With the world experiencing the highest level of travel restrictions during a time of global peace, many colleges are looking for ways to encourage diversity through their study programs. Since the pandemic era limits the chance for students to work in foreign classes, some institutions are looking at virtual learning as a possible substitute.

When governments stopped allowing travel across borders to limit the spread of COVID-19, many university students were already in programs in foreign countries. The new policies stranded many of them from their homes, even as repatriation efforts took place. Over 340,000 American students participated in these opportunities in the 2017-2018 academic year.

How Can Virtual Study Abroad Programs Operate?

Dr. Mara Huber serves as the director of the Experiential Learning Network at the University of Buffalo. She has worked for over a decade studying women’s empowerment and bringing students from Tanzania to teach these critical lessons. Now that COVID-19 is limiting new opportunities, she is leading the way to launch a virtual replication of her program.

Huber is relying on a vast supply of videos, photographs, and digital media to create the curriculum for the stay-at-home study abroad program. She and her colleagues have collected countless items over ten years of teaching to facilitate this effort.

The students enrolled in the virtual program will complete mentored projects with partners in Tanzania, working to earn digital badges that reflect their progress. As an added incentive, the University of Buffalo can offer the program at no additional cost outside of the standard tuition.

Can Virtual Learning Offer the Same Lessons?

Institutions are supplementing their virtual learning opportunities with social media connections to replicate societal interactions for students. Students say that something is better than nothing, but studying at a computer at home isn’t the same as being in London, Paris, or any other destination.

Many students must complete their classes as soon as possible to stay on track for their degree. The world might have the luxury to postpone life for a few months to protect vulnerable populations, but study abroad programs must hit the pause button.

Although the travel costs get removed from the programs, institutions like Northeastern University are still charging the other fees. That creates even more disappointment for the students who were hoping to benefit from the diversity that different cultures provide. Since the lockdown happened mid-semester for most schools, refunds aren’t always a possibility.

All of that assumes that the students who were studying abroad were able to get back in time. Once the travel bans were instituted in mid-March, thousands of people scrambled to get on flights to return home. That often meant leaving all of their stuff behind so that they could board on time.

A pandemic era can feel overwhelming when it is happening, but the world will recover. We have an opportunity to work together like never before. That means we can also empower each other to try something new. The home-based study abroad programs might not be the best solution for some, but it is an innovative way to continue expressing diversity and inclusion. 

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