.
2. Students that truly cannot afford to study abroad. I am thrilled to know this opportunity has been developed for students with hardships that still want to get a taste of study abroad. I believe this will spark and inspire them to value not just foreign education, but also the yearning to see the world up close and personal one day. I am eager to hear stories of how students turned a virtual study abroad experience into a roadmap to work or live overseas, no doubt if it has not happened yet, it will in the next few years.
I WOULD NOT recommend virtual study abroad to two types of students in 2020:
Any student who has had their 2020 program canceled and is eager to say to have ‘study abroad’ credentials on their transcript, just to have it. As I have told my advisees, study abroad programming is not over, it’s on hold. Unless you have an urgent need to fulfill a college course credit at the moment, I still feel it’s wise for underclassmen that have already planned or are currently planning in the future to complete traditional study abroad programs to wait it out.
Many of you have been considering SA since you set foot on your campus, as a rising junior, the unlikeliness that you will not be able to study in [Insert any country] by senior year is minimal from my perspective. Hang on tight, this too shall pass.
Where can I find virtual study abroad opportunities?
As colleges and universities around the world work hard to plan programs for summer and fall, I would begin by reaching out to your on-campus advisor to find out if your school will offer virtual SA or if it’s something they are considering. During this time, I would also find out how your grants, scholarships, or loans can be applied to said virtual study abroad programming. Since this is new territory for many, those answers may not be readily available, but they should be able to guide you on some basics of cost.
For students interested in virtual study abroad through private organizations, the American Institute of Foreign Studies (AIFS) has recently launched an online program catalog. I cannot vouch for this new programming, but I can and have vouched for other great things AIFS has done. Read my throwback posts (Part I | Part II) on my AIFS London Internship for my take. Other big players in the space, CIS and IES are also offering similar options.
Are you considering participating in virtual study abroad in 2020 Leave a comment below!
Known as The Study Abroad Specialist, Kimber Grayson is a serial-study abroader turned International Education coach and expert. Since 2014, she has helped 100+ students navigate their semester away journey from the coastal areas of Spain to China and every place in between. In 2018, she launched The LiveStudyLearn™ Abroad Association, a one-of-a-kind online membership platform for study abroad students worldwide.
She holds two Master's degrees from two well-respected London-based universities and has experience working in the US, UK & and Italy.
In her spare time (what's that again?), she enjoys leisure travel city breaks, any snow-based activity, skeet shooting, and attempting to learn new languages.