UT welcomes spring Study Abroad Fair

Flags of different countries hang from the ceiling in the UC Ballroom during last fall's Study Abroad Fair on Sept. 25, 2013.

It is hard to imagine now exactly what facet of our lives at UTK — hasn’t — been impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak.

As this epidemic was unfolding, one of the first departments to feel the brunt of the coronavirus was the Center for Global Engagement. The CGE is the central hub of all the global work that takes place on UT’s campus. This department handles study abroad and overseas programs as well as international students who come to study at UT’s campus. However, the virus has thrown a wrench into these plans.

In light of the danger posed by the virus, all UT-sponsored international programs have been cancelled for both spring and summer 2020 academic terms. Students and faculty have been called back from their trips after their programs were ended, and students who were enrolled for future study abroad courses have had any fees and financial commitments reimbursed by the Programs Abroad Office.

Gretchen Neisler, the vice provost for international affairs, discussed the challenges of planning around an unpredictable virus.

“The planning throughout this pandemic has been enormously challenging because we don’t have a crystal ball,” Neisler said. “We could never really say and make solid decisions based on the sound data we had. We would go to bed and wake up the next day, and overnight the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] had changed the levels of alert, and then we would make new decisions based on new information.”

According to Neisler, roughly 2,000 students affiliated with the CGE have been impacted by the virus at varying levels. 219 students were enrolled in spring semester study abroad programs, and 200 had already travelled abroad. In mid-January, while the virus was still largely in China, Neisler as well as Director Rachel Rui from the Office of Asia Engagement were in China working on collaborative efforts with universities there.

Neisler spoke of her return and the need for action from the CGE.

“The stress that has been of a larger magnitude really is when you realize you are responsible for other people’s children, meaning all of our students. … The situation then took on a lot of gravity for us,” Neisler said.

Although the CGE wanted to minimize the disruption toward students who had already invested time and money into these programs, the health of students and faculty were of top priority. Sam Swan, the director of study abroad programs at the College of Communication and Information, spoke about how, initially, UT programs cancelled international travel to Asian countries and pulled faculty and students out of countries who were being impacted by COVID-19 such as China and South Korea.

This has led to some disappointment among students who were anticipating in taking part in a study abroad course during the summer mini-term. When speaking personally with journalism students who were meant to go on a trip to Prague during the mini-term, Swan voiced some of their frustrations.

“I specifically had recruited them for the journalism program in Prague, and many of them, or all of them, had been disappointed as for many of them, this would probably be the only opportunity they were going to have to go on a study abroad programs. Some of them will be graduating, and may not have an opportunity to go next summer,” Swan said.

Karen Richters, the marketing and community outreach coordinator at the Programs Abroad Office, elaborated further on what these students were going through.

“This has been a first for our office — we’ve never had to recall all our students from abroad, so we’re handling the situation as best we can, but of course, students are going to be upset and disappointed,” Richters said. “For those who were already abroad, I can’t imagine, but the fact that they were already abroad and settling into their new lives only to be uprooted so suddenly, it’s got to have been quite the shock.”

As for the future of study abroad programs, Swan also stated that UT may see a drop in student engagement.

“I think we’ll see a major drop-off in students for semester programs for fall and spring because of the uncertainty,” Swan said.

Neisler shared similar thoughts on the future of study abroad as well, stating that with the uncertainty of how long we will be facing this virus, the future of fall study abroad courses are unclear.

However, Neisler has also noted that the CGE is looking into other options to allow students to engage in cultural diversity. Students whose courses were cancelled are now moving to remote learning courses and other options in order to receive the credits they would have earned in their original courses.

The CGE is also collaborating with universities overseas to create online programs that bring diverse cultural settings across the globe to the online classroom space, such as UT’s Online International Program. While this program has been in the works for awhile now, the virus has accelerated its completion timeline. Some of its classes include virtual study abroad courses where students will connect with teachers from universities abroad and take part in cultural activities.

Another opportunity for study abroad are global internships which will help students work professionally alongside international companies. While it would not quite net the same experience of traveling abroad, it would allow students the opportunity to engage in global learning.

The international community comes together

Among those most affected by the quarantine are international students at UT. Many of these students who came to UT were expecting a unique experience but now must quarantine along with the rest of the UT community.

Unfortunately, some of our students have also faced incidents of racial bias in the wake of the outbreak. The CGE has received reports of international students, primarily Chinese students, receiving racially disparaging remarks while out in public. Much of this prejudice is borne from an utterly false notion that Asian students are responsible for the virus.

Despite these hardships, though, the CGE has served as a resource for support for our international students. When quarantine was first implemented, the CGE made sure to stay in contact with international students and ensure they had places to live. The CGE has also routinely been checking in on the mental health of students.

What Neisler has found most surprising is the support from the international community in the wake of this crisis.

“Instead of turning inwards and leaving us, they stayed and asked how could we help,” Neisler said.

When Japanese students arrived at UT in March amidst the crisis, they had to undergo two weeks of self-isolation within their dorms. The community came together to support these students with locals at UT donating food during their quarantine.

UT has also seen support from international students and organizations in the fight against COVID-19. One Chinese exchange student Yuxiang Xie donated 200 face masks and an infrared thermometers to the International House. The East Tennessee Chinese/Chinese American Care also fundraised and donated over 20,000 items of personal protective equipment to local hospitals and first responders.

Neisler further commented on what she calls the “outpouring of support” from both our local and international community.

“It is a wonderful message and a testament to the support of the university,” Neisler said.

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