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Study Abroad

4 Lessons Learned from the Study Abroad Front Lines Amid a Pandemic

With the COVID-19 pandemic escalating, the University of Evansville made the decision in March to send all its study abroad students home. Here's how the institution navigated the situation.

model airplane on a map

March seems like a lifetime ago, but alas it's been just a few months since the University of Evansville made the tough decision to send all study abroad students home. Most of them were attending Harlaxton College, Evansville's unique Victorian manor house located one hour north of London where we host 1,000-plus students annually from Evansville and other colleges across the world.

Announcing an early ending to the semester at Harlaxton was foreboding as it was ahead of President Trump's address to the nation and the 30-day travel ban — both of which happened just hours later. However, as the COVID-19 situation was escalating in Italy, France, Spain and elsewhere in Europe — where many of our Harlaxton students travel — it was the right decision to make. Thankfully we had the right technology in place to not only aid our response and get students back home safely, but also to creatively use our solutions to accommodate this unprecedented situation.

Because Harlaxton students regularly travel throughout Europe on the weekends, they are accustomed to using MyHarlaxton and MyUEAbroad, our study abroad portal powered by Terra Dotta's Study Abroad suite and Alert Traveler mobile app. In normal circumstances, students use MyHarlaxton and the AlertTraveler app to register their travel plans and check out and in for their weekend travels. This process allows us to keep them apprised of any local emergencies while they are traveling.

Our students' familiarity with this process was essential to being able to connect with them on their return travels home — not only to the U.S. but to China and Peru — as no one was going back to their home campus. This was critical, as flights were often changed and rebooked during that harried time of international travel. From our announcement on March 11, the first Harlaxton students returned home just 3 days later on March 14. And our last student arrived home to Peru in mid-April, as the country's borders were closed and we had to work with the Peruvian embassy in London to get the student home.

Also, with the help of MyHarlaxton's robust location tracking, we were able to determine if students had been in any European hotspots in the weeks leading up to the March 11 announcement. And, for those who did have a positive COVID-19 test, we were able to quickly identify and notify other potentially exposed students and staff.

Looking back, here are four lessons we learned along the way.

1) Act quickly. Even though it was a scary decision to make and seemed at once premature and appropriate to our duty of care, when we announced the end of the onsite semester at Harlaxton (all students finished their courses via distance learning) we very quickly asked every team member on both continents to report their travel plans. In addition, students used the same check out system for their returning travel, including the date flying, flight details, their plans upon return, who would pick them up, where they planned to stay for the rest of the semester and more. This detailed info collection process saved us in the long run, as we continue to use the info and students can continually update their info in real time. Also, for those who had a positive COVID-19 test, we could quickly see where they had travelled, the date they departed, what students and employees they interfaced with, what airports they had visited, etc.

2) Communicate, communicate, communicate. The rate of information flow at the onset and continuing through the pandemic response is staggering — for students, staff, parents, administrators and more. However, having MyHarlaxton as a central repository for all e-mail communication related to study abroad has been critical. Not only is it easy for students to refer back to, but it also gave the global education team access to a detailed log of all communications, including key dates and details.

3) Students are customers too. Don't overlook the customer experience. Our Harlaxton students come from all over the world and aren't all University of Evansville students. This spring, students were from China, Peru, Wisconsin, Texas, Indiana, Kentucky and other locales. As the pandemic expanded in the U.S. and abroad, we were able to check in with Harlaxton students in affected areas and include personal outreach from our president and VPs to make sure our students are safe and healthy. We were also able to quickly generate a reimbursements questionnaire and parents and students could upload their travel expense receipts, so our COVID-19 Financial committee could review all expense requests and appropriately distribute funds or a fund plan.

4) Commitment fuels creativity. As power users of MyHarlaxton for years, we were able to adapt and get creative in the ways we used the solution. It has been a tool for Application and Risk Management, but amid the pandemic it became a tool for Communication, PR and Marketing, Health and Safety, Accounting and more. Embracing a highly flexible solution will help you keep up with students and the quickly changing world. In attending our university cabinet meeting, I was able to draw on MyHarlaxton to quickly answer questions about student travel as well as students who may be affected by the pandemic.

The world is different than it was when we made our difficult decision in March. But we are already gearing up for a ramped-up Harlaxton College program in the future where we can get back to our core mission — encouraging students to go beyond their imaginations.

About the Author

Holly Carter is director of education abroad at the University of Evansville.

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