Richmond Embeywa (University of Arizona)
Alexandra Johnson (University of Arizona)
Janice McGregor (University of Arizona)*
“I had less than 48 hours to book a flight, make my way to the airport, and return to the US.” (Alexandra Johnson)
Mere hours after European travel restrictions were announced by the (then) Trump administration due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, international and global offices on US university campuses instituted immediate and wide-reaching study abroad program closures. In a matter of hours, US-based college students participating in study abroad programs all over the world were told by their US-based institutions that their programs were canceled.
Email notifications from their US institution’s international and global offices required that they make arrangements to return to the US. Immediately.
For many students, difficult moments and decisions followed. As a faculty member, graduate student, and undergraduate student working and studying at the same US-based institution, we were in very different positions on March 11, 2020 when word of study abroad program closures reached our inboxes. Almost 15 months later, we have reflected on two language, culture, and identity issues that heavily impacted our interactions and decisions last spring and summer.
bell hooks notes that “language is also a place of struggle” (hooks, 1989, 28). Consequently, what people actually do (or do not do) with language always affects real lives. With this in mind, we have brought together our stories in hopes of finding other ways to talk about all aspects of study abroad—ways that avoid harm.
As an international doctoral student in our institution’s dual PhD/DPhil graduate program (US/Germany), I was in the midst of my year abroad at our German partner institution at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic. I contested the US institution’s requirement that all study abroad students return immediately by recourse to the nature and funding structure of my graduate program. The year-long program in Germany I had pursued was, in fact, not canceled—at least, not on the German side—and I was unwilling to leave behind the stipend, housing, and comprehensive health insurance offered by the German institution. Not only was I in Germany with my spouse and young child when the announcement was made, I was also ineligible to receive similar support in the US until my re-enrollment as a graduate student with TA stipend in the following academic year. As non-US citizens, my spouse and I were also unsure about our ability to re-enter the US during this time, because my spouse did not yet have her US visa in hand and US embassies and consulates were about to suspend all visa appointments indefinitely. In the end, with the support of my graduate program advocates, we were able to remain in Germany and I was able to finish my academic year.
My family and I stayed in Germany due in part to the immigration uncertainties that often accompany my travel experiences. These are uncertainties that tend to go unremarked in the literature and in talk around study abroad and international experiences in many departments. Yet we have to navigate them all the same. Even in non-pandemic times, as international students, we often need weeks or months to sort out our visas and extend passports when planning our (re-)entry into the US and other countries. In March 2020, email communications from the US-based international office did not seem to make room for a range of possible situations that students—but especially international students—might be dealing with in the face of an ask to return and reintegrate unexpectedly. And since my spouse (a Brazilian citizen) and child (a US citizen) had accompanied me to Germany, our conceptualizations of “home” and “going home” were understandably fraught. Our greatest concern was our collective health, security, and well-being, which did not seem to be priorities for the US institution.
I am a US citizen and undergraduate student who was doing a fully funded study abroad year in Germany at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, supported through my US-based institution and the Federation of German-American Clubs (FGAC). What began as confusion quickly turned into chaos: According to the FGAC and my German institution, I could stay in Germany. According to my US institution, I had to return or I might risk losing my academic credits, full-ride scholarships, and access to financial aid. I reluctantly flew back to the US on March 14, relying heavily on the support of my parents to do so. I continued with the courses I was taking in Germany via live online instruction with a nine-hour time difference. During this time, I was also required to enroll in additional coursework at my US-based institution to maintain enrollment. Weeks later, I learned that the full-ride scholarships my US institution had threatened to cut off were never actually in jeopardy. At the end of the US academic year, I decided to return to Germany and complete my year there.
Upon deciding to come “home”—a concept I already struggle with as someone who has lived in many places—I found that my experience departing Germany and returning to the US, even as a citizen, involved dealing with major health concerns, rerouted flights, and unexpected costs. Right before leaving Germany, I spoke with a study abroad advisor who informed me about a $500 stipend that my US-based institution was allocating for each student to support their return. The stated reasoning for requiring students to return to the US was that the university thought it was better to be “safe at home.” Yet I had been well supported by the resources to which I had access in Germany (i.e., a monthly scholarship stipend and comprehensive health insurance). Not only were the costs incurred during my return to the US much higher than $500, being forced to travel through busy airports in a global pandemic under the guise of “safety”—particularly given the fact that I am immunocompromised—further complicated my already tricky relationship with the concept of “home”. This experience reminded me that notions of “home” and “safety” do not always overlap.
The COVID-19 pandemic began in the middle of a typical Spring semester. As an assistant professor of German Studies and intercultural competence and an applied linguist who conducts research in study abroad, I was preparing to co-lead a study abroad program that summer. The program, of course, would soon be canceled.
My interest in study abroad reflects interconnected practical, pedagogical, and scholarly points: I want students to experience life and language learning/use in different areas of the German-speaking world and enjoy helping them accrue enough credits so that they can major/minor in German Studies. As a researcher, leading study abroad programs also means that I have opportunities for data collection. Finally, running summer programs helps ensure that (especially contingent and 9-month) faculty earn a summer income.
Critical questions about how study abroad approaches language (e.g., immersion is best!), culture (e.g., as linked to nation states), and identity (e.g., there’s “good” students who are willing to communicate and “bad” students who are not) have been emerging around study abroad for many years.
US institutions brought study abroad programs to a complete halt effective March 13, 2020 with the announcement of the travel ban on travelers from Europe by the Trump administration. However, for many of our students (and international partners), study abroad continued in the form of emergency travel, the need to manage suddenly-cut-off relationships from a distance, and questions about lost courses and the transfer of credits completed and in process. Many questions about the lived experiences of our students during these (and other) times remain unaddressed, as the stories above have highlighted:
Study abroad is often marketed as an enriching endeavor that fosters lifelong memories and relationships and facilitates the development of intercultural competence (and in language programs—language proficiency). Although many US-based universities claim to prepare students for “global-readiness,” our experiences reveal that US-based institutions may not be prepared to operate multilingually and interculturally themselves. In being told to return to the US, we witnessed how the onus was put entirely on students to navigate divergent global systems and any additional uncertainties, whether linguistic and/or intercultural. For example, when Alexandra wanted to call her study abroad advisor to talk on the phone about returning to the US, the response she received was “let me know which American phone number will work best for you.” When Richmond communicated his wish to remain in Germany, he initially encountered great resistance, even though returning to the US would have meant leaving behind a monthly stipend, housing allowance, and health insurance.
Study Abroad: For Whom?
We recognize through our experiences with study abroad in the time of COVID-19 that certain assumptions about language, culture, and identity are continually re-woven into the foundational brickwork of US study abroad, as capital flows and brand protection stand tall above most other concerns. Yet language, culture, and identity are not fixed or static, but tied up in an interconnected web of individual moves, relationships with others, and the systems and structures in which we all study and work. Harm is all but a fait accompli when conceptions of “home” and “abroad” go unexamined by those who harness them, and especially when institutions communicate to distressed study abroaders that the language of risk management is more important than their own well-being.
As we settle into the later stages of the global pandemic, we urge language educators and study abroad advisors to proceed with care as they turn back to study abroad. To avoid doing further harm, we are fully committed to approaching our own study abroad programming in a way that prioritizes community well-being, trust, and justice.
Are you involved in promoting, designing, and/or leading study abroad programs? As students, teachers, and scholars, we offer the follow suggestions:
hooks, bell. Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black. South End Press, 1989.
McGregor, Janice. “Study Abroad Otherwise.” Diversity and Decolonization in German Studies, edited by Regine Criser and Ervin Malakaj, Palgrave Macmillan, 2020, pp. 157–176.
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