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How COVID-19 impacted LMU’s study abroad programs

How COVID-19 impacted LMU’s study abroad programs

In April of 2020, Loyola Marymount University student Michelle Chernikova received potentially life-changing news. After auditioning and applying to get into the Bonn/Moscow/Croatia Theatre Arts Study Abroad program, she had been accepted! The COVID-19 virus was spreading both in contagion and in public awareness, but the program was set for spring of 2021. Surely the COVID-19 virus would be eliminated by then.

Ultimately we know that wasn’t the case, and an uncertain virus quickly turned into a deadly disaster. In October of 2020, an announcement was made that Chernikova’s study abroad program would have to be postponed for spring 2022 due to COVID-related safety concerns.

“We’d like to remain positive and optimistic that spring 2022 will be just as rich and rewarding a study abroad experience,” said director of the Bonn-Moscow Theatre Study Abroad program Diane Benedict in an email to students back in 2020. The overall tone of the email was extremely hopeful that borders and travel would be unrestricted by spring 2022. Thus, the waiting game commenced and plans began to shift.

“I panicked about not being able to finish my theater major if I didn’t go abroad,” said Chernikova. Mostly, she didn’t necessarily want to be a theatre major if abroad wasn’t happening. For her, abroad and theatre went hand-in-hand.

Michelle Chernikova announces her commitment to LMU’s honors program on April 10, 2021. Credit: Photo taken by Chernikova via IPhone.

One of the reasons that Chernikova came to LMU was to study abroad in the Bonn-Moscow theatre program. She was nothing less than ecstatic after weathering the application process and getting into the program. Her panic levels caused her to add a biology minor on top of her theatre and psychology double major, a choice that she later came to regret.

“It really messed with my schedule and I didn’t know what to do,” said Chernikova. She ended up dropping the biology major and taking a breather. Instead, she would hope for an enriching and transformative study abroad trip to occur in spring 2022.

I was also accepted into the Bonn-Moscow Theatre Study Abroad program in fall 2020. The application process consisted of a three step process that included an application/essay, an interview, and an audition. In one of the previous years, the program added Croatia to the trip when safety issues prevented the group from travelling to Russia. Unfortunately, Moscow was also removed from the spring 2022 trip.

“With the safety of students and faculty foremost in mind, the excursion to Moscow will be replaced with extended excursions to Croatia, Berlin, and Prague,” states an email from Lisa Reid, Study Abroad Program Advisor. The email did not include a reason as to why Moscow was removed from the travel plans.

“I was most excited to be able to finally see my family in Russia,” said Chernikova. She hadn’t seen them since the summer before she started high school. Chernikova mentions that even though Russia is off the table, her family might be able to travel to another part of Europe to meet up with her during a break in the program.

In an even more devastating announcement, it was revealed that Croatia would also be removed from the spring 2022 program. It is my understanding that it was removed because the theatre program in Croatia decided the facility was not big enough to safely host all the LMU students going, in addition to all the other programs they host.

Considering the uphill battle that students who planned to go abroad around the COVID-19 outbreak endured and continue to endure, it might be interesting to compare that process to the process students went through when trying to study abroad before the pandemic. 

Chance Yagi is an LMU alumni who majored in electrical engineering. In 2018, Yagi applied for the Bonn Germany electrical engineering study abroad program. He successfully studied abroad in Bonn, Germany during the fall semester of his sophomore year.

“The process of applying and preparing for study abroad was fairly simple,” said Yagi. He couldn’t recall every step in the process, however he remembered it consisted of filling out a Google form and submitting an essay. 

John Stafford is also an LMU alumni who majored in electrical engineering with an emphasis in computer science. In fall of 2018, he attended the same study abroad program as Yagi. Stafford had a clear recollection of how the study abroad process operated before COVID-19.

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“You had to apply, and there were limited seats, but most people that wanted to go were able to go,” recalled Stafford. He noted how communicative the program advisors were about the host families and what to expect. Stafford was confident in his view that the LMU study abroad program prior to COVID-19 truly prepared them for life abroad.

John Stafford and his classmates take a weekend trip to Ibiza, Spain during their Bonn Germany electrical engineering study abroad program in October 2018. Credit: John Stafford via IPhone.

“Yeah, they made it very easy for us. You could tell they really wanted us to go,” expressed Stafford. To this day, Stafford and Yagi remember their trip abroad to Bonn, Germany and relive the exciting memories they made over the course of that fall semester. Stafford and Yagi’s study abroad experience seemed to run smoothly and everything went according to plan, however, that is not the reality for students who planned to study abroad around the time of the COVID-19 virus outbreak. 

Stafford and Yogi, the biggest noted challenges were experiences of homesickness and culture shock. Students planning to study abroad now are faced with those same challenges, while additionally struggling to factor in vaccination status requirements, booster shots, travel restrictions to other nearby countries, and more.

Life is unpredictable and all we can do is learn to adapt to the changes. In 2020, LMU’s study abroad program was faced with a whole new range of unique obstacles preventing students from studying abroad. The team adapted as best they could in uncertain times. The pandemic certainly presented students and staff with a whole variety of challenges regarding study abroad, but a sense of gratitude is also important to note. Due to the abroad program’s resistance to canceling the Bonn Theatre Study Abroad program, there’s a fair chance I will be studying theatre in Germany this time next month. However, students planning to study abroad next semester seem to be hesitant in their hopefulness. After semesters of delaying this life-changing program and the lurking threat of the Omicron variant, it isn’t hard to see why students would be skeptical. 

I remember when I was accepted into the program in 2020. In all 21 years of my life so far, I still have not had the chance to leave the United States. When I was accepted into the study abroad program, I knew that my life was getting ready to change. This trip is an opportunity for me to combine my desire to explore parts of the world I have only seen in pictures and my determination to take my acting technique to the next level.

Spring 2022 is right around the corner, and it’s hard to be absolutely positive that study abroad will take place. Whether my doubt is from previously getting my hopes up or months of uncertainty, I still feel as uncertain as I did in 2020. 

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