Winter Study Abroad Uncertain as Second Wave Hits

Washington and Lee students hopeful but prepared for alternatives

Fran McDonough

Washington and Lee students who intend to study abroad in the winter are taking precautionary measures in case of program cancellations as COVID-19 cases spike to record numbers across Europe and around the world. 

Last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel reported an all-time high in daily cases despite the shutdown of public bars, gyms and theaters in early November. Germany is one on a growing list of European countries forced to renew lockdowns as winter approaches.

In the past few weeks, France, England, Greece and Italy have all announced either “soft” lockdowns (similar to that of Germany) or full lockdowns of varying lengths. 

As these countries tend to be the location of choice for Washington and Lee students studying abroad, the changing circumstances no doubt threaten student plans to travel for the Winter 2021 Term.

According to Mark Rush, director of W&L’s center for international education (CIE), the majority of applications for winter abroad were in Europe.

After the October application deadline, Cindy Irby, CIE’s assistant director and study abroad advisor, counted a total 132 students who applied for abroad programs, noting also that “a couple have applied to Latin America and the Middle East.”

Both Irby and Rush said mid-October that CIE is continuously monitoring the conditions in all countries. 

Rush confirmed that each pre-approved program has COVID protocols in place and he expressed confidence that they could adapt, although he knows future circumstances are impossible to predict.

One student hopeful in the prospect of their upcoming study abroad program is Katie Palmer, ‘22, who plans to study politics in Aix-en-Provence, France beginning in February. Her program is still going forward at this point despite France’s current soft lockdown.

“As of now, schools are still open and the French government is allowing in-person classes,” said Palmer. 

The only way her program would get cancelled is if French or United States travel restrictions heightened, she said.

Palmer, like many students, saw study abroad as a preferable alternative to another semester of restrictions and virtual classes on campus. 

“It’s been tough,” she admitted, but studying in France is an opportunity for something new and exciting.

Nevertheless, some programs are calling off their winter study abroad trips entirely in the face of growing cases. 

Michael Toomey, ‘22, intended to study Arabic at the Middlebury School in Jordan in 2021, before the program was preemptively cancelled. 

“It was for the better,” he said, “because I probably wouldn’t have been able to do much there.”

But Toomey expressed disappointment at missing out on the prestigious language school and  indicated that it would be unlikely for him to study abroad again in his time at W&L. 

Preparing for outcomes such as this, CIE is requiring students like Palmer to still register for Winter 2021 courses in case COVID-19 conditions worsen and programs get shut down. This precaution partially ensures that students planning on going abroad won’t be scrambling to adjust should their trips be terminated.

“There’s a special registration date for students who are in study abroad programs,” Palmer said. “But I’m not expecting I’ll need to use this back-up plan.”

Looking ahead to the spring, it was announced in early October that faculty-led Spring Term abroad trips would be cancelled for the 2021 term. This decision was made after a lot of consideration, Rush said. 

“It was just not possible to project how these things will pan out,” he said.