The Office of Study Abroad and Global Learning at Western Kentucky University is undergoing significant changes and challenges amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but it is looking to capitalize on new opportunities when the fall semester begins Aug. 24.
Students studying abroad this past spring were ordered home in mid-March. With a Level 4 travel warning (the highest) from the U.S. Department of State and a travel suspension from WKU, traditional programs will not resume this fall.
“We are concentrating efforts and have shifted energy to give WKU students a global learning experience,” said John Sunnygard, the associate provost for global learning and international affairs, emphasizing the second half of the office’s title.
One of the school’s slogans is “A Leading American University with International Reach.”
The office plans to create activities and events that will engage students with other countries while still in Bowling Green, which may include videos or engaging with exchange partners around the world through various one-off class sessions.
“We’re really thinking about why students want to go abroad,” Sunnygard said. “It’s our responsibility to prepare people to engage professionally with the world.”
These new activities serve as a new element to the office, rather than a replacement for study abroad.
“This new process won’t go away. There wasn’t a buy-in before, but now the buy-in is there because people are used to this ‘Hollywood Squares’ thing,” Sunnygard said, referencing the shift to Zoom and video calls.
One element that will continue from the spring is a Learn-On series, which is several webinars focused on how a specific issue is having a global impact. COVID-19 is one of the topics, but Sunnygard said other subjects would be addressed, such as the Black Lives Matter movement.
Faculty have been surveyed about assisting with some opportunities, and Sunnygard expressed optimism in their responses.
“We have lots of faculty with international teaching experience who have responded with great, concrete suggestions,” he said.
Along with universities across the country, WKU partners with hundreds of providers to offer study abroad programs. With few universities sending students abroad, those providers and universities hope to provide affordable, virtual study abroad programs focused on research projects and internships.
Although students will not physically study abroad in the near future, most of the work and planning for a student is started well in advance, which means advising for physical programs has not stopped.
“From the advising perspective, it’s slowed down some because we’re not sending people immediately, but we do have incoming freshman who are planning for spring 2022,” said Krista Erickson, one of three WKU study abroad advisers.
Students who returned early in the spring acknowledged positive experiences and were glad they went abroad, Erickson said. She echoed Sunnygard’s perspective that studying abroad adds value to one’s college experience and careers.
“We’re being more authentic and realistic,” she said.
Erickson also oversees the Study Abroad and Global Learning Student Representatives, a group of 27 students who have studied abroad across five continents. These students share their experiences with peers who are interested in global learning, which Erickson said won’t change this year.
One of the new goals for the student representatives is collaborating more with international students on campus by organizing one or two events each month for those groups to interact.
“They all have the same interests, so why not,” Erickson said.
For scholarships, the office intends to prioritize people who were to receive WKU awards for future programs, but Erickson said that would be based on their budget, which is to be determined. There will be a FAQ available soon for scholarship questions, she said.
WKU students often vie for nationally competitive scholarships, like the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship, which provides up to $8,000. Students who earned the award for a canceled summer program can defer their award to another term or apply it to online language study programs, said Lindsey Houchin, the coordinator for nationally competitive opportunities in WKU’s Office of Scholar Development.
Those who received grants from the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, which has students do study or research projects for English teaching assistant programs, cannot defer their award. However, the program is relaxing restrictions and allowing those students to reapply, Houchin said.
Sunnygard said no one has been able to predict the future, but he noted an importance in global learning, even without travel.
“American students who pay attention and learn about what’s happening in the world will be more successful and resilient in their professional career path than those who don’t,” he said.