The implications of COVID-19: Lessons from students studying abroad
Erin Henderson in Spain
April 22, 2020

For the entire campus community, the unprecedented and rapid rise of a global COVID-19 outbreak required sweeping adjustments and instantaneous shifts to a new normal. In this time of challenge, uncertainty, and unpredictability, students who were studying abroad over the spring 2020 semester have to display resilience and adaptability on multiple levels. 

Most students started their applications and preparations over a year ago. When they were planning to go abroad, the type of flexibility they foresaw was of navigating a different culture within a new country and host university. Now, these students find themselves looking for a connection to their host university abroad and a way to complete their courses successfully in spite of the evolving pandemic.

In the College of ACES, this semester 88 students were studying abroad across 32 different universities worldwide on either an ACES or Illinois Abroad & Global Exchange (IAGE) sponsored program. These students, representing the University of Illinois on five different continents, were able to experience about 6 to 8 weeks of their semester abroad before the severity of the pandemic required them to return to the United States. 

Two of those students are Erin Henderson and Alexis Hansen, both of whom are current juniors in Human Development and Family Studies. Erin Henderson was studying abroad in Granada, Spain, and Alexis Hansen was in Vienna, Austria, before returning home to navigate the rest of this semester. 

When asked what being abroad during the pandemic has taught them, Henderson mentions the importance of understanding the global world we live in. “It is important to reach for opportunities outside our bubble and understand that we oftentimes assume this is only affecting us, our campus, or our country, [but this] is really affecting a whole world of people with unique perspectives and challenges. It's much bigger than us.” 

Hansen adds the importance of resilience through the lessons she has learned. “All humans are skilled at adaptation. After seeing a text from my parents at 5 a.m. (Austria time) that I would have to leave the country within two days, I was surprisingly calm as they helped me find a flight. I knew COVID-19 was affecting everyone negatively and was able to stay grounded.” 

As challenges are faced, students studying abroad have learned more about themselves and their capabilities. Returning home abruptly was a sudden interruption and transition, which required adjustments to travel and studies and daily life. It was a transition that pulled the students away from immersive global cultural experiences to an immediate two-week quarantine when they returned home. 

Henderson points out that she wants to remember the time she had in Spain, rather than the unwelcome end to her time abroad. “The most challenging part about returning was not letting the shock and abrupt end to my experience taint the memories of the amazing full two months that I got to spend in Spain and traveling around Europe.” 

Even as these challenges are apparent, the value of the experiences still shines through with the significance of what study abroad can provide. Students have expressed a positive attitude about how their independence and their flexibility guided their response through the crisis. They express gratitude for the time they were able to experience abroad and would take the opportunity to do it again. 

“I am most grateful that I was able to learn lessons about myself and create stronger relationships with friends through travel. It helped me grow closer with old friends and form connections with new ones. If you can study abroad, do it! I would give anything to do it again,” Hansen states. 

While this semester has become a uniquely memorable experience for students like Erin and Alexis, the lessons they have taken from their time abroad are a testament to the human disposition, showing that we can all overcome this challenging time together. The characteristics of independence and resilience that helped them pursue a semester abroad are now giving them strength and determination to overcome the challenges moving forward. 

Perhaps resilience is less about the challenge itself, and more about how we respond to the challenges we face. This is a reminder that we are connected to an increasingly global world as we navigate through the irregularity of the COVID-19 pandemic.