Study Abroad offers the next best thing during pandemic


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Osterberger And Cho
Walter Osterberger and Stella Cho participated in the virtual Global Professional Experience during the Winter Session.

The pandemic may have immobilized Notre Dame’s study abroad programs for three semesters, but it couldn’t keep juniors Walter Osterberger and Eunseo “Stella” Cho and 90 other students from taking part in the Global Professional Experience Program (GPE) during the Winter Session.

Osterberger worked on a business plan for cider makers in Huejotzingo, Mexico, while Cho reviewed research literature for physicians at a hospital in Mumbai, India. 

The students completed the GPEs virtually, thanks to out-of-the-box thinking by Notre Dame International (NDI) staff in the Study Abroad office and at the Global Gateways and Centers.

For Cho, who is majoring in neuroscience and Spanish and is considering medical school, the opportunity came at just the right time. 

“Due to the pandemic, I’ve been unable to volunteer in hospitals or shadow any healthcare professionals in person. Because of this, I was growing unsure if I wanted to pursue the path of medicine, but this experience allowed me to rekindle that passion,” Cho said. “Through the program, I was able to see a more clinical research aspect to medicine which I would love to apply to my own professional career in the future.”

Think globally, act virtually

Hong Zhu Cropped
Hong Zhu, senior director of global education

NDI launched GPE as an in-person summer program in 2018. That year, 20 undergraduates had professional experiences with one of eight companies in four international cities. In the summer of 2019, 32 students were placed with one of 14 companies in six locations around the world. 

COVID-19 grounded the University’s study abroad programs last spring and summer, in the fall and again this semester. But thanks to some creative thinking, NDI offered the virtual GPE program for up to 100 undergraduates during the Winter Session. Ninety-two students signed up and each was paired with one of 40 companies located in 14 international cities. 

“We got a lot of positive feedback from the students who were able to do something that gave them an international perspective, and our staff at the Global Gateways and Centers were also thrilled they got to do something to help them,” Hong Zhu, senior director of global education, said. 

Both Cho and Osterberger would have much preferred in-person study abroad experiences, but agree a virtual opportunity was the next best thing. Osterberger, who is majoring in business analytics and Spanish, says the virtual GPE provided lessons learned that he can apply to his upcoming summer internship as well as his professional career.

“For example, the importance of good communication, being willing to reach out and ask for help and being timely in submissions are all important takeaways that I will carry with me. In addition, the experience allowed me to practice my Spanish effectively and professionally,” he said.

Pandemic predicaments (and opportunities)

Juniors who planned to study abroad are among those at Notre Dame most affected by the pandemic. 

“It still stings to think of study abroad being cancelled due to the pandemic. Last semester, I was supposed to study abroad in Puebla, Mexico, where I could apply both my interests in neuroscience and Spanish,” Cho said.

Zhu empathizes. “We realize that many of this year’s juniors won’t have another opportunity to study abroad as students and studying abroad is such a big thing for our students as part of their international education.”

It was a year ago this month that COVID-19 became a global threat and upended study abroad.

“I think it was March 1 that we brought home our students from Rome,” Zhu said. “Within two weeks, we brought back all 500 plus students studying around the world. Then summer study abroad was cancelled. Then we had to cancel the fall and spring programs. The whole academic year of study abroad was cancelled. It is really disappointing.”

When normal operations paused, the study abroad staff could have lost sight of its purpose — instead, their vision became clearer. During the summer, the office took part in a physically distanced retreat at which they wrote a mission statement, outlined goals, identified pain points and considered innovative solutions and process improvements. 

Since then, Study Abroad …

  • Created two virtual courses: Study Abroad 101 and Study Abroad 102. Study 101 guides undergraduates through five modules that explore how study abroad works and whether it is right for them. Study Abroad 102, meanwhile, is a pre-departure course for those intending to study abroad. It prepares them for things like culture shock, navigating intercultural differences and managing finances abroad.
  • Assigned a student worker to launch “Beyond Study Abroad,” a podcast intended for undergraduates about the lifelong benefits of studying abroad. So far, there are 13 episodes. (Stella Cho is interviewed in Episode 10.)
  • Updated by improving top level navigation, adding scholarship information and expanding resources to include undergraduate research, internships and community engagement

“We added a lot of content to the site, including pages about different identities. For example, first generation college students, students of color, LGBTQ students and students with disabilities. All that information is now online,” Zhu said. 

The Study Abroad office also helped 58 international students who planned to be at Notre Dame in the fall find the next best thing by placing them with partner institutions in their home countries. 

“Fifty-five of them are in China, one is in Ireland, one is in Italy and one is in Australia,” Zhu said. “We worked with local partner institutions, so the students from there just stayed there and they got Notre Dame credit as if they were abroad.”

When will study abroad resume?

The question on the minds of many at Notre Dame is when will study abroad resume? Summer is under consideration. 

“We have been in scenario planning since late January, meeting every week, just updating the information,” Zhu said, adding that “we” is Michael Pippenger, vice president and associate provost for internationalization; Jaime Signoracci, associate director of international travel and safety; and Laura Stipic, associate director of study abroad, who oversees the summer programs.

“Jaime keeps track of everything — the CDC, the State Department, travel level warnings, entry requirements, flights, visas, and all the medical parameters, COVID cases, death rates, all that information. We track every country where we send students. So we’re watching to see whether it will reach a level where we feel safe sending students,” Zhu said.

The leaders are also speaking with staff on the ground at the Global Gateways and Centers and hope to make a recommendation soon to senior University leaders, who ultimately make the decision when study abroad opportunities will resume. 

“We certainly hope that study abroad can resume soon,” Zhu said.