In light of recent events, over the past two 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 (seems reasonable), an increasing number of colleges and universities here in the United States and around the world are calling time early on all Fall/Autumn 2020 programs out of caution of a second wave of the virus.
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 will be a way to provide structure to a program but allow students, who have already been online learning for months, have the opportunity to still enjoy a bit of summer vacation.
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:
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.
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.