Students who were set to study abroad in the fall of 2021 have had a tumultuous few weeks. Following the U.S. Department of State’s (DOS) decision to merge its travel advisories with those set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), these students were notified during the first round of course registration that, if they were traveling to a country that the DOS had just categorized as Level 4, they were strongly encouraged to withdraw from their prospective study abroad status with Bowdoin and register for courses.
These countries included Denmark, Germany, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Ecuador, Netherlands, France and the Republic of Ireland.
On Monday, though, in an email to these students, Director of Off-Campus Study and International Programs (OCS) Christine Wintersteen announced that Bowdoin had changed its relationship to DOS advisories for the purpose of study abroad.
“While the U.S. State Department and CDC travel advisory levels will continue to be important factors in determining study away feasibility, they will no longer be the sole criteria for the upcoming Fall 2021 semester,” Wintersteen wrote. “Bowdoin has decided to support study off-campus while reserving the right to reconsider approving specific program selection.”
In an interview with the Orient, Wintersteen explained that Bowdoin and its peer schools had pre-existing policies that treated DOS Level 4 as a status that would prevent the institution from supporting study-away experiences in those countries. The initial announcement that students’ abroad semesters would not be supported was therefore not the result of a decision Bowdoin made about current circumstances in the affected countries but rather a communication of a policy that had already existed.
“The reason [the advice to change their status for the fall] was communicated so fast to students was [because] we weren’t sure what the policies might end up being, and it was sort of unprecedented if we were going to establish a new policy,” Wintersteen said. “And, we wanted to make sure that students could enroll in the course registration.”
The decision to allow off-campus study under these circumstances, as well as the actions needed to facilitate it, involved coordination between the OCS office, senior officers and legal counsel. Wintersteen explained that this was all part of Bowdoin’s process of writing new policies that will allow it to confront the specific challenges posed by COVID-19. Level 4 status is typically bestowed due to a localized threat, not a virus that will also threaten students’ safety when they are in the United States.
“[The] U.S. State Department only assesses … foreign countries,” Wintersteen said. “[But] the CDC assesses all countries, and the U.S. is also a Level 4.”
Students who had gone through course registration on short notice but who would potentially once again be allowed to go abroad in the fall were asked to fill out a survey indicating whether, as of now, they will definitely, probably or not be studying abroad in the fall. Wintersteen said that those in the former group will likely all be approved to go, while those in the middle will be considered on a case-by-case basis, with some students asked to reconsider program location due to health care systems in the country they initially chose.
For some students, the news was exciting and relieving.
“It’s been a big part of my Bowdoin dream to go abroad,” Emma Hargreaves ’23 said in a Zoom interview with the Orient after OCS’s initial announcement.
At the time, Hargreaves thought she would not be able to travel to Bath, England, to participate in Advanced Studies in England, a program that would have allowed her to student teach in a British primary school while studying the Irish Republican Army. As a member of Bowdoin’s track and field team, Hargreaves was not considering studying abroad in the spring of 2022.
“I’m so excited, they’ve done the most for us. And of course, Christine and [Assistant Director of the Center for Co-Curricular Opportunities Kate Myall] and the OCS department have been really communicative in helping us out,” Hargreaves said in a video sent to the Orient. “It’s been a big flip-flop for me; I feel like I really grieved study abroad and now it’s back and I plan to go … so as of right now, I’m headed towards Bath, England in the fall.”
For others, while the news was exciting, course registration and agreements with friends about housing have led them to stick with their revised plans. Jane Urciuoli ’23, who had initially planned on attending DIS Copenhagen in the fall, switched her abroad plans to the spring semester after the initial announcement and continues to expect to study abroad then.
“At first, I was hoping that they would allow us to go abroad in the fall, but after getting into all the classes I wanted to at Bowdoin (which entailed lots of back and forth with professors and getting off of waitlists) it seemed silly to throw all of that away and choose to go abroad in the fall again,” Urciuoli wrote in an email to the Orient.
Urciuoli wrote that she did not see the timing as being anyone’s fault, but she had noticed that many of her peers were in similar situations and had made the same decision.
“I had also already confirmed living situations for the fall with friends and did not want to bail on them last minute. I think it was easier for me and many of my peers to just stick with the second iteration of our plans rather than mix everything up again,” she wrote. “Hopefully everything will go smoothly from here and I will be off to Copenhagen in the spring!”
Wintersteen acknowledged that the decision came at a complicated time for students.
“This is a hard semester for so many reasons, and I think students are absorbing the information and unfortunately it is one more thing … it’s a good change of news, I think, for the majority of them, but it’s just one more thing to sift through, a new survey to fill out and a new set of deadlines,” Wintersteen said.