Making the Most of It: How Wellesley Studied Abroad During COVID-19

collage of students on camels in the desert of Jordan
Author  E.B. Bartels ’10
Published on 

“What can we still do?” was the question Jennifer Thomas-Starck and the International Study Committee asked themselves as they tried to figure out ways to help Wellesley students study abroad in 2020-2021. While other colleges and universities gave up on attempting any sort of travel programs last year, Thomas-Starck and her team in the Office of International Study worked hard to both follow health and safety protocols while getting as many Wellesley students out into the world as they could.

In the end, 268 students were able to study abroad during 2020-2021, the majority through new seven-week programs created specifically for the unusual year. They went to Spain, Italy, Germany, England, Denmark, South Korea, and Jordan, plus a record number of 83 Wellesley students attended the College Year in Athens, which was founded by a Wellesley alumna in 1962. “There was a real can-do attitude across the board,” Thomas-Starck said of the faculty who helped innovate ways to run new and modified programs. “Everyone wanted to help the students get through this.” In Wellesley's COVID-inspired four-term academic year, Thomas-Starck and her team were able to send students abroad in short bursts—students who may not have felt they could take a whole semester or year away from their studies at Wellesley. The new structure meant students from all years—not just juniors—could take a term abroad. (The fourth term this past spring saw 150 students studying overseas, half of whom were first-years!) In addition to sending students to countries far from their homes, Thomas-Starck also helped put together a “study abroad” program in China for Wellesley’s Chinese students, in which students took both remote Wellesley classes and courses at Fudan University in Shanghai. If Thomas-Starck, faculty, and students learned one lesson from this past year, it was to roll with the changes and appreciate the unexpected. Many students ended up participating in programs for which they had never planned, and—thanks to the motivation and ingenuity of Wellesley staff and faculty—had experiences like no other.

Kelly Syz ’22, who had originally planned to go to the University of Oxford in fall 2020 and the National University of Singapore in spring 2021, instead ended up spending five months at the Graduate Institute in Geneva, Switzerland. “While I am not a political science or international relations major, I found the courses interesting and wanted to learn more,” wrote Syz. “Studying in Geneva was an incredible opportunity to learn from some of the most prominent professionals in international trade and history as well as explore all of Switzerland. One of my professors started and continues to run a non-profit at the UN, and another is a highly-regarded economist. Opportunities to learn from these types of professors are unparalleled.” Even if ten out of the fourteen weeks of her classes were online, just getting to take remote classes in a different place was a positive experience for Syz. While Syz could not travel outside of Switzerland, she enjoyed getting to explore other cities and landscapes within the country. “Trying fondue for the first time and taking the gondola to the top of Switzerland at Jungjaufroch are truly memorable experiences,” wrote Syz.

Cinema and media studies major Nicole Doerges ’22 had planned to study film in Florence, Italy—but when that program got canceled, ended up at the CET-FAMU Narrative Film Production program in Prague. “The program normally has about 50 people in it, but because of COVID there were fewer applicants and fewer people accepted,” Doerges explained. “We were nine students in total, which meant we could live in two apartments on the same floor of a hostel instead of scattered throughout the city like in previous semesters. We got to work super-closely with the instructors, who are professionals in the industry, we had a bigger budget for our films, and we obviously spent a lot of time all together. In that way I think COVID was sort of a double-edged sword: it really limited what we were able to do and see and experience throughout the semester, but that also meant we became a really close group bonded by a very unique experience.”

“Truthfully, I applied on a complete whim,” wrote Alexandra Brooks ’23 about ending up in Amman, Jordan in spring 2021. Brooks had been deciding if they should take a leave of absence but wanted to assess all their options first: “I briefly looked through the Term 4 study abroad programs and saw that there was one in Jordan that focused on Arabic language study as well as refugees and politics in the region—all of which greatly interest me and also related to what I was already studying—so I decided to apply last minute.”

While Brooks did say their time in Jordan could be lonely—they interacted mostly with the same ten people all the time, due to COVID restrictions—they did have many memorable moments, like hiking Wadi Mujib, a river surrounded by canyons on either side that opens up to the Dead Sea. “Truthfully the most valuable thing I learned while studying abroad was confidence,” wrote Brooks. “Before this program I would not have felt comfortable traveling or living on my own in a different country, especially one where I was not completely comfortable in the language, but now I absolutely do and I am even already planning a solo trip back to Jordan after the pandemic is over so I can experience the country more firsthand when everything has opened back up again. There were definitely times where we accidentally took the bus to the wrong city, or panicked because we didn't know the Arabic word for something and ended up in a bit of a sticky situation—but those experiences resulted in some of the best adventures and made me a lot more comfortable navigating the world independently.”

Some Wellesley students had an international experience without ever leaving their home country. Carrie Wang ’22 remotely studied abroad in Ireland for seven weeks, doing a research internship with a postdoctoral student at Trinity College Dublin. “It was hard to find times that worked for the both of us to meet during the week because of the time difference,” recalled Wang. Despite the challenges, Wang especially enjoyed the Friday lessons where her instructor would share “tidbits about Irish culture as well as stories from her own family. I especially liked when we did cross-cultural comparisons in regards to lifestyle or workplace culture as it was fascinating to see the differences and similarities between different cultures and hear from each student's personal experience. The lessons were always a combination of learning and bonding, which was what made them so engaging.”

While Thomas-Starck hopes that the 2021-2022 school year will be “a little more normal” in terms of students studying abroad, there are still going to be challenges and changes. “Be patient with the whole process,” said Wang when asked about what advice she would give to students considering studying abroad in 2021-2022. “I switched my internship plans twice before settling on the Dublin program due to COVID, and even then what was originally planned as an in-person internship became virtual. Make the most of the program no matter the format—virtual or in-person—and know that you'll be able to have a rewarding and interesting cross-cultural experience as long as you fully engage with all the different aspects of the program.”