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A Letter from the Director Regarding Programming During a Pandemic

CGIS Director Michael Jordan

FRIDAY, APRIL 30, 2021 — The Center for Global and Intercultural Study (CGIS) is the office within the College of Literature, Science and the Arts that manages international education programs for undergraduate students. Over 400 CGIS students were abroad in March, 2020, when the pandemic required us to quickly recall all of them and find a way for them to continue earning credit that semester from home. Since that week over a year ago CGIS has not sent a single student to study abroad, for reasons that are surely clear to all.

That is not to say that we have not been working diligently towards that goal. As such, we have received some questions about how and why CGIS is continuing to promote programs and allow students to submit applications during the pandemic. Over the course of the past year, many of us in the field of international education have hoped at various points that at least some countries would find themselves in a secure enough position to allow foreign students to pursue their studies within their borders. Even though that hope proved to be in vain for winter 2021, CGIS worked hard to ensure that UM students would be able to take advantage of any opportunity that met the university’s standards for the health and safety of our students, the academic quality of the program to be offered (taking into account the alternate modes of teaching and cultural engagement put in place), and the potential impact of sending our students into those communities. Provisions for assessing this level of preparedness include an Individual Safety Plan filled out by each student, a Partner Safety Plan completed by receiving institutions abroad, review of these plans by both CGIS and UM’s International Travel Oversight Committee, and consideration of warnings and advice put out by the CDC, the State Department, and other governments and NGOs.

With each passing term a small yet increasing number of our programs seemed to offer the possibility of receiving students, so CGIS proceeded with very cautious optimism in those cases. We advertised opportunities that looked like they might run, taking care to advise our students with full transparency that the efforts they put into applying might well prove in vain, as all programs were subject to cancellation at virtually any date. We worked with our partners abroad to set commitment deadlines as late as possible so that our students would not face financial penalties if they withdrew, cancelling programs before students were liable for non-refundable fees. We worked with our applicants to ensure that they were registered for a full load of UM classes in case their international plans fell through. 

Though all programs over the past year have ultimately been canceled, students have applied in surprisingly high numbers; they are eager to pursue the unique opportunities that study abroad affords them. While this has necessitated a good deal of work on their part (the application process typically take 6-9 months, and many students have planned for years), the feedback that we have received indicates that the majority of applicants do not regret this effort; rather, they have appreciated the chance to apply, leaving them in a position to pursue their dreams as soon as it proves safe enough to do so. CGIS has worked to minimize any financial risk involved in applying, and to lessen the burden on these students from a procedural and administrative standpoint as much as possible. CGIS did not allow students to open applications for any programs where the conditions on site left virtually no possibility of the program running.

Over 200 students applied to study abroad through CGIS for spring/summer 2021; in the end we will send 26 to study abroad over the summer months. For much of the past term it looked like several countries might make the cut -- Denmark, the United Kingdom, Spain -- but in the end the vicissitudes of life under Covid-19 meant that only South Korea proved viable. The cohort we will (hopefully) send to Seoul this summer represents a mere fraction of the students who applied to study abroad, and the experience that awaits our students will look a little bit different with a 2 week quarantine prior to the program, and a mix of online and in person courses. But it is a start. 

CGIS has a record number of applicants for fall 2021, and we are helping those students prepare for their international experiences in the hopes that they will come to fruition. The benefits of studying abroad can include a broader perspective on the interconnectedness of the world, increased empathy for others, enhanced intercultural communication skills, and an openness to dialog with those who come from a context different from one’s own. Given the political and cultural divisions that are currently rending our country, there is perhaps no better time for our students to develop these skills so that they may be brought to bear upon their return.

CGIS is continuing to monitor the COVID-19 situation around the world. Please visit our Health & Safety alerts page for the most up-to-date information!