Enrollment in study abroad programmes increased this spring but did not return to pre-pandemic levels after GW suspended programming for more than a year during the pandemic.
According to data from the Office for Study Abroad, the number of students studying abroad increased by roughly 220 percent this year, from 91 in the fall to 297 in the spring. After officials cancelled in-person study abroad during the previous academic year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, GW-administered study abroad programmes resumed in the fall, while all exchange programme offerings returned in the spring.
According to data, total student enrollment in study abroad programmes decreased by nearly 60% this academic year, from 995 students in the 2019-20 academic year to 402 this academic year. However, during the three academic years preceding the pandemic, study abroad enrollment increased by about 27 percent on average each year, as per the data.
Kimberly Rush, assistant director of the study abroad office, and Jennifer Donaghue, executive director of international education of the study abroad office said that study abroad programme officials introduced mandatory health and safety measures such as travel restrictions outside of host countries, testing requirements, and mask mandates as pandemic-related precautions in the fall before relaxing COVID-19 restrictions in the spring.
“As the conditions continue to improve around the world, we have begun to see many programs and countries relax their pandemic-related measures and have a return to something similar to normalcy,” they said in an email.
Rush and Donaghue stated that the study abroad office worked “slowly and safely” in the spring to resume programmes that were not available in the fall. According to Rush and Donaghue, more students studied abroad this semester than in the fall because events like Greek life recruitment and sports games drew students to stay on campus during the first half of the academic year.
Students currently studying abroad said the pandemic did not cause them to reconsider enrolling in their respective programmes, but rather limited the programmes available to them due to COVID-19 restrictions at GW’s partner universities abroad. Phoebe Szosz, a history sophomore, said she is currently studying at the University of Chile in Santiago, Chile as part of the Global Bachelor’s Program, a GW programme in which students study abroad twice and then choose between studying abroad a third time or doing the international internship. She explained that she chose to study abroad during the spring semester so that she could spend her fall semester in person after learning virtually her freshman year.
Before travelling to Santiago at the start of the semester, Szosz said she was required to show proof of vaccination and a negative COVID-19 test to Chilean officials. She stated that Chile’s mask mandate is still in effect, and her university requires students to wear masks while in class but does not require them to be tested on a regular basis.
Chile has confirmed over 3,500,000 COVID-19 infections since the outbreak began. During the last three weeks, the average number of positive COVID-19 cases reported daily in Chile has decreased by more than 5,800. Chileans, according to Szosz, have a different perspective on the pandemic than Americans because most people blindly follow their country’s mask mandate.
Isabelle Frasca, a junior majoring in international affairs, said she wanted to study abroad in the fall but decided to enrol in the International Education of Students Abroad programme in Rome, Italy, instead. Frasca said she was not concerned about studying abroad during the pandemic but was worried that programme would be cancelled because of the surge in COVID-19 cases caused by the Omicron variant.
In January, the Omicron variant was responsible for 96 percent of new positive COVID-19 cases in Italy, according to the National Health Institute. Study abroad programmes across the country have not reached pre-pandemic enrollment totals, according to Jerome Lucido, executive director of the University of Southern California Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice, because students do not want to be abroad in the midst of COVID-19 case surges and tightening travel restrictions.
The World Tourism Organization of the United Nations reported in November that 98 percent of global travel destinations had “some kind of travel restriction” due to the pandemic. Due to COVID-19 variants like Omicron and global conflicts like the war in Ukraine, Lucido believes it will take “a while” for study abroad enrollment to return to pre-pandemic levels.
“International education in its many forms is a valuable experience, sometimes a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I believe that campuses will find ways to encourage it once again,” he said.
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