Catholic Colleges Manage Study-Abroad Programs Amid COVID

To go or not to go? That is the COVID-times question for Catholic universities with study-abroad programs.

Franciscan University of Steubenville and the University of Dallas have reinstated their study-abroad programs, following COVID guidelines in the countries the faculty and students are visiting. At right, the University of Dallas focuses on educational field trips. At left, Franciscan University of Steubenville’s study-abroad program is based in Gaming, Austria. Each semester about 200 students study and live in the Kartause, a restored 14th-century Carthusian monastery in the foothills of the Austrian Alps. They take trips to visit churches, including in Salzburg, shown at left.
Franciscan University of Steubenville and the University of Dallas have reinstated their study-abroad programs, following COVID guidelines in the countries the faculty and students are visiting. At right, the University of Dallas focuses on educational field trips. At left, Franciscan University of Steubenville’s study-abroad program is based in Gaming, Austria. Each semester about 200 students study and live in the Kartause, a restored 14th-century Carthusian monastery in the foothills of the Austrian Alps. They take trips to visit churches, including in Salzburg, shown at left. (photo: Courtesy of the colleges)

In the late winter and early spring of 2020, Thomas Wolter watched closely as COVID-19 cases spread through Italy. Wolter, an American living in Gaming, Austria, had a vested interest in the goings-on of Italy at that time, as he was scheduled to take some 200 students from the Franciscan University study-abroad program on their customary trip to Rome and Assisi. 

That trip, Wolter told the Register, is usually one of the highlights of the whole experience. 

“We were calling everybody,” he said, from parents to local government authorities and even the European Union (EU). But concerns from all sides about visiting a country then considered a COVID hotspot were mounting.

“So then it was like, okay, we’re not going to Rome and Assisi,” Wolter said. He was still trying to find a good solution for his students, when international flights started getting canceled.

Wolter and his colleagues switched from deciding what to do with their students in Europe to scrambling to send them home to the U.S. before borders closed and flights were canceled. 

“Safety is paramount,” Wolter said. “We always want the students to return in a very good, healthy state ... and at that point, it was in the best interest of everybody — for the parents, the peace of mind of the students, the university — for (the students) to go home.” 

It was a tough decision. Wolter, who has directed Franciscan’s Austria program for the past 11 years, said he believes strongly in the value of the study-abroad experience. But the program was forced to sit empty until the summer of 2021, when Wolter was finally able to welcome students back to Europe.

“We finally got things back up and running for our summer program, and we had absolutely no problems. The students had all the experiences that they wanted, it was a huge success,” he said.

Now, 200 students are back at Franciscan’s Gaming campus. Students are allowed to enter the program if they are either vaccinated, can show proof of recovery from COVID-19, or are willing to submit to regular COVID-19 tests. 

This three-pronged approach is standard throughout all the member states of the EU, Wolter said, although some countries that students may want to visit could require extra testing.

The students have been very willing and cooperative with all of the requirements, Wolter said.

“They’ve been great. I believe that every one of them is willing to rise to the challenges that are thrown at them this year,” he said. Wolter added that he had a meeting with the students at the beginning of the year, asking them to be mindful of how quickly COVID could spread through their community and how important it was that everyone follow the testing and other precautions that are asked of them.

Wolter said he and his colleagues decided to frontload the beginning of the semester with travel experiences that, in a normal year, would be more spread out. The idea is to do more traveling while the weather is still warm, to avoid traveling during possible COVID spikes in the winter.

The students took a day trip to Salzburg over a recent weekend, and another weekend was a reprise of the ill-fated trip to Rome and Assisi that the March 2020 students had to miss. Students will be COVID tested before and after each trip, Wolter said.

Despite the extra requirements, Wolter said he believes the study-abroad program is worth it for students. “I have come to really embrace the value of a study-abroad program that it has, not only for students in their academic endeavors, but also in how it prepares them for life,” he said. 

Ashley Buck, a Franciscan student studying in Austria this semester, told the Register that she thought about not participating in the study-abroad program because of COVID. She was one of the students who got sent home when COVID was declared a global pandemic in the spring of 2020, and she saw “the chaos that it caused.”

“I had some worries about staying healthy while having the full study-abroad experience in Europe. I almost wasn’t going to go,” she said.

But, ultimately, Buck said she put her trust in God and decided to come back. She said the COVID-testing requirements have required a little extra planning but that, overall, everything was going smoothly.

“This past week the school traveled to Rome for five days and then Assisi for three days, so our COVID tests expired, meaning some of us had to get tested again while in Rome. The students were troopers and got tested when needed, even if it meant getting up early in the morning and waiting in line. The COVID tests were free, and results came back within 20 minutes. Traveling during this time takes a little more planning than usual, but it is absolutely possible,” Buck said.

She added that the staff on campus work extra hard to make sure all of the students can access the proper testing in order to be able to travel and that the COVID restrictions have not stopped the semester from being a worthwhile experience.

“I highly recommend studying abroad to students even with the restrictions in place. You can read about history or see pictures of monuments in textbooks, but to see them in person is a different experience. Even with the requirements, my friends and I have found positives throughout the restrictions,” she said.

Javier Carreño, professor of philosophy and the faculty chair for Franciscan’s Austria program, told the Register that having the students back on campus was like “the Resurrection.” 

“I told my students that in Gaming [last year] it felt a little like Narnia — this frozen land before the arrival of the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve,” when everything starts to thaw and come back to life, he said. 

Carreño and his family live in Austria, and so when the students went back to the U.S. in the spring of 2020, he taught them from afar over Zoom.

“Online instruction is just so difficult,” he said, though he added that it was a useful tool, given the circumstances. Overall, though, “it’s not best suited for philosophical dialogue.” 

This year’s students seem very willing to follow whatever COVID rules and protocols are asked of them, reprted Carreño, while the program is also trying to be as reasonable as possible in what they ask of their students.

With all of its challenges, Carreño said he believes this year in particular could be extra fruitful for his students.

“People embrace obstacles and come to places [of growth] that they did not think they could get to, both intellectually and spiritually,” he said.

Peter Hatlie, who oversees the Rome study-abroad program for the University of Dallas (UD), said that UD was able to proceed with the spring 2021 study-abroad semester, though at about half capacity: 55 students instead of the typical 100-120.

Travel restrictions imposed by the Italian government during that semester were stricter in the beginning, during the months of February and March.

“Travel restrictions in those early months forced us to do more visits and activities in Rome and the surrounding province of Lazio than we normally do, but that was not necessarily a bad thing at all. As a result, the semester was genuinely a Rome-immersion semester, giving our students a truly rich experience of the Eternal City,” he said.

But by April, Hatlie said, things really started to open up, and students were able to travel “pretty much wherever they wanted in Europe.”

For their summer 2021 program, UD was able to accept a large number of students, some of whom had been sent home in March 2020.

“The summer 2021 [program] was, in fact, a tremendous success,” Hatlie reported. “No travel restrictions. No lockdowns. Almost no fear of COVID-19 infections, actually.”

Hatlie said the fall 2021 students have had to obtain a “Green Pass,” which is required in Italy for residential college life and in-person classes. They are also required for trains, planes, ferries and some other forms of public transportation and other public places.

To get a Green Pass, students have to show either proof of vaccination or documentation of recovery from COVID-19. Just this week, Italy added a requirement that international travelers must also show a negative COVID test before entering the country.

Roughly 90% of all prospective students for the Rome program had already met Green Pass requirements ahead of their scheduled arrival Sept. 4.

“A new track-and-trace system called the ‘Passenger Locator Form’ has also been formally introduced in recent days,” Hatlie said. “As for other restrictions ... there are some that will affect our normal operations, including limits on the numbers of individuals who can visit a museum or archaeological site in a group. Obviously, too, everyone will be required to wear masks indoors, maintain social distance, and observe similar anti-COVID measures going forward.”

Despite these restrictions, he said the students who have been able to participate in the Rome program in the past year have been grateful for the experience.

“The 200 or so students who attended our programs during the last academic year (fall 2020-spring 2021) have almost unanimously expressed their gratitude for and satisfaction with our approach to educating our university students abroad in these difficult COVID-19 times,” he said. 

“We heard some version of the following time and time again last year: ‘Even if my experience was not equal to that of my pre-COVID peers, I wouldn’t have given it up for the world.’ What we saw was an acquired sense of empowerment among students as they grappled with and then overcame the insecurity and occasional disappointment of studying abroad.”

“Generally speaking, what they lost in terms of certain opportunities, such as not being able to travel wherever and whenever they wanted across Europe, they gained in terms of stronger friendships, more mindfulness of the beauty of a moment in time, and more commitment to their studies, faith and personal development,” he added. 

Elias Simpson, a University of Dallas sophomore studying abroad in Rome, said that the Rome program was one of the biggest attractions of attending UD.

“It’s something they advertise, but a bigger pulling factor is the experiences of the older students and the stories they would tell,” Simpson said. 

For Simpson, the decision to study abroad in Rome was not a difficult one, even during the ongoing pandemic. Simpson said he felt the experience was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Plus, he’s vaccinated. 

“It wasn’t particularly difficult for me to meet [COVID travel] requirements. I don’t have any particular qualms about the COVID-19 vaccination being required. ... My mom was firm that I get it even if I wasn’t going to Rome, and so I got it as soon as I was free over the summer,” he said.

Simpson is enjoying his Rome experience.

“You wake up from last night’s venture into Rome, grab your copies of Herodotus and Shakespeare, go to class with your buddies, then go out and do it all again the next day,” he said. “... It’s always something more interesting and fresh than what happened the day before.”

But not all Catholic universities have been able to proceed with their programs. Christendom College in Virginia announced the cancellation of its fall 2021 semester study-abroad program in Rome in late August, after Italy increased restrictions for study-abroad students.

Zachary Smith, associate director of marketing and communications for Christendom, said that the school is hopeful for the spring semester and that school officials will be monitoring the COVID situation in Italy in the coming months in order to make a decision.

Aquinas College, a Dominican liberal arts college in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has been unable to send students abroad since the spring of 2020.

Tim Ramsay, who directs the “study away” and Irish programs for the college, told the Register that he “saw the writing on the wall” in March 2020 and sent students home before international flights were canceled and borders were closing.

“I was seen as being overly cautious at the time,” Ramsay said. “But now, looking back, everyone's like yep, ‘Tim, you made the right call.’”

That semester, the 21 students who were brought back to the U.S. were incorporated into the academic year stateside, so that they did not miss out on any classes, Ramsay said. 

“Obviously, it was devastating to them, their mental health,” he said. “It was just an all-around bad situation. So we had counseling available to them. Counselors met them at the airport, along with me. We were very intentional about providing that support. But we got praise from the parents, how they were very pleased with our responsiveness and how we just handled everything.” 

In normal circumstances, Aquinas College sends students to study abroad in several countries. Some of the programs cater to students studying world languages, who study in countries like France, Germany, Spain or Argentina. The college also sends students to the U.K., Italy and Ireland, which is the school’s longest-running, “flagship” study-abroad program, Ramsay said. Many of these programs are run through partnerships with local schools or third-party providers. 

Stateside, the school participates in a domestic exchange program with other Dominican schools. 

After the spring of 2020, Ramsay and his colleagues established a rubric to determine which countries would be safe for future student travel.

“We have a threshold that has to be met. There are a couple of steps. The first one being, of course, the U.S. State Department and CDC travel advisory levels. Once it hits three, we automatically cancel,” he said. 

A level-three warning from the CDC is a “high” level warning. For these countries, the CDC recommends travelers are fully vaccinated. Italy and Japan are two of many countries currently on level-three warnings.

“Then, if it's two or higher, we consult with on-the-ground (study-abroad program) providers and also our insurance providers. And we contract a security team on the ground to get an overview of the area to see if it’s viable for students, and then we make a decision,” he said.

Due to elevated travel advisories since spring 2020, “we have not been able to run any programs,” Ramsay said. They had signed students up for the fall 2021 semester, but then canceled in June as the Delta variant began to spread.

Ramsay said he is “cautiously optimistic” about the spring 2022 semester, but that he also does not want to falsely raise hopes.

And while Aquinas College is not requiring their student body to be vaccinated for COVID-19, many of the partner universities and programs are beginning to require vaccination, he said, which is something prospective study-abroad students should keep in mind.

“I think our European countries ... we’re seeing that their numbers are slowly dropping over there and hopefully seeing the vaccination rates going up,” her said. “And I hope spring will be a possibility.”

For now, those students studying aboard are soaking up the experience.

Simpson said he would recommend students study abroad, even with the COVID restrictions in place, because they may never get the chance to do so again. 

“When else am I going to make memories that will stick with me for my college career and my entire life?”