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Stopped by pandemic, UA study abroad planned for restart in May

by JAIME ADAME ARKANSAS DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE | February 22, 2021 at 7:04 a.m.
Students study at the University of Arkansas Rome Center at Palazzo Tavernas, Rome, in this undated courtesy photo.

FAYETTEVILLE — Study abroad opportunities halted nearly a year ago by the emergence of covid-19 are planned to resume in May for University of Arkansas, Fayetteville students.

The University of Arkansas Rome Center, for years UA’s largest study abroad program, is expected to reopen for the summer semester at about 40% of its normal capacity, university spokeswoman Amy Unruh said. Other faculty-led study abroad trips also are expected to be allowed this summer after a new covid-19 review process for such trips, Unruh said.

The reach of the pandemic became unmistakable at the UA Rome Center last year. At the end of February, the university shut down classes for about 40 UA students and 60 others from different schools taking courses at the site. The suspension of UA Rome Center operations came more than a week before the first case of covid-19 in Arkansas, announced on March 11.

Now, UA plans to resume its offering of international study abroad opportunities while some other universities in the state have said they are continuing to wait before restarting their programs.

It’s unclear how many universities across the country are resuming study abroad programs, but UA is not alone in announcing such plans, even as the U.S. Department of State continues with a “Level 3” travel advisory that states: “Reconsider travel to Italy due to COVID-19.” Other countries in Europe and elsewhere have similar advisories, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not updated its guidance from September guidance from September that tells colleges and universities to “consider postponing or canceling student international travel programs.” Temple University has already resumed its study abroad program for its Rome campus and is currently “offering a full slate of classes,” Ray Betzner, a spokesman for the Philadelphia university, said in an email. The University of Kansas on its website has said it is planning to offer a limited number of on-site study abroad programs to students.

OTHER SCHOOLS IN STATE

Bill Smith, a spokesman for Arkansas State University, in an email said university group study abroad trips are canceled at least through the summer.

“At this time, with the restrictions we are observing for travel into many of our overseas partner countries, we are not anticipating any group study abroad for fall 2021,” Smith added, though he said individual students can request approval for study programs abroad on a case-by-case basis.

Amanda Hoelzeman, a spokeswoman for the University of Central Arkansas, said semester study abroad trips are canceled through summer.

“At this time, we are hopeful we can resume our Study Abroad semester exchange programs in fall 2021,” Hoelzeman said.

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The Institute of International Education is preparing to survey universities to ask how many are planning to resume study abroad programs this summer, a spokesman said. A survey last summer by the organization found that study abroad programs for undergraduates were largely canceled for fall 2020.

In past years at UA, about 50 faculty-led study abroad opportunities have been offered, Unruh said. But it’s still undecided how many faculty-led trips will be offered this summer. She said five such faculty-led trips are currently being reviewed for approval.

“Faculty-led programs are currently allowed for summer 2021 and are required to complete an extensive review of COVID-19 protocols that address plans and policies to protect students during international travel. This is a new element of planning for faculty, and the review process is underway,” Unruh said in an email.

In response to a question about resuming study trips abroad given the CDC and U.S. Department of State guidance, Unruh said the CDC guidelines “indicate a careful evaluation of travel restrictions, challenges returning home, and challenges accessing health care while abroad.” Unruh said that these “areas have been carefully evaluated for the Rome Center location, including plans for health care access, testing and quarantine or isolation.” Reopening the Rome Center is considered an exception to UA’s current covid-19 travel policy, she said, with the exception granted because there is “a plan for mitigating risk through reduced capacity, reduced in-country travel for students, increased health and safety policies and procedures, as well as the academic importance of travel.” Unruh said the learning environment for the UA Rome Center will be similar to that seen in Fayetteville classrooms.

The university, after suspending in-person classes in early March through the summer, in August resumed face-to-face instruction with students spaced apart in classrooms and a mandate in place to wear face coverings. Many classes remain online, however.

“The complete reopening plan for the Rome Center is similar to the campus reopening plan used in Fayetteville. It will be posted on the Study Abroad website prior to the summer term,” Unruh said.

UA ROME CENTER

The UA Rome Center has an annual budget of about $1.8 million, according to UA budget documents published on the state Division of Higher Education’s website.

Revenue from the UA Rome Center is not broken out separately, but the program fee for a student attending a five-week program in the summer is listed as $3,750, according to information posted on UA’s website. This fee includes lodging and meals.

The fee does not include UA tuition, which was listed as an additional cost to students of about $1,775, according to the website.

Other students from different universities also study at the UA Rome Center, or at least have in the past. Unruh said some decisions on enrollment remain pending.

“The Rome Center will prioritize students from the University of Arkansas and will allow enrollment from other institutions if space allows. We are still in the process of reviewing several programs that are planned for Rome, and our enrollments are not yet finalized,” Unruh said.

VIRTUAL COURSES

Along with the planned restart of in-person learning abroad, the university is offering courses that provide students with virtual experiences.

Study abroad and virtual courses are important for students, giving an “opportunity to open their eyes and introduce them to different ways people approach life,” Ryan Calabretta-Sajder, an assistant professor of Italian, said.

In past years, he’s taught at the UA Rome Center but this summer will be teaching a virtual course from Fayetteville. Through virtual reality footage and digital humanities materials, students will be exposed to the cultures present in Rome’s neighborhood streets and piazzas, he said.

Calabretta-Sajder said he’s getting a local academic and writer, Igiaba Scego, to speak to students virtually, whereas she might have led a physical tour if the students were in Rome.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen post-covid,” Calabretta-Sajder said. For students who lack the financial means for extended travel or have other reasons for not leaving the country, such virtual courses “may offer newfound opportunities,”

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