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Study abroad cancellations: packed up with nowhere to go

Students discuss abandoning their travel plans in light of COVID-19
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I was all ready for my summer abroad. I’d carefully planned out my entire summer — I would take two courses during the May to June semester, fly home for two weeks, and then be off to England in August. 

The course I’d enrolled in was perfect — a course on Shakespeare that featured opportunities to see his plays performed on the stage of Shakespeare’s Globe and at his birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon. 

A chance to see England in the summer, to make new friends, perhaps even travel to nearby European countries, all while completing an entire credit toward my major at the world-renowned University of Oxford — it was almost too good to be true.

When the outbreak of COVID-19 forced the closure of international borders, or at least the reduction of travel, it brought with it the cancellation of all learning abroad opportunities at the University of Toronto until at least April 30, 2021. 

This meant that students — many of whom had already applied, been accepted into their chosen program, paid fees, and made the necessary preparations to embark upon such an adventure — were thrown into a tailspin. 

These cancellations were not entirely unexpected; rather, it was a drawn-out process of waiting to hear the bad news. I spoke with four students who have had their study abroad plans cancelled to find out where they intended to go, how they felt about the cancellation, and their plans for the future.

The dawning realization and consequent disappointment

Brooklynn Hambly, a third-year history specialist at UTSG who was supposed to do a summer abroad at Oxford, wrote, “As it was all starting, I didn’t think the August stuff was going to get cancelled since I didn’t really think it would get as bad as it did back in February. As it got closer, I wasn’t shocked about it.” 

Indeed, it seemed inevitable when the number of COVID-19 cases skyrocketed, causing the delivery of in-person classes to be cancelled.

Despite this, the decision was one that led to severe disappointment. For many students, like Emad Ahmed, learning abroad had been a dream. Ahmed, a third-year student at Rotman Commerce, wrote, “Going on exchange for a semester was one of the things I 100% wanted to do in my undergrad at U of T. Submitting the application for my semester abroad was something I was waiting for before I even started my first year of studies.”

Study abroad programs typically involve a placement at a foreign university that the University of Toronto has partnered with. The programs allow students to complete a summer course, or an entire semester’s worth of studies, at the partner university, sometimes whilst under the tutelage of professors from that university. 

To top it all off, any courses completed can be counted toward a University of Toronto degree. However, these opportunities meant so much more to students than simply a learning experience. For some, like Hambly, it meant an opportunity to visit where her great grandmother lived before coming to Canada. For others, including Ahmed who has been in the GTA “[his] entire life,” it meant a chance to travel.

Lost experiences and learning setbacks

When asked which experiences they most regretted being deprived of, Jerry Shin, a third-year student in the peace, conflict and justice program, lamented the loss of their trip to Italy. “What an experience to miss. It actually kills me,” Shin wrote. “It would have been the perfect school year, the most beautiful places, the best food!” Aadithya Thulasingam, a third-year international relations major, wrote that he regrets missing out on being able to drink some pints in Dublin.

For upper-year students, the cancellation of these learning abroad programs may also mean that they will not be able to partake in such a venture before they graduate. Thulasingam wrote, I’ve definitely kept coming back to how much I was looking forward to a really exciting life experience and how uncertain it is that I’ll be able to do it during my undergrad years.”

Aside from this, there have also been academic repercussions. For some students, doing a summer or semester abroad enabled them to catch up on credits they needed or, in some cases, get ahead. 

In light of these plans being nullified, many have had to make alterations to their academic plans going forward. These include picking up extra courses during the fall 2020 and winter 2021 academic sessions. Some students, like Hambly and Thulasingam, are up to six courses in a single semester.

Future travel plans?

When asked if they would be open to re-applying in the future, should the opportunity present itself once more, the response was a resounding ‘yes.’ Despite this, many still harbour hesitations in light of the hazards still posed by the pandemic. 

“At this point,” wrote Shin, “the number one factor is safety. Would I love to go? Of course! But my family would be wondering where I was and if I was safe all the time. It would be cruel in a way to put them through that. This whole situation stings.”

Overall, most of the students affected admit that cancelling study abroad programs was the only way forward during these unprecedented times. Cases of COVID-19 in Canada have since climbed to over 320,000, and many foreign countries, including some locations for study abroad, have surpassed that. 

The cancellation was a matter of international safety. Nonetheless, it was a crushing blow. Ahmed sums up the feelings of his fellow study-abroad students nicely: “I had a feeling it was going to happen, but it sucks that this one dream I had for 3 years just kind of crumbled. I was going to my ideal destination, at the ideal time of my degree, but because of COVID, that dream fizzled out.”