Global Again: Drexel Student Study Abroad Experiences in a Changed World
For Sana’i Parker, it was all worth it, though he wasn’t always sure it would be.
The “it” was the Drexel University third-year mechanical engineering student’s decision to study abroad this term in Hong Kong, and confronting barriers created by the COVID-19 pandemic — like cancellations, shifting travel requirements and mandatory quarantine upon arrival — that made it harder to do so.
“I wanted a change of pace,” he said of the decision to study abroad during the pandemic. “I wanted to put myself in an environment that was going to make me uncomfortable and challenge me. And boy, has it challenged me. It's been a roller coaster.”
Parker started thinking about studying abroad in February, before Drexel had even relaunched these offerings after restricting international travel in March 2020. But the deadline to apply for fall term programs was fast approaching. He’d always wanted to go to Asia, and several factors helped him set his sights on Hong Kong specifically, including a lower language barrier and hours spent on YouTube researching its customs and culture.
“Ultimately, I picked Hong Kong because I felt it would be a very diverse place that mixes the Western lifestyle that I'm used to with Eastern and East Asian culture,” he said. “Now that I'm here and I've seen it firsthand, I can definitely say that that inference was 100% correct.”
But it took a lot of time and heartache before Parker was able to see and experience these things firsthand — beyond the wildest dreams for pre-pandemic international education and travel.
First, his original host institution cancelled its fall offerings for international students. Parker scrambled to apply to study through an alternative institution (City University of Hong Kong, where he ultimately ended up this term), but he was not provided with campus housing. Added to the stress of finding a suitable place to live in one of the world’s most expensive cities, Parker’s travel plans remained in flux until he received his student visa in late July.
Finally, in the days leading up to his departure in late August, the Hong Kong Government reclassified the United States as a high-risk country, and travelers arriving from the U.S. would be subject to a mandatory 21-day quarantine in a designated facility. Parker had previously only planned for a seven-day quarantine in addition to other testing and self-monitoring measures, which would have allowed him to attend his first City University classes in person when the school year began on Aug. 30. Due to the reclassification, he would instead not see the inside of a classroom for another month upon arrival.
“That was when I was really close to being like, ‘Oh, my God, is it even still worth coming?’” he remembered. “…I ultimately decided to still come. When I came, I didn't really feel as bad as I made it out to be.”
Instead, the stress stopped during his layover in Toronto from Philly, after he had successfully produced the Ziploc bag containing his passport, visa, negative test result, and other papers that became the key to a life-changing experience. Three weeks later, after countless hours of Netflix, online class, and gazing out his hotel room window without ever being able to open it, much less set foot outside the door, he finally felt the magnitude and the excitement of spending the next few months living and learning in another country.
“Despite the craziness getting here, I wouldn't change it for the world,” he said. “I'm making so many memories every single day.”
This craziness is part of the new normal for students hoping to engage in global opportunities nowadays, though they vary greatly by country and the ever-evolving threat of this novel virus. But for students like Parker and Drexel faculty and staff aiding them in harnessing these global experiences, waiting for our world to return to a pre-pandemic “normal” may not be an option, nor may it be a viable endeavor.
“If we just wait for that time, it may never come,” said Young-Min Park, an education abroad advisor who works with students studying abroad in Asia and several countries in Europe, including Parker. “And so, if that's the case, we also don't want a whole four, five, six years’ worth of students to just completely miss out on something that could really change and impact their lives.”
Not wanting students to miss out is why Park and his colleagues in the Office of Global Engagement worked diligently to reopen study abroad opportunities to Drexel students as early as spring term this year. And for fall, almost all study abroad opportunities available before the pandemic have been relaunched except in select countries still carrying strict border regulations.
The first group of students to set foot on international soil this past spring were eight Dragons who studied abroad in South Korea. In order to set them on their way, Park spearheaded a proposal to the Essential Travel Review Committee (part of the University’s Return Oversight Committee guiding pandemic-related decisions) after conducting a ton of research in order to ensure the students’ safety.
“I’m originally from South Korea, so that gave me a little bit of an advantage basically being able to call friends and family back in Korea and say, ‘Hey, what’s the situation there right now?’” Park explained. “I spent a lot of hours reading a lot of very boring documents, but they were obviously very important. That information kind of became a blueprint for us to be able to repeat the same again for summer and then again for fall.”
Karen Lee, a fourth-year marketing and organizational management student, was one of those eight students who studied in South Korea after the committee greenlighted the proposal. At that point, she had been planning to study abroad for a full year, having first applied to leave in spring 2020, and then for that fall. Both opportunities were subsequently cancelled due to the pandemic. But being Korean herself, and wanting to experience living abroad as a student, the pandemic did little to discourage her global desires.
“I think visiting a country [as opposed to] actually getting to study and live there gives you a completely different perspective,” she said.
Lee said the experience of traveling to and quarantining in South Korea last March was both very strict due to the pandemic, but also very organized. The hurdles included ample paperwork, diligent testing and a two-week quarantine which some other students did at sanctioned hotels, but Lee completed while staying in an AirBnb. She was checked up on regularly by government officials and went through temperature checks twice a day while in quarantine, which she had to report the results of in an app that also tracked her whereabouts.
“There was one instance where the GPS kind of malfunctioned, so it was showing my location a little bit off from where I was supposed to be,” Lee remembered. “Within five minutes, someone was there knocking on my door, making sure that I was where I was supposed to be.”
Once quarantine ended, there were still COVID enforcements to be observed in the South Korean capital of Seoul where Lee was studying. They included a 10 p.m. curfew enforced on indoor dining at bars and restaurants, and limiting private social gatherings of more than four people, including outside gatherings. Lee said this affected her ability to meet people, but despite this, she made the best of it, and called it “the best experience I’ve ever had.”
“I was so grateful to be able to go,” she said. “The experience was so much better than I ever imagined. It was one of my favorite time periods in my college experience. I think it's my favorite term that I've ever experienced during college.”
Lee and Parker both recommended that their fellow students take the opportunity to study abroad now, despite the COVID-related hoops to jump through.
“I'm sure [people] never could have guessed that all those steps I had to take just to get to another country. And now, here I am, and I'm having the time of my life,” Parker said. “I'm happy with myself that I didn't let the insecurities about things being a bit different back me down from it because I would have been missing out on so much.”
Despite these testimonials, there’s another avenue for global study and engagement available to Drexel students — one that never requires them to even step foot off campus. They are Global Classrooms, or courses which engage Drexel students with students and partner institutions abroad using interactive technology. It’s the type of offering that Emily Daly, a second-year international business and marketing major, said was one of the only classes she took during her remote freshmen year that made her feel connected to her peers.
“We were coordinating as a team. We had to actually work together and talk with each other both in the classroom and the breakout rooms and outside of class to complete these projects,” she said. “So, we were forced by the classroom to interact with each other. We did a lot of bonding.”
As an international business major, Daly was put into the sections of Business 101 and Business 102 courses that have been taught as global classrooms since 2014 under the purview of Clinical Professors of Business Dana D’Angelo and Jodi Cataline, and working with three primary partners at Heilbronn University of Applied Sciences in Germany, Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands and Strathclyde University in Scotland.
D’Angelo said not only were these global classrooms well-positioned for the pandemic, having already been taking place over Zoom, but became an alternative for globally minded students like Daly when their mobility was restricted.
“It was always an alternative to study abroad, even pre- pandemic,” D’Angelo said. “… But I think that through the pandemic now, the institution and students are also saying, ‘We can truly be global through a Global Classroom. We don't have to be mobile.’”
And now that travel is once again a possibility — even, for some, a priority — D’Angelo and Cataline will spearhead the first faculty-led study abroad trip since the start of the pandemic to visit their academic partners in Germany, and Daly will also be joining them. And even though she’s very excited for the trip, she touts Global Classrooms as a good starting point or alternative to study abroad for students whom that is not an option.
“No matter what your major is, you should take a Global Classroom because it expands your perspectives, and it opens up that global mindset to viewing different problems from a global perspective,” she said. “… [They’re] a great opportunity to have as a class, get credits from it, but not actually have to travel anywhere and spend the time or the money. So I think once students realize that it is an option, it's going to increase in popularity.
“I kind of never shut up about Global Classrooms or global opportunities in general or to my friends,” Daly continued “As soon as you explain the program to people, they want to do it. There's no negatives to it. It's just a fantastic opportunity no matter how you look at it.”
And though traditional study abroad opportunities may not be so easy in our new world, it’s still something most students who do it never shut up about, and never forget.
“Any student that has ever studied abroad, they will talk to you nonstop about it,” Park said. “Before they went, they were like, ‘Oh, this sounds fun.’ When they come back, they're like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I'm so glad I did it, because this really changed my life.’ And so, I don't want students to miss out on that, now that we feel fairly confident that they can do it safely and without risking much. There are hoops to jump, but it's totally worth it for them.”