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Eagles Take to the Skies: BC Study Abroad Returns

In the fall of 2021, many Boston College students grabbed their passports, packed their bags, and boarded international flights. A year and a half after a series of cancellations, study abroad had returned.

 A Series of Cancellations

On March 12, 2020, BC’s Office of International Programs—now titled the Office of Global Education (OGE)—informed all students who were studying abroad that they must return home due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Larry Pickener, the director of OGE, said March 2020 is the biggest challenge he has faced in his time at BC.

“It was very stressful,” Pickener said. “Figuring things out as you went even, you know, we had a lot of protocols and procedures in place overall regarding health and safety, but you know, each day was a challenge.”

Prior to March 2020, BC slowly canceled some programs in Asia, Pickener said, but it was not until COVID-19 hit Italy, due to the vast number of students studying there, that it became a larger obstacle for OGE to tackle, he said.

Pickener said OGE had to get about 450 students back to the U.S. while airports were shutting down and the cost of flights was quickly rising. Yet, Pickener is proud of the work his office did in successfully getting students back home.

“I think our office did a Herculean job to basically help get students home in terms of some reimbursements for everything and then working with universities where we could for finishing out the semesters remotely like they did here at BC,” he said. 

In summer 2021, OGE was finally given the green light to start sending students abroad again for the 2021 fall semester. Pickener said that with more university partners abroad starting to open their borders and welcome international students, OGE felt comfortable sending students abroad. 

“It was a fairly easy process in terms of moving forward,” he said. “What held [us] up [was] we kind of moved forward even at times where universities abroad were not 100 percent certain that they were welcoming students, but ultimately, many of our partners did welcome students.” 

 Homecomings and Goings 

Meghan Fitzgerald, Lynch ’23, studied abroad during fall of 2021 in Croatia through a program run by the European Center for the Study of War and Peace. Coming into BC, Fitzgerald said she knew she would study abroad.

“I’ve always enjoyed international travel, and I thought studying would add such a cool extra dimension to that, ” Fitzgerald said.

Since the Class of 2023 experienced the majority of its freshman year, Fitzgerald said she was less concerned about missing BC traditions and more with being away from her friends for a whole semester.

“I had a normal freshman year for the most part,” Fitzgerald said. “I had a full experience with football and things like that. I was definitely nervous to miss out on a semester of  bonding and maybe have trouble making friendships, but that ended up not being a problem for me.”

Fitzgerald said she was anxious about contracting COVID-19 before arriving in Croatia, but her worries settled down once she arrived.

“Obviously, I was very nervous I was gonna test positive like a week before and just not be able to go at the beginning,” she said. “But once I left, I didn’t feel very nervous about it, and it wasn’t like my biggest worry.”

While many students visit various foreign countries during their time abroad, Fitzgerald said this was discouraged because of the continued effects of the pandemic.

“Our program directors did encourage us not to travel outside of Croatia because if we did, we would have to get tested before coming back to class,” she said. “But we just kind of traveled around Croatia and had a great time.”

Haley Carey, an international studies major and MCAS ’23, said she always planned on studying abroad, as international studies majors are strongly recommended to study abroad. 

Carey went to Paris during the fall semester through the BC in Paris program and stayed with a host family while taking classes at École Supérieure de Commerce de Paris, a Parisian business school.

Leading up to her departure for Paris, Carey said she was anxious the pandemic would cancel her program before it began.

“I think I was more concerned that it wasn’t going to run,” Carey said. “That was one thing that I was a little concerned over because … I don’t want to go to a foreign country just to do online school.”

Though many of her classmates did not want to miss out on the typical college experience, Carey said she still felt that studying abroad was the right decision for her.

“I think my attitude was like, ‘Well, we’ve already had weird times, I’m just going to go and do my own thing—there’s no other time to do it other than now,’” she said. 

This semester, Sarah West, CSON ’23, is studying abroad in Quito, Ecuador, with the BC Seeing Quito program at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito. As a nursing student, West said that she was excited to be able to study abroad, as many undergraduate nursing programs inhibit students’ ability to do so. 

“One of the big reasons I came to BC was because I could study abroad as a nursing major, which is not very common in a lot of colleges,” West said.

West said she felt strange leaving campus just as things started to return back to normal, but she still decided to go abroad, hoping to make equally valuable memories in Quito.

“I’m so glad I am abroad because it’s equally …  an adventure to the one I would be having in Boston,” West said.

Some students who were planning to go abroad this year never made it, as some programs were still canceled. 

Emilie Dufault, MCAS ’23, was supposed to study abroad in Melbourne, Australia in the fall of 2021.

Dufault found out that she was accepted for the fall semester in early February of 2021, but only a few weeks after receiving her acceptance, she was notified that her program had been canceled.

“I got a second email that was like, ‘Just to let you know, due to COVID, all programs in Australia have been canceled for both the fall and spring semester next year,’” Dufault said. 

While Dufault said OGE offered to help her find another program, since she originally wanted to go abroad during the spring semester as opposed to the fall semester, she did not end up re-applying and chose to stay on campus.

For Dufault, COVID-19 did not affect her decision to study abroad at first, but it did affect her decision to not reapply to a different program after her first program got canceled, she said. 

“I was like, ‘The first semester is already a little wonky, might as well just stay to get a fuller college experience,’” she said. 

Molly Harrison, MCAS ’23, planned on studying in Germany during the Spring 2022 semester—until Germany cracked down on travel restrictions a few months before her departure, she said. Harrison said the amusement that comes with being abroad is what initially drew her to apply.

“​​I think everyone has that fantasy of going abroad and living your best life and having a wonderful Instagram that we’re all seeing right now,” she said.

Harrison was accepted to apply to the American Junior Year (AJY) program at Heidelberg University—an external program in Germany—for the Spring 2022 semester. When a BC student applies to an external program, Harrison said, BC first approves the student to apply to the university abroad.

“BC approves your original application saying, ‘You’re a strong enough candidate,’” she said. “‘You can apply to this program and see whether you get in. … We’re supporting you. We’re sponsoring you.’”

Harrison said she sent her application to Heidelberg in October 2021, and by Oct. 21, AJY canceled its program after Germany’s updated COVID-19 travel restrictions.

“Heidelberg canceled its program, and BC’s response was like, ‘Shit, [you’re] out of luck,’” she said.

By that point, Harrison said, it was too late to apply to other spring semester programs.

Though the unfortunate news was upsetting to Harrison, she said she had somewhat expected the program’s cancellation—as COVID-19 cases had increased during the late fall of 2020, and she anticipated similar trends in 2021.

“I was upset, but I had also been suspicious because we noticed last year the trends in COVID cases increasing over the winter because everyone’s forced inside,” she said. “So, I wasn’t surprised, but I was obviously let down and upset because I wanted to [go abroad], but it just felt like it wasn’t meant to be, I guess.”

Despite the disappointment she experienced, Harrison said a silver lining of her situation is that this year is her first full academic year on campus.

“It is nice because this is my first full year at BC,” she said. “Last year, I … went home [from] Thanksgiving to the spring semester, so it’s my first official real BC year with all activities and everything, and I’m excited to be here. I have a double major now and a minor, so academically speaking, I was able to add more, which is exciting. But yeah, I mean, I probably would have had more fun abroad running amok.”

To compensate for the lost experience, Harrison said she plans on applying to a Fulbright Scholarship, which if rewarded would grant her a stipend to teach English to students in Germany.

Other juniors, however, had abroad options that were running but ultimately decided not to go, such as Maddy McGrath, MCAS ’23. After her first choice of program in Paris was canceled, McGrath said that she reconsidered studying abroad.

“I still had a program in Paris,” McGrath said. “It was still the spring semester and still would have been a great experience, but I think primarily what drove me not to go was knowing that it wasn’t going to be exactly what I wanted considering how much time I have missed on campus. I wanted to just be here. Boston College is my favorite place in the world.”

 The Initial Impact

In early 2020, Daniel Packard, MCAS ’22, applied and was accepted to attend Maynooth University in Ireland for Spring 2021. After abroad programs were canceled for the 2020 fall semester, Packard said OGE told students planning on going abroad in the following spring that they would keep the possibility of running the programs up in the air. On Oct. 26, 2020, OGE canceled all Spring 2021 abroad programs.

“I was waiting for the email all of last year,” Packard said. “I knew it was coming. I don’t think it was BC’s fault for making that decision. I think they had to make that decision. I don’t think they made the wrong one. … [But] I feel like cheated, almost, out of a thing that I came into school knowing I wanted to do. … I feel like [we’re] the one grade that got perfectly cheated out of this experience that is such a big part of college.”

As an alternative option, OGE offered students with canceled Spring 2021 programs priority in the application process for fall 2021. Since this would have cut into Packard’s senior year, he said he did not see the appeal in opting to go abroad in the fall.

“I knew that was something I didn’t want to do,” he said. “I didn’t want to. After giving up a semester to COVID sophomore year and then pretty much all of last year—like last year was really weird—I knew I didn’t want to go and give away a semester of senior year so they offered that but I never considered it.”

Making up for the missed abroad experience, Packard said he and his friends plan to travel around Europe for a few weeks after graduation.

“I don’t think I’m ever gonna go live in Europe for an extended period, or like a four-month period,” he said. “Me and my friends are gonna go travel, probably for a max of three weeks, but even that’s different. That’s like we’re gonna be hopping around Europe. We won’t be in one place and really get … immersed into a community, which I think I definitely would have had the opportunity to do [if abroad].”

 Should I Stay or Should I Go?

As the application deadline approached for studying abroad during the 2022–23 academic year, many members of the Class of 2024 began to question whether or not they would study abroad.

Some current sophomores stuck to their previous decision to go abroad, while others struggled with leaving BC behind for a semester after an unconventional freshman year. 

Brian Lynch, MCAS ’24, said his main motivation behind studying abroad is to explore the world.

Lynch, who will be in Venice, Italy, said that his biggest worry about going abroad is missing his friends at BC. 

“They’ll definitely be some friends I won’t see all school year, just because they’re going in the spring,” he said. “But I mean, as of right now, [I have] no fear of being away from home.” 

Grace Marshall, CSOM ’24, is studying abroad in Paris during the Spring 2023 semester but said she did not care which semester she went abroad—because her priority was being in Paris.

“I didn’t really mind whichever semester because my priority was going to Paris, but a lot of my friends that also wanted to study abroad were thinking about doing spring, and so … that was how I made my decision,” Marshall said. “I’m happy with spring because I get to be here in the fall for football season, but that wasn’t a priority. I think there’s trade-offs and stuff for both semesters.”

While Marshall expressed that she is a bit nervous for the fall semester without many of her friends on campus, she is not worried about missing BC too much while in Paris. 

“I don’t know if I’m going to have too much FOMO when I’m abroad in the spring because I think I’m just gonna be so happy and living in the moment,” she said. “I’m sure maybe when Marathon Monday rolls around or Beanpot or stuff like that, I’ll probably feel like I miss that … but I’ll be so happy to be in France.”

For Marshall, the pandemic did not affect her decision to study abroad at all—it actually made her want to study abroad more than before, she said.

“I’ve always wanted to [study abroad], so it’s not COVID [that] has made me change any decision,” Marshall said. “If anything, it’s made me want to study abroad more just because it has been such a long time since I’ve traveled out of the country. … I think it’s made me more excited to go abroad, and now I finally get to go on a plane far away again.” 

Some students who are unsure about studying abroad still decided to apply, which is what Alex Meal, Lynch ’24, did.

Meal, who was accepted to study in Bath, England during the spring 2023 semester, is still on the fence about whether or not she will go, she said.

Meal said that she does not want to lose a semester on campus, especially after the abnormality of her freshman year.

“I feel like I already lost two semesters, and I don’t want to miss out on like, a whole second semester, where I wouldn’t be able to see my friends at all or like do any of the BC things in the spring,” she said.

The sense of normalcy regarding academics is also a reason why Meal is inclined to not necessarily study abroad. 

“I’m mainly worried [that] I’ll go abroad and then not like it and decide that I would rather be at BC like in my normal schedule,” Meal said. “The idea of going and having to learn a whole new class system and the way things work over there sounds like a lot, and I think I’m worried that I’m gonna go and miss the way that things were done in BC.”  

Ultimately for Meal, the pandemic has made her feel like she wants to hold onto the precious moments of college more than ever.

“COVID has definitely made me feel like I want to hold on to the precious moments in college because I had a lot of fun last year,” she said. “But it made me realize just how short college is and how fleeting all of these memories are. It makes me want to appreciate the time that I have here more and part of college, for a lot of people, is study abroad so I had to take that into account if I want that to be part of those fleeting memories.” 

Holding onto BC memories and experiences is what made Caroline McEnroe, MCAS ’24, change her mind about studying abroad, she said. Before arriving at BC, McEnroe thought she would go abroad.

“I always thought that I’d be going abroad,” McEnroe said. “That’s something that I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve always wanted to travel, and I went to the meetings to do abroad and was planning on doing it. And then kind of as time went on, I realized I kind of really want to just be on campus for another year.”

When making the decision to stay on campus for all of her junior year, McEnroe reflected on what she wanted most out of her four years at BC.

“Your four years of college, they’re supposed to be the best four years of your life, … and we lost 25 percent of that last year,” she said. “We did not get, I think, any semblance really of a normal college experience, and so you have three more left, so if you go abroad, you’re going abroad because you really want to go.”

Another consideration that students have to make when deciding whether or not to go abroad is how it will impact their extracurricular involvement. McEnroe said that this was especially important to current sophomores, as the pandemic inhibited on-campus involvement during their freshman year.

“Some clubs weren’t running at all last year, and so people who are sophomores are just getting into them now,” McEnroe said. “Club culture here is the thing to do instead of fraternities and sororities. I think that’s why I kind of, over the course of this fall semester [and] in the beginning of the spring semester, people have decided to not go abroad anymore”

Similarly, Anna O’Brien, MCAS ’24, said she decided to stay on campus next year because this year has been much more exciting than last.

“But last year when I was a freshman, I just feel like the Class of ’24 missed out so much on the real BC, and coming into school this year has honestly felt like a different school,” O’Brien said. 

As a sophomore who has many friends going abroad next year, O’Brien said she has witnessed some of the sacrifices those who go abroad have to make based on their assigned semester.

“Some of them are going in the fall, and some of them are going in the spring, so they’re not gonna see each other and that was like a big factor in deciding whether or not they were going to go,” O’Brien said. 

Paige Nixon, MCAS ’24, also decided not to study abroad after her atypical freshman year. She said that it is important to figure out what you want from the college experience since there are benefits and detriments to any decision you make. 

“I think you have [FOMO] either way,” Nixon said. “If you stay, you miss out on the … semester abroad experience, but if you go, then you miss out on, you know, all the great things that BC has to offer during either the fall or the spring. So I think you may miss out either way on things. … It depends on what you want.”

Ever since she toured BC, Nixon said she was eager to go to football games and experience all of the traditions that BC has to offer, which were not available in their entirety last year. 

“The BC that I toured was obviously not the BC that it was last year, which is totally understandable,” Nixon said. “I really loved the BC that I saw when I toured and this year is really a lot more like what I saw … when I first came here.”

Pickener said that application numbers for the Class of 2024 hovered around 870, which is approximately the same number of applicants as in years prior to the pandemic. 

“We’re at about 870 applications, again, I think is really good, because there is still some uncertainty that students have [about] both going [and] things of that nature so we’re back to where we were a few years back,” Pickener said. “I’d love to see the numbers go up further, but I’m comfortable with 870.” 

 Freshmen Look Forward

Looking forward, members of the Class of 2025 are already considering the question of whether or not to go abroad.

Though Cordelia Zawarski, MCAS ’25, said she always had the intention of studying abroad, the decision ultimately came down to her involvement at BC.

Zawarski—a member of the Dance Organization of Boston College (DOBC)—said she may run for a DOBC board position during her junior year, which would inhibit her from applying to study abroad.

Apart from her involvement, Zawarski said she is considering remaining on campus for her full four years because COVID-19 threw a wrench into the last year and a half of her high school experience.

“I’m not quite sure that it’s worth it to live somewhere else and miss a semester of college just because … over the past last semester being here, I really do enjoy the Boston College experience,” Zawarski said. “And I don’t know if going abroad is necessarily my priority over how much I enjoy being here.”

Another factor that would keep Zawarski on campus is BC’s easing COVID-19 protocols, she said.

“Going into college and seeing, especially BC’s protocols with COVID, that I would have a pretty … normal experience here, the idea of losing a semester by going abroad doesn’t seem that appealing,” she said. “Just, if I had to weigh a pros-and-cons list, staying here for a semester rather than going abroad and losing … the things that come with each semester, doesn’t seem as appealing. There’s more cons to it.”

Zawarski, however, said the opportunity to experience a different culture and travel to foreign countries may still lead her to apply.

“My main … draw towards going abroad would probably be just the fact that I have never gone into a different country which is different from other people’s experience,” she said.

Zawarski said it seems as though many of her friends in the Class of 2025 will base their decision of whether or not to go abroad on their extracurricular involvement. She also said students may opt to apply to a summer abroad program, allowing them to be on campus for their four years and still study abroad.

“The focus, at least with my friends, might change to going abroad over summer instead of a full semester just so that they can do both the study abroad aspect of college [and] all eight semesters at BC itself,” she said.

Erik Winkler, MCAS ’25, said the prospect of studying abroad played a large role in his college application process.

“I did think about study abroad a lot,” he said. “Any college I wanted to apply to, I wanted it to have a good study abroad program, and BC offers one, so that was definitely a big factor of why I came here.”

Currently, Winkler said he will apply to study abroad, but foreign COVID-19 protocols may complicate his decision.

“I know people who have gone [to] study abroad at other colleges, and if you get COVID in other countries, you have to follow those COVID restrictions,” he said. “So, obviously, that plays a pretty big factor and [may affect] how your education experience is going to be [in] whatever country you choose because it’s going to vary, so I think that that’s like another thing you have to take into account.”

McGrath said she would reassure underclassmen who are evaluating their options that they will have invaluable experiences either way. 

“I would assure them that there really is no wrong decision to be made,” McGrath said. “Boston College is a fantastic place with fantastic opportunities, and abroad offers experiences that you cannot replicate anytime, any other time in your life.”

Olivia Joung contributed to reporting.

Featured Graphic by Annie Corrigan / Heights Editor

March 20, 2022
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