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Tech Drivers

Coronavirus: Colleges experiment with stay-at-home 'study abroad' programs

Key Points
  • Many college and university students who were already on study abroad programs when coronavirus travel bans were enacted have been stranded all over the world.
  • Now schools are rethinking the immediate future of travel programs slated for the summer and fall, with virtual study abroad programs being designed in a hurry.
  • More than 340,000 American students participated in a study abroad program during the 2017-2018 academic year.
Overseas students attend a long-table feast marking the upcoming Chinese Lunar New Year in China on Jan. 4, 2020, as the coronavirus in China was just becoming known to the world.
Xinhua | Huang Zongzhi | Getty Images

With the coronavirus initiating international travel bans and campuses shut down, colleges and universities are seeking alternative ways to provide students with continued academic opportunities, including the iconic, immersive overseas study experience.

One option: studying abroad from home.

At the University at Buffalo, Dr. Mara Huber, director of the school's Experiential Learning Network, has brought groups to Tanzania to study women's empowerment for more than ten years. This fall, in the wake of the pandemic, she's launching the program virtually.

"I thought it was a good time to be bold and fully embrace the vision we had been working toward," Huber said. "Universities have relationships with communities all around the world, and i think it's time to use technology to give students access to these experiences."

The program will rely on a "treasure trove" of photos, videos and other digital media Huber and her colleagues have collected on trips over the past decade. Students will complete mentored projects with the school's Tanzanian partners, earning "digital badges" along the way.

Huber said the program will have no additional costs aside from standard tuition.

"Study abroad is very transformative for students, but it's very expensive, and you can only take a few students," she said. "From an access standpoint, you're really removing all the barriers while giving students a really rich, transformative experience."

Registering for virtual travel

This summer, about half of Northeastern University's study abroad programs will be offered virtually, according to a university statement provided to CNBC. Tuition will only be charged if students choose to participate virtually, and all other program fees are being waived.

Princess Dyer, a sophomore at Northeastern, was planning to study psychology in London during the summer. After the school announced the changes to its abroad programs, she decided to participate in the program virtually even though it "wasn't preferable."

"I still need to complete these classes as soon as possible to stay on track," Dyer said. "I'm not exactly sure what to expect, but I'm confident that the professor will find a way to make the most of the situation so that we can still have a unique learning experience."

American University said in a statement to CNBC that it is also adapting business school programs which include immersion travel as part of a graduation requirement.

"All travel components of experiential learning are cancelled and faculty are adjusting learning to a virtual format," the statement said. "The travel fee for all such courses is being removed from the students' accounts as a result."

American University's online MBA program's in-person trips to locations such as Chile, Seattle and Washington D.C. are being "transitioned to an online format," according to the statement.

"We successfully adapted the recent Seattle Immersion to online by linking up with speakers from Microsoft, Nordstrom, Starbucks and the Seattle Port Authority to engage with students," the statement said. "In June, we will be holding similar online experiences for both our Chile and D.C. Immersion programs."

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Microsoft said in an email to CNBC that a human resources lead spoke with masters students via video chat about transformation and inclusivity. The virtual meeting "empowered connection and engagement during this time where traveling to campus wasn't an option."

The American University AU Abroad program did cancel Spring and Summer overseas study. Many of AU Abroad's programs are offering students the option to continue their Spring coursework remotely and stay fully enrolled as an AU student for the remainder of the semester, but students have the option to withdraw and seek refunds. The university is currently planning on its fall 2020 and 2020-2021 academic year overseas program, though it has advised students to also register for courses on campus "out of an abundance of caution."

Other schools are taking virtual learning efforts to social media.

Mercer University's Office of International Programs organized a "virtual world tour" of the Macon, Georgia school's study abroad locations via Facebook and Instagram.

The posts feature locations in which the school offers study programs, using photos taken by students and faculty to promote participation in future semesters. 

Rebekah Anaya, the study abroad coordinator who headed the project, said the campaign was "designed to keep students engaged in study abroad, even if they aren't able to physically be abroad in the near future."

Students stranded overseas

While schools pivot their abroad experiences to an online format, many students who were already abroad faced pandemonium when their programs were cancelled.

Mariamane Akopyan, a junior at San Jose State University, was studying abroad in Paris when Europe's outbreak started. In February, she said, they thought the virus was "overdramatized," but the situation became much more real when a student in her group was sent home.

"Once Trump announced the travel ban it was instant chaos," she said.

Trump's ban on travel from Europe, announced March 11, initially barred travel from 26 countries. The U.K. and Ireland were placed under the same restrictions March 14.

More than 340,000 American students participated in a study abroad program during the 2017-2018 academic year, according to data from the Institute of International Education.

In the same year, Europe accounted for the top six countries for Americans to study abroad — all of which fall under the U.S. travel ban. China, the seventh most popular destination and the origin of the virus, has been under travel restrictions since January.

Both domestic and international flights are being canceled by airlines including American, United and JetBlue. Spirit Airlines announced Monday that it is canceling all New York, New Jersey and Connecticut flights.

Akopyan said after she caught one of the last flights home, the airport canceled all departures.

"We luckily got back to the United States," she said. "Unfortunately, all my stuff is still in Paris."

Clarification: Although American University has adjusted its study abroad program across the different colleges, the American University spokesperson, in a written statement to CNBC, was referring only to its business school experiential learning program.