URI International Programs Face COVID-Related Challenges

With COVID-19 restricting the ability of universities to study abroad, the University of Rhode Island’s International Studies and Diplomacy (ISD) Program, as well as the International Engineering Program (IEP), have had to adjust their timetables for students graduating.

“We can’t change the realities of a global pandemic, and we can’t sacrifice students’ financial well-being or their personal safety,” Kristin Johnson, faculty coordinator for the ISD Program, said.

This isn’t the first semester that these programs have had to deal with this; students studying in China had to be pulled back to America in late January last semester, and every student studying abroad was recalled by March.

“In spring, we had a cohort of 53 students who were actually in the world beginning their internships in companies,” Sigrid Berka, executive director of IEP, said. “This cohort is now back to finish their fifth year here at URI. We had to follow URI’s decisions on recalling them.”

Johnson and Berka pointed out that both programs were helped by their structure of students typically going abroad before the year in which they graduate. Each program requires students to go abroad for one year to further their language acquisition and submersion.  

“In the IEP, it’s a five-year dual degree program, and students usually go abroad in the fourth year, so luckily, we could then tell this generation who couldn’t study abroad this year to go next year,” Berka said.

The ISD program was in the same situation, as many students will still have time to go abroad. 

“We’re lucky, we have a lot of students in the program, but most of them are not scheduled to go abroad until the 2021-22 academic year,” Johnson said.

Due to this structure needing to be adapted for COVID, both Berka and Johnson said that students had to be placed in high-level language classes earlier than would be ideal.

“Normally, the students take these highest-level literature classes that are required for the German or Italian or French or Spanish major in the fifth year when they return,” Berka said. “But since they now have to go abroad in the fifth year, they have to take these classes before going, when their language proficiency is not that high.”

Berka also noted that the IEP offered lower-level language courses to these students over the summer to help better prepare them for these classes.

Neither Johnson nor Berka expects there to be any restrictions in enrollment for either of their programs. However, both said that the ISD and IEP programs do have plans in place just in case.

“If it stretches past the spring, we’ll really have to reconsider some of the realities and more systematic and intervention-based alternatives,” Johnson said.

Both noted that while the programs put in place can’t replace studying abroad, the ISD program and IEP want to create as immersive an experience as possible. A lot of this has to do with each program’s respective language programs, which are also integral to the completion of the programs.

“Each individual circumstance is unique, and we’ve been working to facilitate an opportunity that gives students an immersive experience with cultural enrichment, so students have the opportunity to do something that’s analogous,” Johnson said.

Both programs were able to set up some students with internships, although each emphasized the struggles of doing so when many businesses weren’t offering any and some students lost ones that they had abroad. 

Berka also noted that the IEP had a volunteer program over the summer making ventilators from sleep apnea machines in the Memorial Union. Additionally, she mentioned that returning students were asked to report on their experiences abroad to some of their classes.

“[It was] to have them feel like experts who came and advised the younger generation in language classes, and what advice they would give,” Berka said. “They could, then, share what they had begun to work on in their internships and I think that made them feel good.”

Ultimately, there’s still a lot up in the air, and plenty of time for things to change. Currently, according to Berka, the German Academic Exchange Service is planning to go ahead with their internship program next summer, although URI would have to ease restrictions on their Study Abroad program by then for students to be allowed to participate. That, however, is also up in the air.

“We don’t know yet about spring, we don’t know yet about summer and we certainly don’t know yet about fall,” Berka said.

This story was published in the September 24, 2020 edition of the Good Five Cent Cigar.

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