Elon University junior Heeba Chergui was studying abroad in Jordan last spring when she and many other students across the globe were sent home at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Determined to get her full experience abroad, Chergui is currently in Jordan for the second time.

“Yeah, we’re in the middle of a pandemic, but why should I limit myself to just staying in America where I’m probably going to feel worse about this pandemic?” Chergui said. “I feel like no matter where I go, I’m going to be safer there than I am in the United States.”

However, study abroad programs were not guaranteed for Elon students during the 2020-21 academic year. While most study abroad trips have been canceled or pushed back, students like Chergui and Elon junior Maggie Finley are still abroad despite the pandemic. 

Chergui sits on the steps of the Roman Theater in Amman, Jordan on Feb. 2. Photo courtesy of Heeba Chergui.

The university decided which programs could proceed spring semester based on each country’s border restrictions and whether study abroad programs in each country advised them to continue. 

“Honestly, I wasn’t nervous about going abroad other than the possibility of it being canceled before it happened,” Finley wrote in an email to Elon News Network.

Finley is currently in Florence, Italy — the most popular destination for students abroad this spring. A total of 52 Elon students were still able to participate in study abroad programs this spring — 12 of them in Florence — compared to last spring’s 245 students, according to Elon’s communications manager of global education Shanna Van Beek. This is nearly an 80% decrease.

Most of Elon’s study abroad programs were suspended or delayed either due to the severity of COVID-19 in specific countries, border restrictions or overall safety concerns. Van Beek said New Zealand is one of the usual spring destinations for Elon students to study abroad, but due to the country’s border restrictions, programs there were canceled.

Some students were convinced that the opportunity to study abroad would never occur during the pandemic after many students had been sent home during the spring 2020 semester. Elon junior Kate Dempster said she was wary of whether or not her abroad trip would proceed as planned, especially when on-campus students were sent home last spring and online learning commenced. 

“We still held out hope that we would still be able to go in the fall, but when summer happened and not much had changed, we realized we would not be going abroad in the fall,” Dempster said. 

Dempster’s study abroad program was pushed back until the spring of 2021 and then by the spring semester, it was canceled entirely. She said for many students, the decision to study abroad was personal and based on if they felt comfortable traveling abroad during the pandemic or if they would rather stay on campus and study abroad at a later date.

Van Beek said the Global Education Center was transparent with students about the facts, concerns and risks that accompany studying abroad during a pandemic. 

“What we care about is making global engagement happen where it’s safe, where it’s responsible, where it’s the best decision for each student, but recognizing that it’s not the best decision, especially right now, for every student,” Van Beek said. “Also recognizing that some students and some families are going to have a different risk threshold or risk tolerance than I might as an individual or the GEC might as well.”

The study abroad experience has not been “normal” for students who did choose to do so this semester. Students still face the many impacts of a pandemic and resulting regulations in various countries. 

Finley said Florence has a color zone system that describes the severity and restrictions resulting from the COVID-19 cases in the Italian city.

Florence reevaluates the color zone systems every few weeks and currently is in the yellow zone. Florence is also strict about masks needing to be worn everywhere while in public.

There is a region-wide curfew of 10 p.m. Some restrictions in Florence are similar to the ones in the United States — restaurants and bars close early for dining; retail stores take customers’ temperatures; and tourist spots are open to a small capacity of people. 

“Being in Italy, a place known for their excellent food and extensive dinners, is challenging when they have to close at 6 p.m.,” Finley wrote. “Of course, we can still get takeaway food, but I think that so much of the greatness has to do with the overall experience of an Italian meal and learning about the cultural differences of eating.”

There are many similar regulations in Jordan as well, according to Chergui, which also include an evening curfew. Chergui believes Jordan is taking physical distancing and mask regulations very seriously, as individuals face legal consequences for not wearing masks in public. These strict rules help Chergui feel safer when going out. 

“If I’m at a cafe, I won’t really have to worry about someone sitting next to me,” Chergui said. “I feel like people are taking social distancing seriously so they might be at a table with their own friends and even if they’re not wearing a mask, they’re, like, at the other side of the cafe, so I don’t really worry about them coming near me and ... getting germs all over me.”

Chergui also said that Jordan is not experiencing nearly as many COVID-19 cases or deaths as the U.S., though Jordan is a much smaller country. As of Feb. 19, Jordan’s rate of COVID-19 deaths is 13.6 per 1 million people, in comparison to the United States’ rate of 1,951.7 per 1 million people, according to Our World in Data. 

Most students attend study abroad programs with the hope of visiting neighboring countries as well, but traveling with restrictions during a pandemic makes that goal more difficult to achieve. 

"I originally decided to study in Europe because of the accessibility of traveling to other countries by a quick plane ride or even a train.Obviously, right now, traveling is not an option, but I do think there are quite a few benefits. Since I will not be leaving Florence every weekend, I will be spending much more time in the city and really getting to know the people, the streets and the culture."

Maggie Finley

Elon Junior

“I originally decided to study in Europe because of the accessibility of traveling to other countries by a quick plane ride or even a train,” Finley wrote. “Obviously, right now, traveling is not an option, but I do think there are quite a few benefits. Since I will not be leaving Florence every weekend, I will be spending much more time in the city and really getting to know the people, the streets and the culture.”

The GEC is providing students with an additional opportunity to experience international culture this year with the one-time May Term due to the cancellation of all Winter Term abroad programs in 2021. The rolling deadline for these programs is Feb. 25. However, five of the nine programs have already been canceled, and one has been waitlisted, leaving three programs with openings. Updates on these programs can be found on the GEC website. 

Van Beek said she believes study abroad opportunities are looking more promising for the upcoming fall semester.

“We’re hopeful. We’re moving ahead. As [of] fall, we’ll be back to our normal, robust numbers,” Van Beek said. “We’re normally in the 500s for study abroad and Study USA, and we’re hopeful we’ll level out, but of course, we are watching this day by day, and taking it day by day, as everyone else is.”