Although Penn Abroad said it would announce the fate of fall study abroad programs by May 15, the decision for many programs was delayed once again last Friday due to the unpredictable nature of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Programs had originally hoped to finalize decisions by late March to early April, but due to ongoing conversation between University leadership, other Ivy League institutions, and large state schools, the decision has once again been pushed back. Penn Abroad is continuing to monitor global travel and health restrictions, with updates from the federal government and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“As you probably know, just generally with everything going on at the moment with COVID-19, many [program-related] things are really changing pretty regularly,” Penn Abroad Director Nigel Cossar said. “So we just felt we weren't in a position right now to make a decision for some programs that don't start until early October even.”
Cossar said Penn Abroad has been taking a “program-by-program” approach to fall semester scheduling. He said some partner programs, especially those in the southern hemisphere, start much earlier in the summer than others, and others may be in high-risk locations for the virus, or may not have adequate healthcare infrastructures to accommodate abroad students.
He added some programs may be conducted completely online.
“What would it be like studying abroad in London, but from your home in Philadelphia?” Cossar said.
About half of the fall study abroad programs Penn students have been accepted to have been affected, Cossar said. In early April, six fall study abroad programs coordinated by the Council on International Educational Exchange, an organization that arranges study abroad programs for Penn and other universities, were canceled.
Since March, students who applied to study abroad programs in the upcoming semester have been advised by Penn Abroad to register for classes and secure on-campus housing for the fall, and consider deferring their study abroad to another semester.
Students have since chosen to either keep their abroad plans until receiving an official decision from Penn Abroad and their program coordinator, or defer their semester abroad to a later date.
Rising College junior Ellen Manford originally planned to travel to Seville, Spain in the upcoming fall semester. Although her program was one of the few that canceled by the promised date of May 15, she chose to defer her abroad semester to fall 2021 in mid-April to avoid missing out on yet another spring semester, especially on-campus traditions like Spring Fling and Hey Day.
“The decision was about wanting to get the full, immersive experience of studying in Spain,” Manford said. “I can see how it’s impossible to do everything I wanted, which is traveling, exploring, and meeting new people, safely and to the fullest extent, if there is a pandemic that’s happening.”
Rising College junior Ilyse Reisman, an opinion columnist for the DP, who is registered for the fall Penn-in-London program at King’s College, plans to defer her semester abroad to her senior fall because, like Manford, she also does not want to miss Penn’s on-campus spring festivities. She will not do so officially, however, until she hears a final decision from Penn Abroad.
"It's a really tough situation that no one anticipated, and as frustrating as it is that I don't know what's going on, part of me is not even expecting them to just give us a clear answer, because how can they know for sure? No one knows anything for sure right now," she said.
In a May 19 email to students planning to study abroad in King's College in London, Penn Abroad Global Programs Manager Jacob Gross advised students to finalize King's housing by the end of May. Reisman has since decided to both rent an apartment in Philadelphia for the fall semester, and look for housing in London, since refunds are permitted, as a contingency plan.
According to Cossar, Penn Abroad hopes to make a conclusive decision about all fall study abroad programs within the next few weeks, especially as countries move into slow re-openings, and updates arise regarding affected travel restrictions and visa processes.
Penn Abroad directors are also waiting on University leadership to determine travel guidelines for students and faculty. Provost Wendell Pritchett wrote in a February 26 email that “Penn travel recommendations will continue to align with CDC travel guidelines.”
“We remain committed to ensuring as many Penn students can gain access to a physical kind of global experience, but kind of acknowledging that we have to really honor and respect the various recommendations and policies which have been put in place by the U.S. government, by Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, etc.,” Cossar said.
While schools across the country are in the process of making decisions about their fall abroad programs, some institutions, including Brown University and Emory University, have already canceled them. Many others, including Yale University and Cornell University, have yet to make a final decision.