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An Update on Study Abroad With Director Brian Smith

Inherently tied to national borders, study abroad programs are acutely affected by the pandemic. In a typical year, about two dozen Canisius students study abroad in the fall semester and 30 go in the spring. Study abroad — for an obvious reason — hasn’t operated over the past three semesters, including this one. But about 20 students are crossing borders for scholarly purposes next spring. That’s about 10 less than normally go in the spring, but Director of Study Abroad Brian Smith said it’s partly a numbers game: “We just have fewer bodies” on campus, he says.

Indeed, data from the Canisius Office of Institutional Research and Effectiveness show that full-time undergraduate enrollment fell from 3,028 in fall 2011 to 1,783 in fall 2021. However, enrollment only explains half; the 16% enrollment decline between 2019 and 2021, while large, accounts for just half of the 33% decline in study abroad numbers.

For one, there are fewer locations. Canisius has always relied on recommendations issued by the U.S. State Department. Every country is assigned a level of danger based on crime, terrorism, unrest, natural disasters and health (health has taken on icnreased importance with COVID). Level 1 is a proverbial green light; Level 2 advises caution; Level 3 means reconsider travel; Level 4 is a recommendation to not travel.

Canisius typically allowed travel to any country with a level of three or lower. That was modified recently by senior administration to allow travel to any countries three or lower, or to a Level 4 country if it was only Level 4 because of increased COVID-19 rates (examples are the United Kingdom and Ireland). Students must sign a waiver to go to a country in the latter situation.

COVID, unlike concerns in other areas, hasn’t increased expenses. However, it does “require more active research as to how COVID is affecting different areas of the world,” Smith explained. Some locations such as Seoul, South Korea are only offering online classes, some are in countries with rigorous lockdowns — limiting the off-campus experience — and still others are in countries simply not allowing international students: Queensland, Australia and Tokyo, Japan.

One other reason: study abroad students must be vaccinated. In a study body with somewhere “well short” of 85% vaccinated, according to a President Hurley memo sent to the Canisius community, that’s a problem. Despite a constant cost of study abroad, pandemic-induced financial insecurity may be a barrier as well. Finally, it may be that people are waiting it out; they don’t want to be caught out in a lockdown or have their foreign institution go online at the last moment.

As far as summer or winter study abroad programs, there are two problems: “Most schools would not have intersession [classes] like we do,” and tuition wouldn’t cover these programs. Smith suggested that interested students look into a shorter, faculty-led excursion during the summer or winter months. He cited a trip to South America led by Dr. Margaret Stefanski during past winter breaks. He noted that those programs are run by individual professors, not the study abroad office.

Another option is the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC). Run through the Campus Ministry office, JVC is a year-long program for students who just graduated. However, JVC is currently only placing students in domestic locations. Other international service programs occur during the summer, occasionally for credit.

I questioned Smith about the cost of study abroad. He said there are a few Canisius scholarships. They are based mainly on location (though the Australia one is currently moot) or major — if you’re a psychology major, check out the Lark and Pines Scholarship Award, an annual $2,500 award offered by professors emeritus Judith Larkin and Harvey Pines. Bennie Williams, director of the Multicultural Student Center, told the Undergraduate Student Association last month that scholarships designed to increase diversity in study abroad are in the works. Most existing ones, though, are not Canisius-based, but national.

On the bright side, study abroad isn’t financially prohibitive, particularly for students dorming at Canisius. A student’s Canisius tuition — most grants, aid and loans are eligible — covers tuition at the foreign university. Housing is separate, though, and with typically just one exception (London), housing is cheaper abroad than at Canisius. Extra expenses include food, travel, souvenirs and mandatory health insurance.

Focusing on the actual experience, the study abroad office surveys students before and after their trip. In Smith’s seven years running the office, just two students haven’t been fully satisfied with their experience. “Everything you think would expect to happen to a student over the course of four months studying abroad, is exactly what the survey results say,” he said. This includes improvement in “decision-making, self-confidence, communication skills, and openness to foreign cultures.” On the other end, alumni nearly unanimously tell him that their biggest regret is not studying abroad.

The preparation can be annoying, and it requires that students start the process a year in advance, but Smith and the rest of the study abroad office can help students through it. Some countries’ visa requirements — Belgium and France are supposedly a “nightmare” — prove onerous, and there’s other paperwork, but “you get through it.”

“I tell students before they go: you’re gonna be stressed, you’re gonna be scared. That’s part of this. But the rewards more than outweigh whatever fear you have in doing this.” Of his own experience studying abroad, Smith said, “I had stuff happen that I’m like, ‘How am I gonna handle this?’ And you do, because you have to.” That would be a good way to approach life, too. Maybe that’s the whole point.

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