By Emma Vallelunga
When the thought of traveling seems more like a daydream to most people right now, SUNY Plattsburgh’s Global Education Office is helping students plan for their future when the fate of study abroad and international student admissions programs feels unknown during the COVID-19 pandemic.
GEO Coordinator of Study Away Brooke Layhee said all study abroad programs were canceled for this semester due to the pandemic. Only three students are currently studying out of New York state on national student exchange programs in New Jersey, Florida and Hawaii. No university partners with SUNY Plattsburgh have officially canceled their programs, except for the University of North Wales in Australia. About 30 students have applied for next semester’s NSE and study abroad programs, but for study abroad, Layhee said there’s no guarantee those will still run as of now.
“We’re working with students who do have an application in our system for spring to have contingency plans and be aware that things can look very different with COVID,” Layhee said.
GEO is waiting on guidance from SUNY for whether they’re in support of sending students abroad, which won’t come until mid-November. When students from multiple programs were abruptly sent home last semester, Layhee said most students who are applying for the spring are aware of what could happen if another coronavirus outbreak happened in their host country.
“We learned a lot this past spring, and we’re going to do our best to inform students so that they know what could happen and what they can do to help themselves,” Layhee said.
For international student admissions, Vogl said the yield for the number of students accepted to SUNY Plattsburgh from other countries was down considerably from any previous year. GEO is currently processing the admissions applications of about 50 applicants who have deferred their admission from fall to spring. Vogl said this number is ten times higher than the office normally would have for any semester.
“I think that’s directly related to COVID, not just [because of] public health issues but also the financial issues,” Vogl said. “Other countries are sustaining the same kind of financial catastrophes that we’re experiencing in this country, some even more so. I think they’re all hoping January will be different than August.”
In terms of study abroad programs, Layhee is also a member of the COVID-19 Committee of the SUNY Council on International Education. The group recently developed and approved a Student Risk Assessment Tool for all SUNY students interested in studying abroad.
The survey outlines 10 self-assessment questions for students to gauge their individual risk of studying abroad during the pandemic. It asks students whether they’re concerned about contracting COVID-19, whether they have the resources to return to the U.S. on short notice if necessary or whether their academic plans would be impacted if their program was canceled. When the points are added up, students can use the evaluation of their risk tolerance as low, moderate or high to decide whether studying abroad is right for them.
“Students don’t necessarily process all the consequences that we know could be the consequences of a shutdown, so they really need to have thought about it in order to make a clear decision,” said GEO Associate Vice President Jackie Vogl.
While study abroad applications are down for next semester, Layhee said GEO is pushing for students to plan ahead, specifically marketing toward freshmen to start thinking about the possibility of studying in another country — when COVID-19 is hopefully less of a worry.
“We really haven’t been pushing that like we normally do, just because it really is unknown,” Layhee said. “Hopefully, by the time they’re able to go, things will be ready for them.”
However, GEO is continuing to promote studying abroad in a positive light. Many virtual information sessions have been hosted this semester by GEO. Vogl said holding these sessions, where other SUNYs and universities abroad can Zoom in from anywhere, has opened up even more exciting opportunities for students to learn about studying abroad.
“It used to be we would have physical, face-to-face study abroad fairs, and we would only go to select ones because we didn’t have enough staff or funding to cover the whole country or state,” Vogl said. “And now, with them being virtual, we can connect with students at all the other SUNY campuses about our programs right from our own desk.”
Ellen Miller, GEO’s graduate assistant, said some students do have concerns about traveling right now but advises students to plan ahead as best they can.
“I do think that health and safety for the students comes first, but I also do want students to have that opportunity to go abroad, so I would tell [students] to be unique in their study abroad search and also be flexible,” Miller said. “Our main mission is to not only get Plattsburgh students to go abroad but also foster that intercultural exchange.”
Miller studied abroad in Norwich, England, during the spring of 2018, and she values her time abroad as an experience she’ll never forget. Miller said she feels sad for the students who can’t have a study abroad experience right now but is staying positive for a future when traveling won’t look so scary.
“Things look really uncertain now, but I hope people are able to get back out into the world when it starts to turn itself back on again,” Miller said. “And even if that takes a while, GEO is still here [for students]. We’re not going anywhere.”