Virtual Components of Study Abroad (that Will Outlast the Pandemic)
When the pandemic hit in March 2020, education abroad professionals confronted a new reality. With campuses largely closed for months before reopening in the fall and study abroad opportunities scarce, education abroad offices had to quickly adopt virtual approaches for everything from recruitment and orientation to advising and internships.
What education abroad staff soon realized was that the pandemic presented an opportunity to rethink standard approaches. “Early on in the pandemic, I remember someone saying that if you don’t look for the opportunity in any crisis, you’re doing it wrong,” says Krista Mantello, MBA, program support supervisor for education abroad at Western Washington University.
As the disruption of the pandemic begins to recede on campuses, the pandemic is leaving a changed landscape for education abroad in its wake. The result? Successful virtual components that are now integral to study abroad programming, chief among them study abroad fairs as well as advising and predeparture orientation.
“Everything we had done before was all in person,” says Caleb Chapman, MA, communications coordinator for education abroad at Texas A&M University. “We had very little, if any, online resources. [The pandemic] really kicked us in the behind and made us do what we should have done already.”
Making the Starting Point More Accessible
The rapid and unprecedented introduction of virtual options in study abroad programs may have started from necessity, but a new hybrid environment of in-person and virtual components is poised to last.
One result of the growth of digital resources, says Mantello, is increased accessibility to reach more students and different student groups with opportunities for education abroad.
“Early on in the pandemic, I remember someone saying that if you don’t look for the opportunity in any crisis, you’re doing it wrong.” —Krista Mantello
“For me, accessibility has been the shining light in this pandemic,” she says. “It’s been a priority that we want to make study abroad more accessible, and here is the way to do it.”
One of the most common examples of the successful shift to virtual programming is study abroad fairs—recruiting events that mark the starting point of study abroad for many students. At some institutions, fairs already seemed ripe for re-evaluation; the sea of tables and array of information could be overwhelming for students. “Students would walk into an in-person fair and think, ‘What are all these acronyms?’” says Mantello.
The fairs were a huge undertaking for staff. “It took a lot of time in our office, and we didn’t have a good way to determine the return on that investment,” says Joe Milostan, MA, director of education abroad at Kansas State University. “For me, the big thing was that we could never demonstrate that hosting a large, in-person fair led to more students going abroad.” As a result, Kansas State had begun moving away from large in-person fairs before the pandemic.
The past year provided a chance to rethink the traditional fair, with considerable success. Kansas State turned to a virtual fair platform, and “COVID was definitely the spur to adopt the virtual format,” says Milostan. “It was far easier for us to set up. Our study abroad affiliates could also join the platform and be available to students during the fair.”
The interactive component of an in-person fair was supplemented with uploaded asynchronous content that students could read whenever it suited them, increasing access for different student populations and not limiting them to a specific time and place and transportation to a particular venue.
Other institutions took a similar approach. For example, Western Washington created EdAbroadCon!, a three-day online conference in February that included interactive elements and uploaded content.
“I am really proud of us for not trying to duplicate the analog fair experience in a digital platform,” says Ryan Larsen, PhD, associate executive director of the Institute for Global Engagement at Western Washington. “We were pivoting from 500 students walking around a room with 50 tables to a slate of sessions for a mini-online conference.”
The flexibility of the online option meant students could access the virtual fairs on their own schedule, making it easier for them to learn about education abroad possibilities at their convenience. Compared to the 500 students at an in-person fair, Western Washington had more than 2,000 hits to its online platform during the virtual conference.
The virtual programming yielded better-than-usual results in the form of higher-quality leads, flipping the experience on its head. Instead of presenting options to students to see if they were interested, “we had a web form where students filled out their interests,” says Mantello. The result was 75 high-quality leads “that led to concrete conversations and applications,” she says.
Kansas State’s online platform also generated far more information about students than an in-person event could. “We collected some data that we normally can’t collect,” says Milostan. “We would know [students’] major, where their interest was in going abroad, when they wanted to go abroad. We could use that in subsequent follow-ups in an effective way.”
Hybrid Approaches to Advising and Predeparture Orientation
Education abroad offices discovered a similar advantage to data collection when it comes to making appointments for virtual advising. “There was the ability for the adviser to collect general information from students prior to the appointment, as opposed to having the student walk in and [the adviser] not knowing what the student was going to need,” says Chapman.
The convenience of virtual advising turned out to be another benefit—and another way to increase access for more students. “Being virtual opened our eyes to better evaluate access and access points for students,” says Chapman. “We have a better understanding that not everybody is able to make it to our office between 8 and 5.”
As campuses reopen, study abroad offices are leaning toward a hybrid approach for advising, recognizing that some students prefer face-to-face meetings. Predeparture orientation is also likely to become a combination of in-person and virtual sessions.
“Being virtual opened our eyes to better evaluate access and access points for students. We have a better understanding that not everybody is able to make it to our office between 8 and 5.” —Caleb Chapman
At Kansas State, the orientation is shifting to an online course. For 2 weeks, students read materials, then they attend a 30-minute in-person presentation at the end. “Because a lot of classes have their syllabi online, [students] are used to going there for information,” says Milostan. “It’s more natural to think that I need to go get my packing tips in my predeparture course.”
Chapman says that the hybrid course format Texas A&M adopted “will make it easier for students to do orientation at their own pace.” He also notes that it allows for “housekeeping items” to be done through the learning platform instead of clogging up an in-person presentation.
Evaluating Success and Room for Improvement
Not every virtual education abroad programming component was a success. Some, like virtual study abroad courses, never gained traction with students at certain institutions. “We set some up and promoted them, but there was [very little] student interest in the virtual programs,” says Milostan.
However, other virtual options proved unexpectedly popular. “What surprised us was student interest in [virtual] internships,” says Larsen. “People were much more interested in being able to do actual work with an international company or nonprofit than in virtual study abroad classes.”
“We see this as an opportunity to hit the reset button and consider how to approach everything. We can move forward with new and different ideas and even test the waters to see if something works.” —Caleb Chapman
In a certain sense, the pandemic wiped the slate clean for education abroad programs, creating a unique opportunity for study abroad going forward.
“We have 2 years’ worth of incoming classes that have never experienced a typical semester on campus,” says Chapman. “We see this as an opportunity to hit the reset button and consider how to approach everything, because there is no normal for these students. We can move forward with new and different ideas and even test the waters to see if something works.”
Chapman says that the challenge will be to resist the urge to automatically return to prepandemic habits.
“There is such a desire to get back to the way thing where, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the best idea, especially when you’re given the gift, so to speak, of being able to do something different and look at things in a different way,” he says. “In higher ed, we so often forget to look at what we need to change. Looking at silver linings, this has really helped us push things further a little quicker.” •
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