Every year, college students across the country board planes on their way to study abroad. During the 2018-19 school year, 1,926 of those students were from Nebraska, according to NAFSA: Association of International Educators. However, the study abroad scene changed drastically in 2020.
“We started coming back to the office early in January, and we really started to pay attention to what was going on with COVID,” said Emily Krueger, assistant director of global learning at the University of Nebraska-Omaha (UNO). “And then, of course, as the month went on, it didn’t get any better.”
By mid-March, the COVID-19 pandemic spread throughout the world and forced study abroad companies to shut down their programs. Universities asked their students to come home before border closures kept them where they were indefinitely. Brianna Oehm, a junior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln at the time, was studying abroad near Bangkok, Thailand.
“[The pandemic] wasn’t that big of a deal, at first. I had a really positive mindset, and I was like ‘I’m not going to let this affect my trip,’” Oehm said. “Then one night, we got an email from ISA, and it said, ‘You guys need to transfer your flights home, and you need to get out of here.’”
Within 24 hours, she had packed up her things and left to return to the United States. Coming back to the country with so much unfinished business was devastating for Oehm.
“I had all these trips planned to places like Malaysia and Singapore that I had to cancel,” she said. “I had been planning all this for years, and it sucked. Everyone just told me they were sorry, and I was like, ‘I don’t want your sympathy. I just want a flight back to Thailand.’”
After a majority of spring 2020 study abroad students returned to the United States, it was a waiting game as to when study abroad programs would embark again. David Long, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s global safety & security director, creates risk management policy to ensure the safety of the UNL community during international travel. He said both the Office of Global Strategies and Education Abroad were very tentative about sending students, faculty and staff abroad again.
“I think we knew from the outset that it was going to be quite some time before we started to engage with it again,” Long said. “It was going to be very tentative as far as dipping our toes back in the water.”
For UNO’s study abroad office, there was a bit more optimism.
“We did hold out hope for a while that things would improve,” Krueger said. “If we don’t plan these programs, the students don’t have anything, so we had to continue with the planning, knowing it was just very unknown. People would say, ‘Well, what are you doing?’ and we said, ‘Exactly what we always do.’” Then, if UNO’s international travel suspension was extended, the planned programs were cancelled.
However, after more than a year of halted travel abroad, UNL faculty and staff were finally allowed to travel again this May. Student programs were slightly different, however, with third-party programs resuming in July and faculty-led programs waiting until the fall semester.
One student who took up this opportunity is Sarah Betts, a senior at UNL from Omaha, Nebraska. She recently started her fall study abroad program in Madrid, Spain after a semester delay due to the pandemic. However, COVID-19 still presents some challenges for her trip.
“I’m most nervous about someone on my same program testing positive for COVID while abroad,” Betts said. “If one of us were to test positive, all 31 of us would have to quarantine for 15 days. Being alone in my room for over two weeks is the absolute last way I want to spend my time in Spain!”
Similarly, UNO sent students abroad this fall, as well.
“There’s a pipeline of students who have just been waiting for their turn to go,” Krueger said. “Most of them waited a year and a half to two years to get out there, and some of those students are abroad right now this fall.”
Many students who planned to study abroad lost the opportunity to do so completely because they graduated before study abroad returned. Similarly, because Oehm graduated this May, she doesn’t have the opportunity to study abroad again. However, her study abroad trip enhanced her love for travel and other cultures. She intends to return to Thailand and southeast Asia to live out all of the experiences she missed out on.
“I had plans to go to all of these places, and I still have those plans,” Oehm said. “It’s still really hard to get over there, but I’m patiently waiting. I’m gonna do a round two. Maybe a little bit different, you know? But, maybe it’ll be better.”