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MSU's Education Abroad Program was hit hard by the pandemic, students share experiences

Posted at 2:30 PM, Jan 15, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-15 14:30:50-05

EAST LANSING, Mich. — The U.S. News and World Report ranked Michigan State University as the number one public institution for education abroad in 2022, in regard to reputation. However, the program has been hit hard by the pandemic and MSU students, as well as teachers, have been impacted. Now, they hope to start getting back to pre-pandemic study abroad plans this year.

“The entire experience has really changed who I am as a person and the things I value,” said Alayna Peterson, a student at MSU and a peer advisor of MSU’s Education Abroad program.

Alayna Peterson went to Rome, Italy, in the summer of 2021, in the height of the COVID-19 pandemic which dramatically changed her experience.

Alayna Peterson in Italy, 2021
Alayna Peterson in Italy, 2021

“The pandemic impacted how social you could be with Italian citizens…and you can't travel out of that country as much…If you do go abroad, make sure to look at what is going on in the country, how they are handling the pandemic,” Peterson said.

The number of programs of the university’s education abroad program has been going down ever since.

“Pre-pandemic, we have typically, we would have something like, over 300 programs in 60 plus countries, including every continent of the world, because we have a fascinating program that goes to Antarctica every other year.”

MSU Education Abroad Director Opal Leeman Bartzis said, in the Spring of 2020, MSU sent 680 students abroad. Then, the pandemic hit and many of them had to be called back.

MSU Education Abroad
MSU Education Abroad

“It was really sad to have to go home. It was very abrupt. Like, we didn't get a lot of warning. It was basically like, three days before we had our flights home, we were notified that we were going to be sent home,” said MSU alumna Abbey Garcia, who went to Spain in the spring of 2020.

Abbey Garcia in Spain, 2020
Abbey Garcia in Spain, 2020

Even though her experience was cut short, she does not regret her time abroad and is currently planning her move back to Spain in the beginning of February.

“I think being abroad was definitely like the best year of my life…It gives you education that you might not normally receive in a normal classroom setting and education that is unique to being abroad and pushing yourself outside your comfort zone,” Garcia said.

MSU did not send students abroad in the summer or fall of 2020. In the spring of 2021, the department was able to start sending students abroad again, but in much smaller numbers.

“We all have a lens through which we see the world, right, we have a cultural lens, and some students haven't stopped to think about that. So, education abroad forces them to really confront that and to recognize that they do have this perspective, a unique perspective. And then to recognize, hopefully, and appreciate and value the fact that others have their own cultural lenses through which they see the world.”

The university anticipates about 400 students will participate in the education abroad program this spring, which would mark the largest group in more than a year. Bartzis said, they hope to be back to pre-pandemic numbers by this summer.

MSU Education Abroad
MSU Education Abroad

The MSU Education Abroad programs are built into the university’s degree programs. MSU offers a variety: The abroad program can be led by MSU faculty, it can be an exchange program, or a study program directly at a partner institution.

“They may enroll at that institution and take courses right alongside the local degree seeking students and have their credits transferred back to MSU,” Bartzis said. “…Of course, education abroad is fascinating in that you see these new and wonderful places, and you taste these exciting foods…but really, you know, what your take home probably is this transformation in yourself… And that's really, that's the best part of education abroad.”

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