As world shuts down, sophomores rethink fall semesters abroad


Students perused brochures and chatted with college faculty at a study abroad fair last fall.

In a normal year, over half of Middlebury’s junior class studies abroad. Next year will likely be different. As students look to the fall semester, many who had planned to study abroad are reconsidering due to Covid-19-related travel and safety concerns, with questions over whether the Middlebury Summer Language Schools will run, and disappointment about the loss of the current semester on-campus.

The decline in students studying abroad will affect housing and course registration in the upcoming semester, and will have academic implications for students whose majors require a semester abroad — such as International and Global Studies (IGS) and International Politics and Economics (IP&E). 

We have seen a higher percentage of students than usual withdrawing their study abroad applications between the application deadline and now,” said Liz Ross, associate dean for international programs and off-campus study. Students who applied to study abroad this fall have until June 15 to seek readmission to the college.

At this time, it is uncertain how many juniors will choose to remain on the Vermont campus, or will ultimately be forced to stay as a result of cancellation of programs abroad. Some schools, like Binghamton University, have already canceled their study abroad programs for fall 2020. Ross said that all Middlebury programs are proceeding as planned at the moment, but said that her office is paying “especially close attention” to what’s going on in areas like the southern hemisphere and India, where programs have early start dates in July and August.

In a worst-case scenario, in which no students are able to go abroad this fall, the college anticipates having roughly 200 more students on campus than during a typical semester, according to Senior Associate Dean of Students Derek Doucet. 

Many students attend Language Schools the summer before studying abroad in a non-English-speaking country to attain the necessary level of proficiency to meet Middlebury’s requirements for studying abroad. Uncertainty about the fate of these programs has also contributed to doubts and anxieties for students in this situation. 

The college has not yet announced a decision about summer programming, which includes Language Schools. The announcement is set to come sometime in mid-April. Other northeast colleges, such as Harvard and Wesleyan, have already canceled on-campus summer programming or moved programs online. 

The Registrar’s Office announced on April 15 that course registration for the fall semester would be pushed to mid-summer, as the office is currently unable to estimate how many students will be on campus next semester. The office also requested that students planning to study abroad register for classes as a fall back option.

Opting for a semester in Vermont

Many students pin study abroad as a cornerstone of the Middlebury experience. Choosing not to go, on the eve of that semester, has been a challenging decision. Some have reconsidered pursuing their travels because of the disappointment associated with the premature departure from campus this spring.  

My primary motivation to reconsider study abroad was because I felt like I, like all other students, was ripped away from my life at Midd too early and abruptly,” said Massimo Sassi ’22, who was planning to study in Florence, Italy in the fall.

Maia Sauer ’22 was planning to study in Paris, France, but has changed her mind since the college’s transition to remote learning.

I think the study abroad decision is difficult, because I have to weigh both the short- and long-term consequences. Do I prioritize what could be the experience of a lifetime, and miss out on a semester at Midd with people to whom I’ve already had to say premature goodbyes?” Sauer said. “Or, do I forgo study abroad and regret my decision later, when it becomes harder and harder to plan a similar experience?”

Sauer also expressed that being away from campus prompted her to reconsider her priorities for the upcoming semester, and helped her realize that she is not interested in the lonely adjustment to life abroad, especially now. 

Anna Wood ’22 had planned to study in Buenos Aires, Argentina in the fall — one of those programs with an early July start date — and is not confident that her program will happen. 

“I figure that the program will most likely be canceled,” Wood said. “I also don’t want to spend more than one semester away from the campus and community that make Midd so special.” 

Caroline Ritter ’22 was planning to study in Germany, but if Language Schools do not occur, she won’t be able to.

“Even if I could, though, losing the last half of our spring semester has made going abroad seem much less desirable,” she said. “I think it is probably a short-sighted decision to stay just because I miss my friends, but ultimately that is kind of the way I am leaning.”

All of the students interviewed noted having conversations with friends, peers and teammates who were also preemptively reconsidering studying abroad.

Study abroad brochures.

Academic implications 

Several majors at Middlebury, including International and Global Studies (IGS), International Politics and Economics (IP&E) and some language majors, have a study abroad requirement. Although department-by-department decisions have not been made yet, these programs are aware that they may need to adapt to the crisis situation. 

“Given the fact that we are dealing with a global pandemic and travel will certainly not be possible for a while, IGS will amend the requirements as needed,” said Tamar Mayer, the director of IGS.

Mayer says that after the programs in China were canceled before they even began this January, the IGS program amended their requirements and replaced the abroad experience with more language courses for those students. A similar process may occur in future situations, as language proficiency is also a requirement for the major. 

Associate Political Science Professor Amy Yuen, the director of IP&E, reached out to students on April 7 to let them know that the department would make accommodations for the situation. 

“If the college begins canceling study abroad programs, then the IP&E program will consult with administrators and faculty on how to accommodate students who have not fulfilled study abroad,” Yuen said. “There are many options to consider if this becomes an issue, but we will not leave students in the lurch. We will make some kind of accommodation.” 

But for some students, the situation has caused a total reconsideration of academic priority. 

“As I grappled with [study abroad], I began to think about if the IGS major was really something I wanted to do,” said Sassi, the student who was scheduled to study in Florence. With time at home to step back from academics and think about his trajectory at Middlebury, Sassi began to rethink his plans. “I started thinking about life after college, and to be honest, I didn’t really see a future for myself in the IGS field.” 

Sassi has since taken steps toward becoming a joint music and anthropology major. 

Correction: A previous version of this article said that Boston University, not Binghamton University, had canceled its programs abroad. The error has since been corrected.