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Courtesy of Dickinson College

During the fall of 2018, Stephanie Teeuwen spent her afternoons getting "aperitivo" in Bologna, Italy with a pasta buffet, cured meats and cheeses, and a large group of friends. Originally from the Netherlands, Teeuwen was a junior in college at the time studying abroad with other students from her home university, Dickinson College.

“We would joke about how in college we were super stressed, but in Bologna it would be super relaxing and at 4:00 p.m., we would say ‘the day is over — it’s time for aperitivo,” she says.

Participating in the Italian tradition of pre-meal drinks was a way to learn about the country’s culture while she was also taking a class on international law at a foreign university and living with Italian students. Over 340,000 students took part in similar cultural immersions during the 2017-18 school year, according to the International Institute of Education (IIE).

It doesn’t look like students from American universities will be able to do the same this fall. But that hasn't stopped colleges and travel abroad organizations from pitching virtual replacements. What exactly is study abroad without one-half of its name?

It's a virtual tour of Kyoto, Japan from Washington State University or an online class on fashion and business in France from Paris-based professor offered by the University of Tennessee, Knoxville or a virtual internship with a company in Spain through James Madison University. And in some cases, it's more affordable than actually traveling abroad.

But is it something students actually want to do — or will get any value out of? Some colleges are hoping so, even if students are skeptical.

“I don't think there's really any replacement for being there,” says Teeuwen of actually going to another country. “It’s stepping out of your comfort zone and being in situations you wouldn't normally be in. If you’re sitting in your living room, it’s really not the same.”

To be fair, colleges aren’t trying to kid themselves that virtual study abroad will be exactly the same as the real thing, but in a year with massive travel restrictions caused by a pandemic, they still want to give students some kind of international engagement.

Making study abroad virtual

Teeuwen, who worked in Dickinson’s Center for Global Study and Engagement for two years, may have gotten to go abroad, but she also has some insight into what international engagement looks like virtually. She took a 4-week course over the summer for students who have studied abroad, which was taught by several professors in several different European countries. It touched on topics like sustainability and anti-racism, and asked students to think about these topics in the context of different cultures, Teeuwen says.

Bologna-based Bruno Grazioli, resident director of Dickinson’s Italian studies program in Italy, was one of the professors who taught that course — and he’ll be heading up a remote course on Italian language and culture this fall for students who would have gone to Bologna. Students will read and write short stories set in Bologna, write and speak in Italian, and “explore” the city’s landmarks (remotely, of course).

One short story Grazioli will assign is focused on a neighborhood that was built in the 1200s — students then can go on Google maps and compare the now wealthy neighborhood to how it’s described in the story, Grazioli says. Another story focuses on a 1980 bombing of the city's railway station. The class will give students the opportunity to engage with historical events that impact the city today — something some of them don't do when they're actually there in person, Grazioli adds.

“It’s easy for them to leave after a few months without having experienced as much of the city as they should,” Grazioli says of students who study in Bologna. This course gives them the historical and cultural context first, and hopefully they can bring that knowledge with them when they study there in the spring.

At SUNY Cortland, a public university in New York, about 20% of students usually study abroad, says Mary Schlarb, director of the school’s international programs office. But when summer and fall study abroad programs were canceled, the school transitioned the programs to “virtual study abroad.”

What each fall program will look like is still in the works, Schlarb says, but one program that is planned will happen in partnership with the non-profit Soliya. Students from the U.S., Europe and the Middle East will meet up 8 times for two hours in groups of around 10 to discuss "critically hard topics," including gender issues and religious or political conflicts, with students from different backgrounds and cultures. The groups will have no more than two students from one campus for this one-credit course.

During normal times, studying abroad can be costly. While financial aid applies to a lot of the academic components, students often still pay a lot out of pocket for travel and living expenses. That's, of course, not the case with virtual programs. And while some some colleges, including Dickinson, have study abroad factored into the tuition — so a virtual program might cost the same since students are getting the same amount of credits — other organizations are offering virtual abroad with much lower tuition fees than normal study abroad. Tuition for Global Experiences's Virtuoso virtual fall program, for example, costs $3,500 for a virtual internship and a three-credit course, while the in-person internship abroad programs go up to $11,490.

Schlarb says she thinks that offering more virtual opportunities is a direction that international education has been moving in for a while. That’s a good thing, she adds.

“We need to offer a set of opportunities for students who cannot or don’t want to study abroad,” Schlarb says. “We need to find ways that they can gain these intercultural communication skills because they’re going to need them in their jobs and in their lives.”

Coronavirus just pushed them to move in that direction sooner.

Not everyone is excited about virtual study abroad programs. Tori Hunt, 22, a student at the University of Rhode Island was supposed to study abroad in Florence over the summer. But when her program was canceled and she was instead offered a virtual experience, she was not interested.

“I don't know why anyone would virtually study abroad,” Hunt says. “It sounds like a waste of money.”

She had been excited for the Italian food, meeting new people and seeing long-distance relatives. Now, she’s just hoping she can go in-person next summer, she says.

Remote gap years

Studying abroad during college years isn’t the only way students learn during time away from campus. Some take “gap years” or time off between high school and college. But traditional gap years — often involving travels abroad or in-person community service — likely aren't possible in 2020, either.

The TEFL Org’s Director & Co-founder, Joe Hallwood said: “There’s a lot of uncertainty regarding university due to the global pandemic so it is an ideal time to take a gap year and think about their options.”

There has been a significant growth in online learning over the last decade with people looking to gain new skills. This change has driven demand for online English teachers and an increase in Teaching English online. An online TESOL course allows them to get their teaching qualification at their own pace.

While around 40,000 students took a gap year in 2019, according to the Gap Year Association, the number may look even bigger this year. There's been speculation since the spring that the number of students taking time off from college would spike this year, either because students wouldn't want to pay for online courses or didn't feel comfortable returning to campus.

And there has been an increased interest in these programs in recent months, according to Ethan Knight, executive director of the association. The association's program-search page has seen traffic at least 300% above normal every week for the last two months. While most gap programs have closed international programming, some are offering domestic programs or switched to online offerings, Knight added.

Verto Education partners with 45 colleges across the country to give students a structured gap year abroad while getting college credit. Students are accepted to college through Verto, and get general education credits through the company they can then bring to school. While students usually spend several months taking classes in places like Fiji and England, the company had to make all the fall programs virtual, says Mallory Meiser, co-founder of Verto Education. Verto is expecting around 300 students to participate, up from 80 last fall.

Students will take virtual classes on timely topics, like global health, from faculty in foreign countries, Meiser says. The virtual classes will be with peers they can hopefully go abroad with in the spring, if it’s possible to do so by then. Tuition is more affordable for the organization's virtual semester — $5,000 for the virtual first semester, followed by an average of $15,000 for the in-person, travel semester.

Even if it's a virtual conversation, it's more important now than ever that high school students engage with people from different places, as those students can be “in their own bubble,” Meiser says.

“The self-awareness that comes from talking to people around the world about what is happening in America and getting that broader understanding is so important,” she adds. “I think it will really help them find purpose and what they want to do with their life.”

Staff at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont, had been thinking of establishing a gap program for a while, says Emily Crist, senior director of academic resources and the library at Champlain. Instead of stepping back from the plan when the pandemic hit, the team dived in and created a virtual gap year they hope will help students “move forward despite the chaos.”

“We wanted to give students some structure, give students who weren’t sure what they wanted to do this fall something to work towards, something to be excited about,” Crist says. They're expecting 50 students to participate in the program, which costs $5000 for three college credits (students can add three more credits for a total of $6,800).

The semester-long program — which students get college credit for that they can bring to Champlain or other colleges — includes three aspects. The well-being section will teach students how to take care of themselves and reduce anxiety and depression, says Kimberly Quinn, professor of Cognitive Behavioral and Positive Psychology, who teaches the foundational course. The professional development section will provide students with a virtual internship, and the academic section will get students thinking about hot topics like machine learning and gender identities through speaker series.

The staff is hoping to continue the program post-pandemic, and although it might look different when students can actually mingle and travel, Crist says she could see it still having a virtual component. While students won’t be able to travel this semester, she says it’s still possible for them to learn from people with different backgrounds.

“It’s really crucial that students expand their awareness of the world beyond their own communities,” Crist says.

This article has been updated to correct Verto Education's pricing structure.

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