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Abroad with omicron: students adapt to more restrictive semester

January 28, 2022

While on-campus students began the spring semester adjusting to Zoom classes, grab-and-go meals and chilly January temperatures, over 100 students studying away this semester were dusting off their travel guides and practicing their “Bonjour!” or “Ciao!” as they packed their suitcases for the next four months.

Despite a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases around the world, this semester’s study away opportunities have remained feasible with mostly-minor modifications. According to Director of Off-Campus Study and International Programs Christine Wintersteen, there were very few withdrawals between Thanksgiving and the start of the semester—a surprise to her.

“I was bracing myself after Thanksgiving,” Wintersteen said.

Despite Wintersteen’s concern about withdrawals, many Bowdoin students showed continued interest in studying away.

Hayden Weatherall ’22, for example, is currently studying in France at the University of Bordeaux after being unable to go abroad last year. He shared that despite concern for rising COVID-19 cases, the situation is different from last year.

“The world has a different relationship with COVID,” Weatherall said. “So I felt more confident knowing that one day, as long as I got here and didn’t get COVID before the flight, I was going to be able to stay here and figure it out.”

Wintersteen echoed Weatherall’s idea that perhaps views of travelling in the COVID era have evolved.

“There’s a shift [to] living with the virus,” Wintersteen said. “It would be a very different situation if the US were somehow inoculated to all of this, but we aren’t. So I think that the students who maintain goals for study away as an integral part of their undergraduate experience, their threshold for dealing with the ebb and flow is high, as is appropriate.”

For some students, however, the Omicron variant did have an impact on the decision not to study away.

“Sometimes, studying away doesn’t feel right, and Omicron is the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” Wintersteen said.

For Miki Rierson ’23, who studied in Amsterdam last semester, her difficulty obtaining a visa was the primary reason she did not study away in Spain this spring. Since Rierson was abroad in the fall, the pathway to getting a visa was made more complicated and the wait times for a consulate appointment were significant.

“I thought, ‘I can just travel another time,’” Rierson said. “It felt like the universe didn’t want me to go; it was so hard to get a visa.”

According to Wintersteen, Omicron has considerably increased the wait time to get a visa, which she attributes to staffing shortages at consulates. Due to these delays, she recommends that students begin the process of preparation early on, especially by making sure that their passport will be valid for about six months after returning to the US from abroad.

Similarly, Rierson suggests that Bowdoin students considering studying away should get in contact with people who have experienced the programs they are interested in to get a more realistic idea of what day-to-day life would look like abroad.

However, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, for the foreseeable future studying away will most likely look different from past years. For this reason, Wintersteen advises students to consider global news about COVID-19 and to come up with multiple options for studying away.

“Having backup plans is something that we never really had before: there was an assumption that you could go anywhere,” Wintersteen said. “Now, if students are interested in particular countries that have restrictive requirements or policies, or the vaccine rate isn’t as high, I think having a back-up plan—a ‘plan B’—is something that students think about much more now than they did two or three years ago.”

Wintersteen said that the crux of finding the right study away program, however, remains the same: finding a program that is the best academic and personal match for the individual. For many students, discovering this match makes any complications, COVID-19 or otherwise, less significant.

“Of course, in any year, there’s a lot to figure out, like money and documentation,” Weatherall said. “I think that the experience of going and living somewhere else is so meaningful that once you get past that it’s worth it.”

Additionally, COVID-19 has brought a decrease in mobility while studying abroad and, therefore, the ability to stay in one place longer. Wintersteen noted that prior to the pandemic, students used study abroad as an opportunity to travel continuously throughout a region.

“Study away 40-50 years ago, maybe 20-30 years ago, really was an opportunity to embed yourself culturally, linguistically, in one place, in one culture, in one language, for an extended period of time,” Wintersteen said. “There is value in traveling all over the place, but there’s also a trade off.”

Staying in one place, even if only because of pandemic-related restrictions, may allow for this practice of cultural embedding to return.

“It lends to different discoveries,” Wintersteen said. “I think those can be really valuable.”


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