Students hoping to study abroad in spring await final decision

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A view of Fowler from the Arthur G Coons building. Photo by Alvin Edhitjia Siagian/The Occidental

With travel guidelines changing constantly and the Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC) implementing new COVID-19 policies, students planning on studying abroad in Spring 2021 are still waiting to find out whether they will be able to travel to programs worldwide. 

Many of the study abroad programs Occidental partners with have not announced a specific date to inform the students if they can travel abroad, according to Julie Santos, the associate director of the International Programs Office (IPO). Santos said the programs are all making accommodations based on COVID-19 guidelines, from potentially quarantining students upon arrival to eliminating homestays to protect local families.

According to Santos, about half of the students planning on studying abroad this spring intended to go during the Fall 2020 semester. Other students who had planned to go overseas during the fall have deferred to a summer program or have decided not to go at all. Occidental announced that if programs decide to be 50 percent or more virtual, students will not be allowed to participate, Santos said. 

Chloe Lindner (junior) is planning on studying in Prague, Czech Republic for the Spring 2021 semester.

“Studying abroad is always something I’ve wanted to do,” Lindner said. “I just want to live in Europe, immerse myself in their culture, take classes on things that are interesting to me and just soak it in.”

A psychology major, Lindner said she chose the program because of its psychology courses and the history of Judaism in the Czech Republic. According to Lindner, studying abroad is an integral part of studying psychology.

“I think it’s important to get a global perspective, especially because I want to be in the clinical setting,” Lindner said. “I think it is important to have a deeper understanding of different cultures and ethnicities and broaden my horizons of how I understand people and where they are coming from.”

Schools such as Stanford University made the decision early this year to entirely suspend upcoming study abroad programs, while Occidental is using a more individualized approach, according to Santos. The Claremont Colleges have diverged on their decisions to allow students to study abroad. Harvey Mudd College completely suspended its study abroad program for Spring 2021, while Pomona College and Pitzer College have yet to make a decision. Scripps College and Claremont McKenna College are taking an approach similar to Occidental, and are evaluating programs on a case-by-case basis.

“I feel like that’s the Oxy way,” Santos said. “Having more of an approach where we can do it more one-on-one with the student and their special case.”

Because of the unprecedented circumstances of COVID-19, the college is working on making accommodations for students who want the experience of studying abroad. According to Santos, some departments will allow students to study abroad in the fall of their senior year, with the condition that they  work closely with a professor on their comps. Also, according to Santos, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the College Wendy Sternberg supported putting money aside for the study abroad programs during the summer so that students can get financial aid, even though summer sessions usually are not covered.

Even if a student is approved by the CDC and the college to study abroad, they still have to make the decision based on what they are personally comfortable with. For Lindner, those factors include how the country’s COVID-19 cases are changing.

“I have to monitor [Czech Republic COVID-19 cases] and see how it’s going. If things get better, and hopefully they do, I’ll go,” Lindner said. “And if things get worse, or stay the way they are then I’m going to have to think about it again, because I don’t want to put myself in a situation where if I get there, I’m going to have to come back.”

Elizabeth Hagopian (junior) is also planning to study abroad in the Czech Republic. Hagopian said that it has been a challenge balancing between hoping for the opportunity to go abroad and wanting to be realistic.

“It’s just been really uncertain, and that’s hard because I like looking forward to things,” Hagopian said. “And something that this whole pandemic has taken away is me being able to look forward to things. Studying abroad is one thing I’ve been looking forward to since high school.”

Students who are planning to study abroad are required to sign up for Occidental courses in case their program gets canceled, Santos said. Under normal circumstances, students enroll in a placeholder class and get their specific courses put on their transcripts after they complete the semester. However, because programs have not yet announced their spring decisions, students are enrolling in a regular course load to ensure they are in the classes they need to take if they stay at Occidental, Santos said.

“While I am thinking about myself living in Prague in a few months, I’m also being mindful that there’s a very big possibility it won’t happen,” Hagopian said.

As programs and Occidental weigh the positives and negatives of studying abroad, Santos said she hopes students will get to have a version of the study abroad experience they planned on.

“We want them to take advantage of all those really enriching high impact programming that exists for them on these study abroad programs,” Santos said. “But of course the number one priority is making sure that students can do it in a way that they are healthy and safe.”