When most people think of London, they might picture the gothic architecture of the Big Ben at the Palace of Westminster, the sea of red seats at Wembley Stadium or the bird’s eye views seen from the London Eye.
What likely doesn’t come to mind is the basement of Hyde Park Gate apartments — but that’s where University of Wisconsin-Madison junior Jenna Cohen quarantined after contracting COVID-19 in her first week abroad on the UW in London program. She’s one of 1,208 UW-Madison students experiencing study abroad amid the surge of COVID-19’s omicron variant.
“I had a lot of FOMO because we had just gotten here. We were still meeting people. And then I tested positive so quickly, I was like ‘oh no, they're going to forget about me.’”
For the 1,208 UW-Madison students studying abroad this semester across 24 countries, the pandemic has shifted expectations and changed the structure of international study. Coordinating spring study abroad required reviewing each program’s ability to handle changes brought on by COVID-19, including the possibility of reverting to online classes and supporting students in quarantine.
UW-Madison International Division Director of Communications Steve Barcus said the university’s expectation is that all international partners continue immediate contact with UW-Madison and students abroad about news of program modifications.
“The university has worked with these institutions to ensure that even if conditions require shifting to a remote format, they will be able to complete coursework and receive credit for the semester. This ensures students are able to continue to make progress toward their academic goals,” Barcus said in an email.
In some countries, like Israel, international travel restrictions shifted arrival dates. The onsite arrival date for the Tel Aviv University program shifted from Jan. 10 to Feb. 13, with the first month happening virtually. For students at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, arrival time stayed the same, but classes initially went online.
UW-Madison junior Aitan Maeir is one of those students. He said the plan is for the first two weeks of classes to be over Zoom, with the potential to return in person this month. This shift mainly impacts Ulpan, a prerequisite course at the university covering intensive Hebrew and cultural subjects prior to the start of regular classes. He said he believes the move to go online was in part due to concern from people coming in from abroad and testing positive for COVID-19. Throughout the process, he received continual updates from UW-Madison.
“Despite omicron, the fact that UW kept the program open says a lot, in a good way, about the institution and the faith that they have in vaccines and protocol,” Maeir said. “There’s a lot of excitement, even if some things are over Zoom.”
As COVID-19 rates spiked over winter break, some students experienced anxiety over program cancellation and apprehension about the potential of quarantining upon arrival. Others started to prepare for the possibility of spending the semester at home and prepared backup housing situation plans. Fearing her program would get canceled, Cohen chose not to sublet her apartment for the spring semester.
“Leading up to it, there was a lot of talk about things getting canceled. I stopped trying because I was like, ‘if I'm going to be in Madison, I don't want to have nowhere to live,’” Cohen said.
Barcus said UW-Madison’s decision to move forward with spring 2022 study abroad travel was the result of a review of health conditions at each program site with partner institutions and guidance from U.S. and foreign government public health resources. The review process incorporated information about the risks of COVID-19 as well its impact on students’ learning environment and on local resources in the area of study. As of Jan. 1, the university also mandated enrollment in UW System-wide international health, medical and evacuation insurance through Cultural Insurance Services International (CISI) for all employees traveling abroad.
During that interim period, Cohen felt the school could’ve done more to inform students about the status of their program departures and formats.
“We wanted to know what the odds were of it getting canceled and they just wouldn't tell us anything and I kept emailing them and calling,” Cohen said. “I wish they would have updated us more on what was going on instead of us having to do our own research and finding out that the UK was considering a lockdown.”
Still, many students feel a sense of relief now that programs are underway. Though UW students have been studying abroad again since late summer of 2021, this spring sent the largest number of students abroad since before the spring of 2020.
“We have received incredibly high interest in study abroad programming especially for the spring 2022 semester, even compared to spring semesters before the pandemic. This indicates that students are ready to add an international dimension back to their UW-Madison experience,” Barcus said.
Maeir said he is approaching his remaining time in Israel with both excitement and an understanding of the unique circumstances of being abroad during the pandemic. He’s looking forward to an upcoming Jerusalem nightlife tour and spending time at the Dead Sea, but he also has a sense of reality about potential COVID-19-related changes.
“You have to strike a balance where there’s hope and also some kind of reality check in,” Maeir said. “It’s about being hopeful and being understanding of the situation — understanding that you can still be here and it's going to be great, but that there's going to be a few things that might be changed.”
The pandemic has also shifted the makeup of study abroad programs in the long term, influencing a push toward virtual and domestic programs. Barcus said the school anticipates a continual demand for the virtual programs that students have participated in throughout the pandemic, with options ranging from Art, Design and Wellness in China to UW Conflict and Culture in Croatia. Other areas of focus include Azerbaijan, Norway, Spain, Sri Lanka, Uganda, Nepal, Japan, Kazakhstan and Costa Rica.
“The pandemic has been influential in that it has demonstrated additional opportunities for students to engage people, cultures, nations and critical topics while participating in study abroad,” Barcus said. “Virtual experiences can also increase access, particularly for locations to which travel is not possible and for students who are unable to travel.”
The school has also seen increased interest in domestic programs like the Wisconsin in Washington, D.C. internship program. Barcus said the university is exploring the creation of other domestic programs as a result, with a goal for these programs to serve as connections to professional networks around the country. International Academic Programs is exploring future models in U.S. cities that would focus on issues like diversity and equity, conservation and ecology, energy, commerce and history.