The University has canceled all of its study abroad programming for the upcoming fall semester due to the global travel restrictions and health risks caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s actually just not practical to have students travel, anyone travel, for that matter, for nonessential travel,” Penn Abroad Director Nigel Cossar said. “Unfortunately, I think study abroad is nonessential at this present point in time.”
Penn Abroad Global Programs Manager Jacob Gross sent an email on June 2 to students in study abroad programs, announcing the suspension of all study abroad programming and outlining four alternative options that affected students must consider for the upcoming fall semester.
Students who registered for fall 2020 abroad programs can withdraw their Penn Abroad application entirely, defer their program to the spring 2021 semester, choose to travel abroad in the spring 2021 semester with a different study abroad program, or defer their abroad plans to the fall 2021 semester.
Student must choose one of these four options by June 30.
Cossar said it was important to let students know as early as possible that study abroad programming is suspended in order to give them enough time to make preparations for the fall semester.
Penn Abroad intended to make its decision when the University decides on finalized plans for fall operations, Cossar said, but some study abroad programs, such as the program in New Zealand, were scheduled to start as soon as the beginning of July.
Instead of canceling programs on a case-by-case basis as it was doing previously, Cossar said Penn Abroad decided to commit to a "blanket cancellation" of all fall study abroad programming in case students would be unable to secure visas or enter the country safely.
“I think the real challenge right now is there are very few places issuing student visas,” Cossar said. “Right now, coming from the United States into most places, you either [strike] out, or there’s a mandatory quarantine, so there’s a number of factors that are coming into play even if a program is still running.”
Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cautions against nonessential travel, and the U.S. State Department has issued a Global Health Advisory of Level 4, which advises Americans to avoid international travel due to COVID-19.
The decision to cancel University-sponsored fall study abroad programs comes after several weeks of delay. In April, Penn Abroad announced that all programs should know the official decision by May 15 as it continued to monitor COVID-19 restrictions and updates from the federal government, as well as communicate with other Ivy League institutions and large state schools.
Emily Kanter, a rising College junior who planned to study abroad at King’s College in London, withdrew her application prior to Penn Abroad’s cancellation announcement, and is now considering deferring to the spring 2021 semester. The announcement did not come as a surprise, she said, given Penn's uncertainty about how to conduct the fall semester.
Rising College junior Emily Lawson also planned to study abroad at King’s College, but deferred her program to spring 2021, prior to Penn Abroad’s official announcement, after she decided to instead spend more time at home and with friends in the fall. If study abroad programs were ultimately not canceled, Lawson said she would have been willing to travel to London, but would be concerned about being around large groups of people.
“I’d be a little nervous in the airports and stuff like public transit, but at the same time, I’m just as nervous about being in the center of [Philadelphia],” Lawson said.
Rising College junior Becca Joskow's fall study abroad program at the University of Sydney in Australia was canceled before Penn Abroad's official decision. She then decided to defer her program to the spring 2021 semester, but may still change her plans based on how the upcoming semester is conducted.
“Even if we do go back in the fall, I might want to stay on campus in the spring, because I feel like I don’t want to lose these valuable college experiences if the fall is unusual,” Joskow said.
Although she was anticipating a cancellation, rising Engineering junior Emily Gelb, who planned to study abroad at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, said she was still hoping that Penn Abroad would maintain its fall abroad programming.
In preparation for Penn Abroad’s decision, Gelb registered for fall on-campus classes in the spring and obtained an on-campus apartment with friends who were also waiting for a decision about their respective abroad programs.
Gelb said she will defer her program to the spring 2021 semester, but is unsure if she will go abroad at all. Like Joskow, she is not sure if she wants to miss another semester on campus.
Penn Global Seminars are expected to continue as normal, with travel conducted over winter break, and Penn Abroad is proceeding with planning for study abroad in the spring 2021 semester, while considering health and safety measures around the world, Cossar said. He does not believe that the cancellation of fall study abroad is an indication of future Penn-sponsored international travel.
Penn Abroad is also considering ways to implement virtual learning in its global programming. This summer, Penn Abroad is conducting a pilot virtual program for the Global Research & Internship Program, where students conduct their internships online and then give feedback about their experience.
“We want to make sure we have, whether it’s a dedicated virtual program or a significant understanding and process in place as a back-up in case COVID-19 comes back again in the spring semester, and we’re able to support students transitioning from a physical global experience to a virtual [one],” Cossar said.
Ultimately, Penn Abroad remains focused on continuing to send students abroad in the future.
“We are absolutely committed to getting students back on planes and head[ed] to the various places around the world that we have partnerships with,” Cossar said. “Penn more than ever is dedicated to all students having a meaningful global experience before they graduate.”