Well before the first reported case of COVID-19 in the United States, UNC’s Center for International Education that supports education abroad and international students had already mobilized.
As the virus hopscotched through China, South Korea, Japan and Italy, the Center for International Education team stayed in regular contact with the 46 UNC students studying abroad this spring, providing guidance and helping them return safely home.
As travel warnings to countries experiencing outbreaks started being issued in late February, CIE responded by offering voluntary program withdrawals to all students studying abroad. By March 12, with the first reported cases in the United States and UNC moving in-person classes online, all study abroad programs for spring, (and eventually summer and fall) were canceled. CIE team members, Bear Central staff, academic advisors and faculty across campus worked closely together on supporting returning students academically and in getting their financial aid requirements updated to ensure students could continue their education despite the disruption. “Everyone pulled hard together to minimize the academic and financial impacts for our students,” said Brandy Tacket, Director of Education Abroad.
In addition to supporting the Bears abroad, CIE staff were also working to support international students here in Colorado. Director of International Student and Scholar Services, Kara LaSota, with the support of Student Affairs, Housing, and other campus partners hosted a virtual town hall in early March for all of UNC’s international students to answer questions about immigration regulation updates, travel restrictions, and campus support available to international students and help them make decisions about returning home during the emergency. As the situation has evolved, LaSota and her staff remain in touch with students to provide updates both on legal requirements and “on the ground” support services information, facilitate completion of classes for students who went home as a result of the pandemic, and make contingency plans for international students who might not be able to return or start their studies in fall if travel restrictions are still in place. In the case of one exchange student with an underlying health condition who has not been able to travel home, LaSota has been in daily contact to confirm the student’s well-being—and will continue that until the student is able to return home.
The Intensive English Program made a perfect pivot to online classes, despite the additional challenges of having higher than average contact hour requirements that had to be met, and having students spread out around the world in different time zones. They have made impressive adjustments to assist new students starting in the summer or fall, regardless of their ability to come to the United States. Evgeniya “Jane” Borisova, the Director said of the switch “of course, we miss seeing our students in person, and it is more challenging this way, but we want to be sure that they’re in the best possible environment and able to prepare to start academic programs on time.”
Despite the challenges for both outbound and inbound travel and support, the focus has remained on helping students stay on their academic track. “Many students were able to continue their coursework remotely, and those who were not, worked with academic units and advisers to find solutions,” CIE’s Executive Director, Olga Baron said, “we look forward to being able to increase student mobility when we can do so safely. In the meantime, we’re doing everything we can to support our study abroad and international student community.”
–By Nate Haas '04