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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.