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As coronavirus uncertainty mounts, some students reconsider studying abroad

March 27, 2020

In the face of the uncertainty caused by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), 15 students have withdrawn from fall semester study away, and more are expected to follow, according to Director of Off-Campus Study (OCS) and International Programs Christine Wintersteen.

Courtesy of Thomas Martin
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO Students planning on studying abroad in the fall now face a difficult decision in the face of the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus.

Roughly 160 students were originally scheduled to study away in the fall, Wintersteen told the Orient in a phone interview.

In an email sent to students planning on studying away in fall 2020 and for the entire 2020-2021 academic year, Wintersteen detailed the questions students should consider as they decide whether to study abroad.

The email also highlighted relevant upcoming housing lottery and course registration dates and provided a link to a withdrawal form for students who no longer wish to study abroad in the fall. Students who submit the withdrawal form by April 5 are able to enter the housing lottery. Those who send in the form after April 5 will be assigned housing over the summer, the email stated.

The message also cautioned students that the College could not guarantee credits in the event that a program transitioned to online courses. “Bowdoin may not be able to guarantee credit transfer in the case that you find yourself on-site and the study abroad program cancels and offers academic alternatives,” Wintersteen wrote.

Wintersteen told the Orient that this warning was intended for a situation where a single program, or a small number of programs, have to move classes online, as opposed to a situation as drastic as this semester’s. All students who were forced to transition to online classes at their abroad programs this semester will receive full credit from the College.

“I don’t want the norm to be, ‘I can go anywhere where there’s potential risk and still end up in a situation where I’m earning credit online, when I could be at Bowdoin [instead],’” Wintersteen said.

Wintersteen explained the email sought to inform students that programs may be different than originally anticipated.

“The purpose of that email was to let students know [that] even in a best case scenario, even if a program runs, it might feel very different than when a student initially applied and thought about studying abroad,” she said.

Wintersteen said she has told students that the situation they are facing is unique.

“I’ve been telling students that this type of situation has never happened before in a global sense,” she said. “The students that were abroad could [have expected] home sickness, food poisoning, making a fool of themselves speaking a new language, but they probably never could have anticipated a global pandemic.”

Courtesy of Thomas Martin
LAST CALL Airports around the country have emptied and flights are being cancelled as shelter in place orders are issued across the United States.

Chapman Odlum ’22 was originally planning to study in New Zealand in the fall, but recently changed his mind.

“The idea that going abroad means not being back on campus until January of 2021 is tough to grapple with. I know people say that going abroad is a once in a lifetime opportunity, but so is being able to be on campus as a student,” Odlum wrote in a message to the Orient. “I’ll be able to travel the world later in my life, but I’ll never again have the chance to be a college student living with my closest friends.”

Wintersteen said that she does not know whether Bowdoin can bar students from studying away altogether, and she added that no discussions have been held yet about that prospect. She said a study away semester has never previously been cancelled.

Wintersteen explained that, for now, the OCS office is relying on the programs and universities themselves to make decisions about the fall.

“We are really relying on program providers and universities to make decisions about whether they will also run programs,” she said. “I don’t think anyone has made a decision about fall, completely pulling out yet. I think it’s just too early.”

Wintersteen also attributed the lack of decisions about the fall semester to program providers being preoccupied with the current transition to online courses and changes in summer programs.

In a time of uncertainty, Wintersteen said OCS would continue as it did this spring.

“Just as we were doing for the spring cohort, I think every decision we made was reassessed daily and weekly.”


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