Temple University senior Emily Wilson had dreamed of going to Japan one day, but first she planned to finish college.
Then the pandemic hit and she spent a semester and a half stuck inside, watching many of her plans unravel.
“Studying abroad is one thing I could do to really shake things up in my life when everything else was standing still,” said Wilson, 22, a Central High grad from Philadelphia.
Off she flew in January to Tokyo, where Temple has a campus. She is one of about 110 Temple students studying overseas this spring, the first semester that Temple has resumed study abroad since the pandemic hit. That compares with about 560 last spring before the pandemic.
Temple, which also has a campus in Rome, is one of few schools in the region that resumed study abroad this semester, even while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to recommend that colleges consider postponing or canceling student international travel. Many other schools, including the University of Pennsylvania, and Drexel, Villanova, Pennsylvania State and Rutgers Universities, have not resumed.
“Study abroad is operating on a much reduced capacity compared to what it was like over a year ago,” said Amelia Dietrich, director for research and resources at the Forum on Education Abroad.
The International Institute on Education, which tracks study abroad, didn’t have numbers on how many students or schools are participating in study abroad this academic year. Before the pandemic, nearly 350,000 U.S. students studied abroad annually, according to the association.
Emilia Zankina, dean of Temple’s Rome campus, said her program is one of about half a dozen out of 160 American programs in Italy that have resumed. The planning and execution have been intense, she said, but have prepared her for anything.
“I feel like I can run an army right now,” she said.
Many other countries still are not welcoming foreign tourists. Recovery will vary by country, Dietrich said. She expects more programs to reopen in the fall and even more next spring.
“But to get back to the same number as before may take a couple years,” she said.
Andrew Law, dean and interim executive director of the college of global studies at Arcadia University, said only a handful of the more than 150 universities that typically send students to Arcadia’s study-abroad programs participated this academic year.
Arcadia, regularly recognized by the International Institute as a leader in study abroad, usually has 2,500 U.S. and Canadian students in study-abroad programs annually. Last fall, it had 46 students studying in England and Scotland, Law said. But with lockdowns increasing, the university has only six there this semester, and they were students who remained from the fall.
At Temple, the decision was made with input from many offices, including risk management, legal counsel, strategic communications, and student health, said Sara Sequin, associate director of education abroad and overseas campuses. They look at many factors, including a country’s case counts, health-system capacity, border restrictions, efforts to mitigate the spread, and ability to complete the academic term, as well as Temple’s ability to support students.
“Temple also considers local restrictions (such as lockdowns and curfews) and how they affect the quality of the experience,” Sequin said.
Staff meet weekly to respond to shifting conditions, and Temple increased communication with students and parents, she said.
Challenges emerged anyway. The day after Christmas, when the campus was closed for winter break, Temple got word that Japan would be shutting its borders Jan. 3 to most students entering on visas — days earlier than Temple students had planned to depart for the country.
“Well, we’ve come this far,” Sequin said her team thought. “Let’s see if we can make this happen.”
Sequin, who was in Connecticut with family for the holiday, scrambled alongside other staff to help with adjustments in flights, ground transportation, and housing, and to make sure students could get their required COVID-19 testing in time.
Matthew Wilson, dean of the Tokyo campus (no relation to Emily), which enrolls about 1,300 undergraduates, a fraction of whom are there on study abroad, said two students got their virus tests too early and were turned away at the airport. They had to get retested. Two others tested positive when they arrived in Japan and were quarantined.
In the end, 34 of 43 who initially planned to go for study abroad went.
“I was kind of nervous. but I feel like it’s handled very well over here,” said Catalina Barroso Delarosa, 21, a Temple senior from North Wales. “Everyone wears masks. It’s not a big issue here.”
The psychology major said she was determined to have a global experience after her study abroad last spring in South Korea was cut short when the coronavirus caused universities to bring students home.
She takes public transportation to her one in-person class and her internship working as a teacher’s aide at an international school. She’s also done a lot of shopping and gone on a hiking trip with her Japanese class. Her mom calls every other day to check in.
Glenis Delarosa said she’s not worried because her daughter has always been very responsible.
“She has been dreaming about this as long as I can remember,” she said. “She is enjoying her life, and I’m happy about that.”
Case counts have remained relatively low in Tokyo, Wilson, the dean, said. All of Japan has had fewer than 8,800 deaths from coronavirus, compared with more than 500,000 in the United States. And no Temple students on campus have contracted the virus, he said.
“It’s probably safer to be in Tokyo than it is in most places in the United States, or most places in the world, for that matter,” Wilson said.
The campus has kept about 65% of undergraduate classes online but has offered students field trips to temples and museums, cultural events, and other experiences.
Wilson, the Central grad, has charted her own fun. Travel is extremely cheap right now, so she rents Airbnbs and takes her classes, which are all online, while touring. She took her Japanese II exam wearing a yukata — a Japanese robe — and gazing out her window at Mount Fuji.
“Tourist spots are very empty right now,” said Wilson, a sociology major who also is interning at a private girls’ high school. “Spaces that normally you’d have to wait a long time to reserve a ticket for, you can walk right into.”
In Rome, case counts are climbing. The region earlier this month reverted to red status — the strictest lockdown — through April 6 and classes have moved online. Even before that, the experience was different, Zankina said. While students can attend field trips and absorb the culture, they had to quarantine when they arrived, are tested weekly for the virus, and can’t travel outside the region to see other sites in Europe.
The campus currently has about 70 students, compared with about 300 normally, she said. She’s fine with that.
“We didn’t want anyone with any doubts coming,” she said. “We wanted to make sure students had a very clear idea what to expect and were eager to come.”
Nothing could stop Julie Kim, 20, a junior communication studies major from Warrington.
“I had no control over the pandemic, but the one thing I did have control over was my mind-set and my determination to be here,” she said.
She got scholarships to cover her expenses, and so far, she’s visited a little beach town and seen the Trevi Fountain and the Pantheon among other tourist sites in Rome. Attending in-person classes, rather than online, has been especially gratifying, she said.
She’s glad she made the trip, even though one of her roommates tested positive for the virus recently and that meant Kim had to spend 11 days in quarantine — that’s on top of the 17 days she had to quarantine when she arrived.
“I’m still here in Italy,” she said, “and I wouldn’t change it for anything.”