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Study Abroad Returns After Pandemic Pause

Meredith Students Show Persistence, Positivity, and Flexibility While Spending the Fall Semester in Italy, the U.K., and France

By Melyssa Allen
A view overlooking an Italian city.

Study Abroad Returns After Pandemic Pause

Meredith Students Show Persistence, Positivity, and Flexibility While Spending the Fall Semester in Italy, the U.K., and France

By Melyssa Allen

IIn early 2020, when the coronavirus now known as COVID-19 was just entering public consciousness, Meredith’s Office of International Programs (OIP) was already focusing on how this new illness might affect international students and study abroad.

“The OIP has been completely immersed in COVID-19 work since January 2020,” said Director of International Programs Brooke Shurer. “Our decision-making process throughout has been to collect daily information from multiple sources, including the CDC, State Department, Overseas Security Advisory Council, the World Health Organization, professional listservs, and many other informational resources on travel safety.”

At the height of the pandemic, the difficult decision was made to put study abroad programs on hiatus. OIP staff continued to monitor conditions both abroad and in the U.S. with the intention of bringing back semester and summer programs once it was deemed safe to do so. Student health was the primary concern in the decision.

Staying Connected to Sansepolcro

Another priority during the hiatus was maintaining the decades-long relationship Meredith has had with the town of Sansepolcro, where the College’s Italy study abroad programs are based. Catherine Rodgers, ’76, director of Meredith in Italy, contacted Sansepolcro officials to make sure this connection wasn’t lost while study abroad was on pause. 

“Dr. Betty Webb, my friend and mentor, suggested that I reach out to the mayor or town council during the early days of the pandemic,” Rodgers said. “I wrote a letter to them in April of 2020, telling them how much we missed being there and assuring them that we would return as soon as we could do so safely.”

Rodgers’ letter was published in a Sansepolcro newsletter. “They responded to my note with another one, sending us their love and support,” Rodgers said. “Our relationship with the beautiful people of Sansepolcro remains strong despite our two-year hiatus caused by the pandemic.”

Shurer quotes a study abroad peer ambassador Ally Cefalu, ’22, who said, “Meredith’s relationship with the town of Sansepolcro transcends borders, languages, and even pandemics.”

Learning from Campus Success

After careful consideration and with safety protocols in place, study abroad programs restarted in fall 2021. Getting to that point required a lot of planning and patience. 

“We had to embrace the challenge to reimagine what ‘pandemic resilient’ study abroad looks like,” Shurer said. “We have worked tirelessly to offer the safest, healthiest, most academically engaging, and most interculturally immersive opportunities we can.”

The OIP consulted with Meredith colleagues who have helped the College offer an on-campus experience in Raleigh that is as safe as possible during COVID-19.

“We wanted to gather lessons learned and best practices from the Raleigh campus to understand the strategies that helped Meredith to succeed,” Shurer said. This included leaning on resources across campus, what Shurer calls a “shared campus commitment to safety,” which meant meeting with academic leaders and stakeholders in numerous departments. 

“We began by meeting with many of our wonderful colleagues from Mary Johnson, director of health services, to the great folks in Facilities Services, to the Dining Hall’s David Penney,” said Rodgers. “All of them shared their knowledge of COVID-19 protocols and safe practices, which we have adopted in the palazzo.”  

They also took advantage of professional organizations and resources in the field.

“I met regularly with AACUPI (American Association of College and University Programs in Italy) and, along with other study abroad providers, helped to develop a handbook of the latest information concerning the new rules and regulations instituted because of the pandemic,” Rodgers said. 

In addition to best practices, it was imperative that OIP stay knowledgeable about changes abroad as well.

“As you can imagine, it really was and continues to be a moving target because there are new Italian mandates and laws almost daily as the pandemic continues,” Rodgers said. “Sara Andreini, our [onsite] associate director of Meredith in Italy, was invaluable since she was the person responsible for making sure these changes were made and that we remained in compliance with the new rules.”

Another factor in a safe study abroad experience was the pre-departure orientation provided to the fall 2021 students. This group had approximately 10 hours of pre-departure orientation workshops from the OIP, study abroad faculty, and affiliate program providers, to help them prepare.

Meredith Alumnae Travel Resumes

In addition to the return of study abroad, the Meredith Alumnae Travel program is also bringing back international travel opportunities. In 2022, trips to England’s West Country and to Northern Italy are on the agenda. See the Meredith Travel Program for details and the latest information. Contact Taylor Wilson Twine, ’13, at (919) 760-8712 or with any questions. 

Meredith Returns to Italy

In fall 2021, there were six students in Meredith’s faculty-led semester program in Sansepolcro, Italy, in the Palazzo Alberti, and two students participating in affiliate programs in France and the United Kingdom. They had originally applied to study abroad in February 2020 for the fall program that was canceled.

“This group had remarkable persistence, maturity, flexibility, and resilience to wait for so long for study abroad to become a reality,” Shurer said.

Professor of Art History Beth Mulvaney served as faculty in residence during the fall. The students in the semester program were Kristin Burroughs, Angelina Morin, Hannah Tarkelly, Dora Fromer, Kimberly Jarvis, and Alexandria Rosenzweig. They are all members of the Class of 2023.

The student travelers recognized the work that went into bringing study abroad back in a safe way.

“Preparing for Italy was very easy because the staff and faculty were accommodating and made the process smooth,” said Jarvis. “While things may have been different because of COVID-19, it didn’t hinder us in any way, other than being cautious. We were able to experience just as much as anyone else.”

Photos courtesy of Dora Fromer, ’23

Mulvaney said the semester had much in common with previous study abroad programs she led before the pandemic.

“We enjoyed almost all the same opportunities as we have in previous years; the only difference is that we decided to limit all independent travel during the semester to Italy,” Mulvaney said.

The purpose of the independent travel opportunities is to allow students to “learn to travel” by planning their own trips. They were still able to build those skills – choosing a destination, booking transportation and accommodations, and learning to read train tables – while experiencing more of Italy. 

“Italy has so much to offer, and the truth is we still wouldn’t have enough time to do all we might have wanted to do even limiting ourselves to Italy,” Mulvaney said.

She also notes that Sansepolcro’s residents were happy about the return of Meredith’s program.

“Of course, our ‘home’ town of Sansepolcro welcomed us with open arms and our students enjoyed getting to know locals and making new friends, just like students of the past,” Mulvaney said.

In fact, the mayor of Sansepolcro met with Mulvaney, Andreini, and the students during the fall program, another unique opportunity for this year.

Mulvaney is proud of the students who made up the fall 2021 class of the Meredith in Italy program.

“This group of six are pioneers who will triumph despite a pandemic. They were kind and thoughtful toward one another. They took time to express their appreciation for each other, for our time together, for our time in Sansepolcro, and for the kindnesses shown to them by people across Italy,” Mulvaney said. “They each grew in our time there and I so enjoyed watching the transformations. It is a group that produced laughter, provided support for one another, and is courageous in approaching the future.”

After the pandemic changed the typical college experience, Mulvaney said the semester in Italy was particularly meaningful.

“Because they only experienced one and a half semesters of in-person learning before the pandemic, during study abroad they were just beginning to explore some aspects of what it means to be a Meredith student,” Mulvaney said. “They savored their experiences. They did not take them for granted.”

Mulvaney saw a transformation in the students.

“When I think back to our first few group pranzi (lunches), they were a completely different group,” she said. “I would anticipate lunchtime discussions of what they had seen, learned, and experienced. And they came ready for that.”

Affiliate Students Have Successful Experience

In addition to the Italy students in a Meredith faculty-led program, two students studied abroad through approved affiliates. Alison Bunce, ’22, studied in Bath, England, and Jalyn Shahid-EL, ’21, studied in France.

The ways Bunce and Shahid-EL described their experiences were similar to those of students studying abroad pre-pandemic. Their goals were to learn, experience other cultures, and meet others from around the world.

“I wanted to improve my French and eat fresh foods in France, which is exactly what happened. Every day my use of French improved, and I ate healthy foods and learned about their importance in French cuisine,” Shahid-EL said. “The best part was meeting other students from around the world. I now have friends from Japan, Spain, Ecuador, other states in the U.S., and of course, France.”

Photos courtesy of Jalyn Shahid-EL, ’21 and Charlotte Claypoole McKinney

Bunce was able to take classes including acting for the stage and British detective fiction, while doing an internship at Bath Cats and Dogs Home, where she put her mass communication major to work helping design social media plans and posts while also getting to spend time helping to socialize dogs and cats.

“[Before studying abroad], I was looking forward to taking my classes at Advanced Studies in England (ASE) and living in a city I have never been to before (plus my internship!),” Bunce said. “I was also very excited to be in a city where I could walk anywhere. It was so easy to meet friends for coffee or dinner since we were all within walking distance of everything. There were so many shops, historic sites, and cafés to explore.”

Photos courtesy of Alison Bunce, ’22

Being Good Global Citizens

The pandemic has proven the importance of the kinds of international experiences that are provided through global education.

“If the pandemic has taught me anything, it is that the world really is a small place and we all have to be good global citizens in order to preserve it. Teaching our students how to be good global citizens is more important now than ever before,” Rodgers said. “Learning respect for and appreciation of other people and their cultures, discovering that there is more to life than just my own experience, are key goals in educating the 21st-century student. International education and study abroad will continue to be the cornerstone of that education.” 

Mulvaney believes Meredith’s fall 2021 study abroad students proved themselves to be good examples to others.

“In a time that has been filled with anxiety, fear, and isolation, international education allows students to grow beyond fears, anxieties, and isolation to learn that they are able to operate safely while still traveling and learning,” Mulvaney. “International education also allows our students to be positive ambassadors of Meredith and the United States.”

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