BREAKING: Summer study abroad programs are latest casualty of travel restrictions

By Mari Devereaux, Managing Editor

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Columbia’s summer study abroad courses have been canceled due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

All of Columbia’s Summer 2020 study abroad programs have been canceled, a decision made in light of the school’s travel restrictions and the U.S. Department of State’s “do not travel” advisory, which are still in effect.

In a Monday, April 6 email, students who were planning to take the Summer 2020 course “Creative Writing Summer in Prague” were informed by Kathie Bergquist, an adjunct faculty member in the English and Creative Writing Department and program director for the course in Prague, that their class, among others, would be canceled.

“As it stands, the school’s travel restrictions are still in place, and the U.S. State Department maintains its ‘do not travel’ advisory,” Bergquist said in the email.

According to Columbia’s website, the college has 11 summer study abroad programs to countries including the Czech Republic, Scotland, Germany, Italy and Spain, with domestic travel programs in Arizona and Los Angeles, as well.

Previously, college administrators had said a decision regarding the fate of study abroad programs would be announced by April 15.

Although no collegewide emails have been sent regarding study abroad as of press time, Lambrini Lukidis, associate vice president of Strategic Communications and External Relations, confirmed the course cancellations.

In an interview with the Chronicle, Bergquist said she and other professors who were set to teach abroad were notified individually by the Global Education Office Friday, April 3 of the college’s decision to cancel their courses.

“It was very important to me to communicate to my students as soon as I possibly could, but I needed to clarify some information before I could respond to them,” Bergquist said. “I wanted to get the email out because I’m imagining that there’s been a lot of anxiety about the uncertainty of the situation.”

Bergquist said there was no mass email sent to all study abroad students from the Global Education Office as of April 6 and added that faculty are responsible for communicating directly with their students, per the college’s direction.

Bergquist assured her prospective study abroad students their class deposit will be automatically returned to them within the next three weeks. According to Columbia’s website, the session fee for the program was approximately $3,000. However, the returned funds will not include plane tickets, as those are purchased independently by students, Bergquist said.

Major airlines students typically use for study abroad trips, such as United and American Airlines, are changing flights or crediting and refunding costs for flights scheduled through the end of May, Bergquist said. She added that it is up to students to contact their airline to make alternative arrangements.

Bergquist said 2020 would have been the 20th year Columbia’s creative writing program has held a course in Prague.

“That anniversary has special symbolism for me, and it makes me very sad that we can’t continue it,” Bergquist said. “But it’s always been the case that our students’ health and safety and wellness is the number one priority.”

In her email to students, Bergquist encouraged them to take next year’s summer Prague program. But for some students, like junior illustration major Stephanie Zimba, this year was their “one shot” for a summer study abroad program.

Zimba said even though most students planning to study abroad in Prague “knew it was coming,” their instructor, Bergquist, remained optimistic throughout the process and told students she would push for a delay rather than a cancellation.

“It hit pretty hard for me because I had [been] holding onto that hope for so long,” Zimba said.

Zimba said they were counting on the study abroad course to fulfill a graduation requirement and will now have to find another three-credit summer course, likely at a community college.

Anne Marie Mitchell, an associate professor in the Communication Department who usually teaches the summer study abroad course “Global PR in Spain,” said she decided in February not to lead the program due to low interest and growing fears surrounding the coronavirus, or COVID-19.

Mitchell said she would have been “shocked” if the summer program had continued to run, adding that a full cancellation is the best way to give students “certainty” and allow them time to make other plans.

Because she is no longer leading the class, Mitchell said she was not made aware of the college’s decision.

“It would have been nice to get an official notification as somebody who has taught [‘Global PR in Spain’] and is planning to teach it again,” Mitchell said. “I really wish they had all the information gathered in one place and it was constantly being updated and reinforced. There’s just a lot of emails coming out.”

Bergquist said while she is disappointed and sad about the outcome, she is not surprised. Study abroad programs require administrative decisions based on the current situation, she said.

“It’s something that I really look forward to and has enormous value, but the circumstances are out of anybody’s control,” Bergquist said. “We have to make the most prudent decision in the interest of our students.”