Antonia Bignotti came to the University of Kansas dreaming of one day studying abroad in Oslo or Singapore. Because of the pandemic, Bignotti instead spent her summer abroad at home.
Bignotti, a human biology major from Santiago, Chile, who graduated in May 2021, is one of many KU students to have their study abroad plans upended by the pandemic.
Angela Perryman, director of KU’s study abroad program, said the number of students who took part in university-affiliated international travel went from 1,392 in the 2018-2019 school year to 584 in 2019-2020. In 2020-2021, 123 students were involved.
According to Perryman, the study abroad office has still tried to provide students with international opportunities, however, this alternative means students will experience countries through virtual education and internship experiences instead of in-person.
Bignotti said she initially wasn’t interested in a virtual internship since she thought it sounded boring. However, confined to her home in strict quarantine, Bignotti decided virtual study abroad was worth looking into.
After some research, Bignotti said she decided virtual study abroad would be a good opportunity to get credits and build connections. Bignotti was able to find an internship with Invincible Me, a nonprofit in Italy.
Though many students are stuck at home, the virtual program allows them to take part in cultural events from around the world, according to KU’s International Affairs Annual Report. The program features museum tours, movie discussions, cooking classes, trivia nights, and sport watching events.
“I think it’s a great opportunity,” Bignotti said. “Just because it’s virtual doesn’t mean you should be hesitant. I think you still learn a lot about other cultures through the experience.”
Perryman said the 2019-2020 academic year featured a total of 40 KU students participating in virtual study and internship abroad programs, while in 2020-21, 66 KU students participated.
Not everyone has been forced to work from home. Some students have still managed international travel, although the numbers have greatly decreased since the outbreak, according to statistics provided by Perryman.
In fall 2021, 63 students will be studying abroad.
Senior Janki Desai from Topeka, Kansas, spent the past summer in Paderno del Grappa, Italy, as part of the CIMBA program.
Desai, a KU marketing major with an interest in fashion, believes certain aspects of her trip were enhanced due to the lack of tourism.
“It was honestly really cool studying abroad during COVID In Italy,” Desai said. “The summer is usually when tourists flood the country, and I didn’t experience any of that.”
Despite it usually taking hours to enter the Colosseum, Desai was able to walk straight in. Desai also said she was comfortable with the way the school handled her travel.
“They made sure we had all the information,” Desai said. “They told us it would be a small group, and everyone would be tested. It made me feel a lot better about studying abroad during COVID.”
Locations under U.S. State Department travel and health warnings must be approved by KU’s International Travel Review Committee, Perryman said. Due to the prevalence of COVID-19, a large number of countries require review.
There are also countries, such as Australia, China, Japan and New Zealand, whose borders remain closed due to COVID-19, she said.
However, according to Perryman, students abroad currently can be found in Austria, Botswana, Czech Republic, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Scotland, South Korea, Spain, Taiwan and Ukraine.
Another student who traveled abroad was KU senior Grace Centeno, from Glen Ellyn, Illinois, who spent the spring in Trier, Germany, studying graphic design.
One of the things that were surprising about her trip was the difference in how the country handled COVID compared to the U.S., Centeno said. Rules in Germany were much stricter.
“My first week there, I was at the park, and police were checking IDs to make sure we were within the household limit,” she said.
Although restrictions loosened by the time her trip was over, when she first arrived, only two households were allowed to meet, with a limit of five people.
Outside of the country’s procedures, KU did not place any restrictions on Centeno, who said she still felt comfortable with the way the school handled her trip.
“My study abroad adviser was fantastic,” Centeno said. “She was updating me daily on the country’s rules and restrictions.”
By the end of her trip, she was even able to travel to different countries across Europe.
“Although it was a bit of an obstacle, I think it was still a worthwhile trip and a worthwhile experience,” she said.