For WA students, studying abroad in a pandemic can be complicated

Possible program cancellations, cost increases and COVID restrictions add to the stress of applying and preparing to study overseas.

Kimberly Quiocho sits at UW's Drumheller Fountain

Sophomore Kimberly Quiocho between classes and work at the University of Washington Seattle campus on Wednesday, April 27, 2022. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention flagged South Korea, where Quiocho is planning to study, with a do not travel advisory because of very high levels of COVID-19. When she arrives, Quiocho will have to quarantine in a government-approved quarantine facility, which will cost her about 1.05 million Korean won per person, or about $848. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

Kimberly Quiocho knew she was going to study abroad before deciding which university she would attend. 

But when deciding whether she would sign up for a program at Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea, in 2022, the University of Washington sophomore knew she had to keep in mind the general public safety of the country, particularly amid rising COVID-19 cases, among other considerations, including study abroad costs.

Like Quiocho, students interested in studying abroad need to be more vigilant when planning to travel and live in another country during the pandemic than in previous years. Aside from the risks of contracting the virus and spreading it in their host country, students also face having their programs canceled by ever-changing pandemic rules. So is it worth it? 

U.S. students, like other international travelers, face restrictions before, during and after their trips, such as requirements to be fully vaccinated, present negative test results and wear masks while flying and in the cities in which they’re staying, 

The U.S. Department of State has four travel advisory levels that describe the safety of traveling to and from different countries. Levels 1 and 2 range from traveling normally to exercising caution. Level 3 advises people to reconsider travel and Level 4 recommends not traveling. Most countries, including France, Japan and New Zealand, are now listed with do-not-travel advisories because of coronavirus infections. 

For Quiocho, who still plans to pursue studying abroad in South Korea, tracking these changes has meant creating numerous spreadsheets on how to safely travel, quarantine and maintain her health during her program. And sometimes these notices offer conflicting pictures. For example, in April the State Department recommended exercising "normal precautions" if traveling to South Korea, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention flagged the country's high rates of COVID-19. Upon arrival, she would need to submit a negative PCR test and quarantine for a week, regardless of her vaccination status.

Paying for a government-approved quarantine facility costs 1.05 million Korean won per person, or about $848. Quiocho also looked at other options, like staying at an AirBnb to quarantine, which is significantly cheaper but required calling a local Korean clinic to confirm it is a legitimate facility. 

“I think that it's important as students to know our limitations,” said Quiocho, who is a columnist with “Huskies Abroad” at The Daily, the student newspaper on UW's Seattle campus. The column recommends programs, destinations and advice for students looking to go abroad. “When we study abroad, does that mean you should be clubbing every night and possibly spreading a disease?” 

Despite the uncertainties and risks it takes to study abroad, almost all study abroad offices and programs in Washington state universities said they have seen large increases in student applicationsad since the beginning of the 2021 school year. 

The UW Study Abroad office said it saw the largest winter quarter in years with over 400 students abroad. This trend continued in the spring, despite most students traditionally preferring to study abroad during summer quarters.

Sophomore Kimberly Quiocho walks the University of Washington campus in Seattle between her classes and work on April 27, 2022. Quiocho is planning  to study abroad in South Korea this year, but has the added task of researching how to safely travel, quarantine and maintain health during her program. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

The costs of studying abroad

With the increased risks of studying abroad as the pandemic continues, some universities have taken different approaches to support their students.

Ryan Larsen, executive director of the Institute for Global Engagement at Western Washington University, said in an email that the university negotiated a student international health insurance plan to include coverage for unplanned quarantine stays and trip delays if a student tests positive before or after their program. Western’s updated student health insurance plan now covers students studying in countries with do-not-travel advisories because of COVID-19.

Western’s health insurance plan for students studying abroad increased from $1.71 per person per day of their programs to $1.84 in March.

Gina Lopardo, director of education abroad at Seattle University, said the school has not increased program fees as a whole. Instead, costs are managed by individual academic departments.

At the UW, students interested in pursuing faculty-led study abroad programs have seen a 2.5% increase to its program reserve. The fee, or the Study Abroad Program Assistance Fund, intends to act as an additional insurance fund in case of an emergency, or to refund students if their programs are canceled because of the pandemic.

Wolf Latsch, director of UW Study Abroad, said the increase is $180 per participant for a quarterlong program. If a student’s program is not refunded, the remaining balances are put toward the Global Innovation Fund, future student scholarships and expenses to support UW study abroad operations.

Students were not told about the fee increase until it was approved, and it was not among individual program fees, but is now listed in the study abroad finances tab. The study abroad office also did not initially follow Executive Order 44, which is required for any fee increases or changes. Latsch wrote in an email that the office hopes to reduce or eliminate the increase once it understands more about studying abroad under extraordinary circumstances. 

Randal Beam, professor emeritus of UW’s Communications School, advocated a reduction of the 7.5% fee back to 5%, once the Study Abroad office no longer operates in a deficit to allow students to be more involved in future fees that will impact them. 

Latsch said Study Abroad funds its office entirely from the administrative fees that students pay to study abroad. Over the past two years, Latsch’s office reduced staff because of program cancellations, as COVID cases skyrocketed.

Sophomore Kimberly Quiocho walks the University of Washington campus as class lets out for other students on April 27, 2022. Quiocho is planning to study in South Korea this year. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

Uncertainties abound 

UW, Washington State University, Western and Seattle U have a petition process for their study abroad programs and require their students to be fully vaccinated and boosted before traveling.

While UW’s Study Abroad office handles the petition process for its students, other Washington college students may need to petition their university and present a travel risk assessment of their country of study. After these materials are submitted, they must get a final green light from the university.

Western and Seattle U require their students to write petitions to their schools only if they’re requesting to be part of programs in countries with high COVID-19 infection rates. Students are not allowed to study abroad in countries facing emergency situations, like war or government instability.

Washington State University senior Kaylee Holsten poses by the Leaning Tower of Pisa during a study abroad program in Italy in fall 2019. (Courtesy photo)

Some programs, including the one at Washington State University,  require students to sign waivers to remain in quarantine if they become sick and to not get sick multiple times or risk failing the course, according to Kaylee Holsten, office assistant at the WSU Global Learning Department. 

As of March, WSU allows students who have their COVID booster shot to remain in countries with "reconsider travel" or do-not-travel advisories. In 2020 and 2021, Holsten said, programs that reached these levels were canceled and students would need to return to the U.S. 

Holsten, a senior at WSU, studied abroad in Florence, Italy, in 2019 right before countries locked down. She plans to return this summer after graduating. Holsten signed up for the program on a whim, but changed her career path from teaching to pursuing museum management and curation in Italian museums. 

“I'm spending the rest of my savings to go because I'm hoping to get a job offer out of it,” Holsten said. “Sometimes you just have to try even if the outcomes are slightly uncertain, because I don't want to regret not trying.” 

UW students do not need to write petitions for their programs since the Study Abroad office petitions on their behalf, said Latsch, the director of the office. The new process involves creating a country risk analysis and sharing it with the University Travel Risk Committee, which must approve each student and program before applications are passed to the university provost for final approval. 

“We made the argument that for many countries that have good health care facilities, and good hospital capacity, that we should be able to safely send students to countries even with those at those high levels,” Latsch said.

Western Washington University student Rachel Lewis poses for a photo in Lüneberg, Germany, in 2021. She had planned to study abroad there in 2020, but the program was canceled becaause of the global rise in COVID-19 infections. (Courtesy photo)

At Western Washington University, students’ petitions need to include how they’ve taken steps to be cautious about COVID-19, including proof of vaccination and how they will observe public health measures in their host country. 

Western students also need to review federal travel recommendations, develop a safety plan and include credible information about their host country’s COVID-19 vaccination and infection rates. Doing so also ensures students understand the risks of their program, according to Larsen of Western’s Institute for Global Engagement. 

Rachel Lewis, a Western senior majoring in German, planned to study abroad in Lüneburg, Germany, in 2020 but her program was canceled because of the pandemic. She intended to complete her major requirements in Lüneburg, but ended up finishing her classes at Western. Lewis was eventually able to do her study abroad program the following year in Germany, where she earned credits for her international studies minor. 

Lewis said the biggest difference between the applications was the petition process, since she didn’t need to petition the first time she applied. 

“I think traveling in general right now takes a little bit of extra steps, no matter whether you're studying abroad or if you are looking to drive across the state,” Lewis said. 

Gina Lopardo, Seattle University’s education abroad director, said several students who submitted study abroad petitions in the winter quarter of 2021 were ultimately denied program approval when their host country was flagged with a do-not-travel advisory before winter break. 

That situation is something SU sophomore Roshni Patel is afraid of in light of her recent acceptance to study in London in the fall later this year. 

Patel previously applied for a study abroad program in Ireland in 2021, but it was canceled because of COVID-19. She’s also concerned about applying for housing in Seattle if the program is cut. If she is able to study in London, she would have to break her lease — or keep paying for an apartment she’s not living in. 

Lopardo said the SU office told students to proceed as if they were going to stay on campus, which means enrolling in courses for the next quarter and securing housing. Loparo also said the office tells SU housing that students may end up not going abroad, so they will still need to secure housing. 

“At the end of the day, I've put my life on hold for the past two years,” Patel said. “I'm going to take my chances and try my best to go and, if it doesn't work out, it is what it is.” 

She and other students who have studied abroad agree that the rewards outweigh the risks of a program not working out.

“I would rather spend all this time and effort applying and not being able to go than not apply and always regret not having tried,” said Holsten, the WSU senior.

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