Skift Take

Although Covid-19 restrictions have eased up since 2020, current undergraduate students are still ambivalent to pack up, move to a new country, and study abroad.

The experience of escaping a college campus and traveling to a new country to study alongside a group of fresh classmates can be added to the long list of experiences that have fallen prey to Covid-19.

Although it might feel like we are close to getting past the worst of the pandemic, the dark memories of isolation still linger in the minds of many undergraduates, impacting their decisions to study abroad. 

A new survey from BestColleges.com covered college students’ perceptions about study abroad and travel desires. More than a quarter (29 percent) of currently enrolled undergraduate students surveyed said they had plans to study abroad but were unable to due to circumstances caused by Covid-19. 

While it might seem like getting sick in a foreign country is a concern, it sounds like this percentage is referencing “restrictions that were in place that prevented study abroad opportunities from even arising,” said Jessica Bryant, education analyst for BestColleges.com. Students are looking at what happened in the past few years to dictate their future decisions.

Another reason for ambivalence is the price. Just fewer than half (49 percent) believed participating in a study abroad program is only feasible for the privileged, which according to Bryant, is likely due to a “lack of knowledge.”

“Lots of students really don’t know what their options are when it comes to the financial aspect of studying abroad. It could be because of their understanding of their peers who have participated in it and what they understand on a surface level, since they often don’t think it is even an option for them.” 

Even those who feel certain they will study abroad aren’t as clear as they could be on the financial situation. “As an out of state student at a state school, I wish they took the time to talk to us more about expenses and explain where our money will be going” said Josie Hurwitz, current undergraduate at the University of California, Santa Barbara, with plans to study abroad in Rome this upcoming semester.

For more students to consider the study abroad experience, which can be an incredibly valuable one, “institutions must strive to make their programs more affordable for students and be clear about cost in outreach to students,” Bryant said.

Speaking of privilege, students who have studied abroad or planned on it were more likely than BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) students to say their goals included gaining worldly perspectives (51 percent versus 39 percent). In the same vein, students who have at least one parent with a college degree and have studied abroad or planned on it are significantly more likely than first-generation college students to say one of their goals for studying abroad is self-discovery/development of life skills (55 percent vs. 35 percent).

“Sometimes these differences are just interesting without a further story, and other times it gives us insight into the cultural aspects of different people,” she said. “I’m not surprised to see these differences in goals. It’s just one of those things, for example, men saying they hope to travel solo more than women isn’t surprising considering what we know about how women feel about safety and traveling abroad and what that entails.” 

According to Bryant, this kind of disparity in the data “gives us an expanded idea of the cultural differences between us all.” 

When advertising study abroad programs, it doesn’t feel like universities are paying enough attention to the sentiments of undergraduate students. Living in a new country, often with a new language, is incredibly exciting, but with most such fervor comes anxiety, as well. With more clarity to ease these anxieties prior to commitment, more students are likely to consider studying abroad.

“I think this study can really help a lot of institutions realize where their study abroad programs are lacking,.” Bryant said. For example, they could do a better job “drawing students in, letting them know how available the option is, and how they can make it work. “

Of course, it’s a personal decision to leave everything behind and spend a semester or two in a new place. It is important to note that “not everyone grows up with a desire to go places and see things, some feel content not doing that or it never crosses their mind,” she said.

Still, there will always be a large chunk of students who are aching to explore new cultural experiences. Even though over a quarter of students said that Covid-19 got in the way of their traveling plans, the other 71 percent either did not have plans to study abroad or the pandemic did not effect their decision-making process. Compared to 2020 and 2021, restrictions have loosed and those who are eager to see the world are taking advantage of the opportunities they can get ahold of.

Many students pushed past the obstacles to make sure they could still have an enriching new experience. The pandemic did not stop Hurwitz, who “originally wanted to study abroad in Thailand” but then had to switch her plans because of the pandemic.

“I decided to choose a European country instead because all of the Asian programs were getting canceled. I now couldn’t be happier about choosing Italy, and I still plan on traveling to Thailand after I graduate!” Hurwitz continued.

While some students are determined to make their study abroad dreams come true, others are shying away thanks to the pandemic.

This study involved 1,000 currently enrolled undergraduate students nationwide pursuing a bachelor’s or associate degree. The survey was conducted from May 31-June 3, 2022 and participants were between the ages of 18 and 26.

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Tags: colleges, covid-19, students, study abroad, travel

Photo credit: Monash University students studying abroad check out the scene at Camps Bay in South Africa. Monash University / Flickr.com