Study abroad program reflects on challenges, looks to rebound from pandemic shutdowns

(Archive photo by Allison Evans | The Collegian )

Seventeen months have passed since the first documented case of COVID-19 in Kansas. Health officials were not sticking cotton swabs up noses in drive-thru clinics, governments did not require face masks and there were no travel restrictions.

According to the Governor’s website, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment identified the first positive case of COVID-19 in the state on March 7, 2020. The Johnson County woman was the first of many. As of Aug. 25, the KDHE reported a total of 362,321 positive cases.

In the beginning months of 2020, the virus was an overseas problem. For some Kansas State faculty, however, those problems came sooner than expected. Joe Milostan, study abroad director, was leading one of two K-State spring break travel groups in March when news of the virus’s solemnity broke.

“I was on the ground,” Milostan said. “It was incredibly stressful. It was a very chaotic time.”

Despite the safe return from Europe, Milostan had a lot of work to do to ensure other K-Staters abroad returned to the United States safely. Milostan and his staff began managing quarantines and coordinating the safest way to bring students home.

“There really wasn’t a precedent for that. We probably had 120 students abroad during the spring,” Milostan said. “We had to communicate with all of them, their families. And of course, they were all in different countries, so different things were happening.”

Several students in need of coordination were in London as a part of the second education abroad group. Studying journalism, the group pivoted its focus to pandemic-based stories as COVID-19 numbers rose. However, businesses and other European organizations started closing their doors to visitors.

“It was so strange with the pandemic,” trip leader Andrew Smith, professor of practice for the A.Q. Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communications, said. “It was a game-changer on how you plan to study abroad.”

Many challenges began when the group returned to Kansas. Smith tested positive for COVID-19, spending almost a week in the hospital fighting to recover. However, despite his health scare, Smith remains confident in the capability to travel safely, particularly as vaccination rates increase.

“As long as you’ve planned out exactly and take all the steps to be safe, study abroad can be very successful,” Smith said.

Part of keeping K-State travelers safe was putting plans on pause temporarily.

“From March 2020 to May 2021, we really didn’t have students participating in any programs,” Milostan said. “In addition, a travel ban from K-State combined with restrictions in host countries resulted in minimal study abroad opportunities until this summer when finally — after a long wait — between 30 and 40 students were able to study abroad through university programming.”

While limited in number, summer students created a template for moving forward. Milostan said fall programs will run at a limited capacity for the immediate future.

Limitations meant some students had to find alternative plans amidst pandemic cancellations. Cadence Ciesielski, senior in philosophy and Spanish, said she planned to study abroad in multiple countries through the university. However, the pandemic caused every program aligning with her studies to fall through.

Out of options, she chose a program outside the university, taking an internship abroad to gain the language and cultural learning she was searching for.

“I understood that the university was limited in their capacity to provide resources for students about study abroad,” Ciesielski said. “The situation was frustrating, in that I had to go to a third party.”

Through the program, she went to Mexico for 10 weeks over the summer. She said the experience was “the most enriching thing” she’s done in her Spanish education. However, despite the enrichment, she could not get K-State credit for her travels.

The same benefits Ciesielski gained from going abroad has Milostan determined to get the university’s program back on course. Doing so requires navigating an ever-changing global pandemic.

“[COVID-19] is a dynamic situation, so it changes frequently,” Milostan said. “Most program options are coming back or will be available. We’re looking at Spring 2022 as when the number of students becomes more normalized.”

Before the pandemic, a typical year might see anywhere from 700 to 800 K-State students participating in the education abroad program. While Milostan is not expecting full capacity in the immediate future, he said he anticipates getting much closer to usual numbers by spring.

He said the crisis planning at the beginning of the pandemic was “the ultimate test” of his office’s emergency response and communication plans.

Both Milostan and Smith said they remain passionate about the benefits of international travel, and neither plan to stop leading education abroad trips any time soon.

“I’m hoping that people are able, with gusto, to get back to the things they love to do,” Smith said.

Students interested in K-State’s study abroad program can attend an Education Abroad 101 session on the Study Abroad website. The daily sessions are virtual and run from 3 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.