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Mix of excitement and apprehension as students contemplate Spring study abroad

November 13, 2020

In a few months, some students will be getting on planes and heading across the Atlantic, foregoing the snowy quad for a spring semester abroad like no other.

These students will face the challenges presented by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic outside of the Bowdoin bubble. Although the experience will undoubtedly be complicated, the Office of Off-Campus Study (OCS) believes a spring semester abroad can be not only safe but also a great learning opportunity for students.

Casey Chertavian ’22 will be studying at King’s College in London this spring. A British citizen, Chertavian was surprised that the College was letting students go but expressed excitement about the prospect of an at least somewhat normal college abroad experience.

“I’m just super excited to feel like I’m living my life as a 20-year-old again, instead of feeling like a high-schooler, which it can feel like when you’re living back at home,” Chertavian said.

Although concerned that the experience would be lonelier than a normal semester abroad, Chertavian was optimistic about gaining back a certain amount of independence.

The exciting prospect is nonetheless accompanied by anxiety and concerns about the challenges of studying abroad during a pandemic. For Morgan Edwards ’22, who is considering a semester away at the University of Edinburgh, there are many factors to weigh.

“It’s a catch-22,” Edwards said in a phone interview with the Orient. “Either I refrain from having a fully immersive abroad experience and engaging in ‘typical’ abroad activities to play it safe COVID[-19]-wise, or I do so and expose myself and others to COVID[-19]. It feels like a half-in, half-out experience is the only responsible way to be abroad amidst COVID[-19].”

Strict adherence to the host institution and country’s COVID-19 safety protocols are among the College’s stipulations of studying abroad this spring, as well as a rule mandating that students may only live in university housing.

Lily Poppen ’22 said that being able to study language in an immersive setting was a key factor in her decision. A German major, Poppen will be studying at the University of Hamburg in the spring.

“I felt that study abroad was integral to developing my language proficiency, which in turn would allow me a deeper understanding of the nuances and climate, past and present of the countries we study in the classroom,” Poppen wrote in an email to the Orient.

Poppen explained that her decision-making process was made easier by how seriously the German government has handled the pandemic.

“I felt confident enough to travel to Germany … due to their persistent commitment to effective contact tracing, the German population generally being receptive and actually abiding by lockdown or social distancing measures and consistent, clear and professional communication from public health officials,” Poppen wrote.

Varying degrees of success in containing COVID-19 have caused abroad programs to cancel in countries with more severe outbreaks. For Kat Daley ’22, that meant that her hopes of studying in Rome with the Middlebury Language Immersion programs were foiled. This cancellation had far-reaching effects; originally planning to minor in Italian, the lack of language immersion and class credit forced Daley to go in a different direction.

“I changed my minor from Italian to Urban Studies, because I felt like online language class wasn’t working for me, and my goals of going abroad to Italy didn’t look promising either,” Daley wrote in an email to the Orient.

According to OCS, the vast majority of students who have signaled their intention to study abroad will be going to one of three countries: the United Kingdom, Denmark or Sweden.

Brigita Kant ’22, who is headed to Sweden to study at the Stockholm School of Economics, said that she was determined to salvage what she could of her original plans.

“I had originally planned to go abroad for the entire year. Obviously, that didn’t work out, but I kind of thought I should just stick to what I wanted to do,” Kant wrote in an email to the Orient.

“Circumstances have definitely changed a lot, but the prospect of going somewhere new after being back at home for almost an entire year is really exciting to me,” she added.

However, not every student will be headed abroad. Some, such as Benjamin Felser ’22, will take part in domestic programs that promise hands-on learning and no need for masks in the classroom, as the entire group will be “podded” together.

Along with a group of students from colleges around the country, Felser will spend the spring backpacking through Arizona and researching how border wall construction is influencing the local ecology. Because of the small size of the program, everything will be conducted in-person.

“It is important to me to have in-person classes and a solid community, to have people that I can hug and not have to almost hold my breath around,” said Felser in a phone interview with the Orient, adding that the virtual format of the fall semester had been difficult for him.

“It’s a way for me to still learn the things that I think are important, but in a way that doesn’t require doing it all through a screen, which has been really hard for me,” Felser said.

For Stephen Boe ’22, who will be attending the University of Edinburgh, the decision to study abroad was a way to exchange the uncertainty of a Bowdoin bubble for an experience that is more self-directed, as well as to spend considerably less money than he would if he were to pay full tuition for a semester at Bowdoin.

In making his decision, Boe reflected on what he had originally intended to glean from a Bowdoin education.

“‘To carry the keys of the world’s library in your pocket’ is an essential part of the Offer of the College, and quite frankly I think this is the opportune time to explore that library,” Boe said in a phone interview with the Orient.

“With uncertainty regarding how the spring term will play out on campus, I feel much better taking this semester into my own hands and making a decision that caters to my current educational, financial and social needs,” he added.

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