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Students face financial difficulties, frustrations after winter study abroad cancellation

Some participate in virtual exchanges, coping with large time differences
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Emergency grants are available to students coping with financial burdens. COURTESY OF STUDY ABROAD
Emergency grants are available to students coping with financial burdens. COURTESY OF STUDY ABROAD

In the wake of rising COVID-19 cases and the spread of the Omicron variant, U of T has cancelled its study abroad programs for the winter 2022 semester. As a result, many students have found themselves facing logistical difficulties related to their finances, travel plans, and living situations. 

While some students have taken advantage of virtual exchange offerings, students are still frustrated by what they view as a watered-down experience. 

Logistical challenges

Students planning to study abroad in the winter semester faced many logistical challenges after U of T cancelled their trips, primarily related to their finances and academics.

In an email to The Varsity, Kyra Nankivell, a third-year industrial engineering student, wrote that since there was no way to be reimbursed for the approximately $8,000 she had spent to prepare for her exchange, she tried to recover what she could. She had also sublet her place in Toronto and was left without feasible housing for in-person classes in the winter. 

Blake Gigiolio, a third-year computer science student, also had to scramble to enroll in classes for the next semester while he was facing similar struggles. He added that although the university told students to enroll in U of T classes for the winter semester in July, in case their exchanges were cancelled, his winter semester had not been completely planned out.

Students also lost the funding offered by the study abroad program to help them pay for the experience, leaving students like Tanja Velickovic, a master’s student in European and Russian affairs, to shoulder many non-refundable fees. This was especially frustrating for Velickovic since the university had given them the green light to book non-refundable services back in October. 

In response to these concerns, a U of T spokesperson noted that students were advised to remain enrolled in their classes as to not face academic issues if their study abroad experience were cancelled. Moreover, they wrote that U of T’s emergency funding remains available to students experiencing financial strain. 

Cause for frustration

In interviews with The Varsity, students expressed frustration, both at the cancellation and the way the university had handled the situation.

Nankivell wrote that she “felt betrayed” because she hoped the university would do everything in its power to deliver the experience it had sold her. She added that after hours of trying to figure out how to incorporate an exchange into her degree, and even changing programs to have the opportunity to go, she felt that the cancellation was sudden and announced in an “impersonal email.” 

Velickovic was actually in Ottawa trying to get her visa from the Austrian Embassy when the announcement was made. For her, it was “heartbreaking” — and also frustrating, because international study is mandatory for her program.

Other students expressed very similar frustrations. Neha Verma, a third-year international business student at UTSC, added that it came as quite a shock, since the country wasn’t even in lockdown yet. 

Virtual exchange

Some study abroad programs were able to offer students the opportunity to participate in the experience virtually, as was the case for Verma. Verma stayed in the program to maintain the internship aspect of it, which was difficult to adapt to an online format since her role largely was supposed to take place in person. 

To make it work, Verma will have to take master’s level courses — since none of the courses she was originally taking are offered online — and cope with the time difference between Canada and Singapore. She added that her major concern is that she will miss out on the networking opportunities that the National University of Singapore community would have offered.

“I could reach out to them on LinkedIn or something, but it’s not the same as… randomly hanging out with people,” Verma explained in an interview with The Varsity. “That is one of my major points of stress — that I’m not getting as much out of it as I had hoped to get.”

Nankivell also decided to continue her exchange online and will have to cope with the time difference, working from 9:00 pm to 6:00 am, without attending any U of T courses. However, she wrote that she has not yet dropped her courses out of fear that U of T will discontinue the virtual exchange as well.

Mika Wee, a fourth-year criminology student, added that students in their program were offered a virtual exchange option, only to have it cancelled as well. 

“They gave a false misleading option only to take it away from the students again… it was really disheartening to see how upset the students got,” Wee added, referring to other students who were in their program. 

Future of learning abroad

In Nankivell’s opinion, the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted the study abroad program to lose its selling point, since the university has “failed to generate or implement creative solutions [that] allow students to safely travel abroad without the university taking on undue risk.” She also noted that Canada was the only country to cancel its exchange with the National University of Singapore, which would have been her host university. 

On the other hand, Verma said that the pandemic has made her realize that a lot of the experiences that people thought had to take place in person could actually be done online. This includes not only study abroad programs but also attending foreign universities, as she herself does as an international student. 

Additionally, the U of T spokesperson mentioned efforts that the university has made to collaborate with partner universities to move coursework and professional experiences online. The pandemic has also resulted in an expansion of the university’s Global Classrooms initiative, which aims to embed international experiences into existing U of T courses.