Study abroad makes a strong return

The pandemic continues, but Iowa State students are not allowing it to keep them from enriching their education through international travel.

There are 310 students taking part in a semester program abroad this spring, about 80% of the number from spring 2020. An additional 200 students will take part in faculty-led trips over spring break.

"I am happy with our numbers," said Study Abroad Center director Frank Peters. "Students are entering a global society, and I think the pandemic showed how interconnected our world is. Having students with a greater awareness is critically important to being a global citizen."

Peters said faculty-led summer trips are shaping up to be close to pre-pandemic numbers, as well.

In a typical year, the study abroad program serves about 1,800 students, 1,100 on faculty-led, short-term programs and 700 on semester programs. Semester and summer programs are typically offered to Africa, Middle East, Asia, Australia and New Zealand, Europe, and Central and South America.

Asia (except for South Korea), Australia and New Zealand remain closed to international travelers. Peters said Australia currently is set to open by fall semester and hopefully New Zealand next spring.

About 70 students took part in semester abroad programs this fall to Central and South America, Europe and South Korea. The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences had a pair of faculty-led trips over Thanksgiving, and the College of Design had a short-term, faculty-led program. Several students also studied abroad over the winter session.

The trips were the first study abroad programs students took part in since the pandemic forced an abrupt conclusion or cancellation in 2020, Peters said.

"Students said it was a little bit different because they didn't travel as much, on advice not to leave the country they were in because of potential travel restrictions," he said. "One student said it was a great experience because she was in Ireland and got to know the culture much better."

The decision to resume

Study abroad programs were allowed to resume last March with the state Board of Regents giving each university the authority to determine how that return would look. ISU operated under the stance that study abroad was suspended this fall, but individual programs could petition to run.

The study abroad risk management committee made the decision to begin international travel. The committee comprises Peters, associate provost for academic programs Ann Marie VanDerZanden (committee chair), vice president for student affairs Toyia Younger, office of risk management international risk manager Shaun Jamieson, Thielen Student Health Center director Erin Baldwin, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences associate dean Arne Hallam and an attorney from the university counsel office.

"It came down to a program being able to demonstrate resilience from a planning, logistical and operational standpoint," Jamieson said. "It relied on what kind of in-country logistical support was available and the medical infrastructure that exists."

All programs go through added steps in the approval process to show they can deal with complications and issues presented by the pandemic.

"Travel is more complicated, and you have to be flexible and resilient to handle the complications," Jamieson said.

Risk assessment

A successful fall adjusted the university's stance on study abroad travel.

"The pandemic constitutes a risk to all programs, but not a special risk above and beyond anything else we would worry about when planning a program," Jamieson said. "We have transitioned to a mode of needing to gather more information in order to manage that normal risk, but not the default of denial with an exception process."

Jamieson said he monitors many factors -- hospital capacity and medical infrastructure, for example -- to determine if travel remains safe for ISU students. 

"We rely on a lot of external sources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the State department, but also destination intelligence through our insurance company and monitoring what other universities are doing," he said.