When study abroad programs from March 2020 to Spring 2021 were cancelled due to COVID-19-related health precautions, many were devastated and couldn’t imagine an alternative that would still be productive and fulfilling.
But SUNY New Paltz’s Center for International Programs is thinking outside of the box.
“Even during a time of pandemic, international learning and cultural exchange remain core to SUNY’s educational mission,” reads the study abroad website.
Some options the College is offering for the spring semester include earning business credits for a virtual internship in Milan, Italy; a virtual service learning program in Guatemala; and a hybrid program in Seville, Spain that would begin with virtual classwork from America and end with a summer capstone study tour in-person of Andalusia (if all goes according to plan).
Though the phrase “virtual study abroad” may seem like an oxymoron to some, leaders and innovators in the field say that the experience offers far more than you may immediately think.
“A lot of the things that study abroad gives a student, you can get in some ways virtually: increasing your cross-cultural sensitivity, learning to communicate across language barriers, learning to take classes in a different type of setting,” says Catherine Collader, a SUNY New Paltz study abroad advisor.
In fact, in some ways the virtual study abroad experience may give students the opportunity to access even more parts of the world than they might have had if they did their study abroad experience in person.
A good example of this can be found in this summer’s virtual experience.
This summer marked the first run of SUNY’s virtual study abroad experience with the SUNY COIL Commons Program. The immersion invited students from across the SUNY system to come together and brainstorm solutions to some of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. They also partnered with community based and/or non-profit organizations in the Middle East and Africa.
For the same price it would cost a student to take two classes on campus, students were able to take those two classes and also connect with others across the SUNY system, as well as people on the other side of the world. By coming together they were able to offer solutions for a more sustainable world.
Another benefit to doing a virtual immersion experience this year is that it costs less money than it typically would, and the application process is less competitive than in previous years.
Third-year psychology major Kathleen Mangan was initially interested in studying abroad in New Zealand next semester and was disappointed to find out the program was getting cancelled.
Although at first she was skeptical about the benefits of a virtual immersion experience, after learning more she said, “It sounds better than I thought it would and it sounds like it could be a good experience.”
“I do like the effort that the study abroad department is making to give some kind of abroad experience,” Mangan said.
International travel and in-person study abroad programs for the winter and spring 2021 semester were cancelled on Oct. 20 amidst rising COVID-19 cases and the clear risk that international travel would provide in increasing the spread of the potentially deadly virus.
Executive Director for the Center of International Programs Beth Mugler Vargas wrote in a letter to the New Paltz community, “This is a continuation of the current suspension enacted in March 2020, and is driven by our ongoing concern for the health and safety of students, faculty and staff and our commitment to keeping the SUNY community safe.”
Applications are available online. The application fee has been waived this year and admissions are made on a rolling basis. Advisors are willing to work with students who need to take longer than the original Nov. 15 deadline to apply.