A look back at Elon’s year in international education

2020 was a year like none other in the field of International Education. Here we recap the year by the numbers and hear from seven study abroad and international students about their pandemic experiences.

Elon University was again recognized this year as the national leader in study abroad, with No. 1 rankings from the Institute of International Education,  U.S. News & World Report and The Princeton Review.

But while the study abroad experience remains an important element of an Elon education, that experience looked much different this year as the world grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic. Health and safety concerns forced the cancellation of scores of study abroad programs. For international students studying at Elon, the pandemic often brought the inability to return to their home countries to visit family and friends.

But despite the challenges of 2020 and those that still remain within international education due to the pandemic, Elon is committed to providing the opportunity for global engagement to all students.

“What will matter is not how many students move across borders,” said Rhonda Waller, executive director of global engagement. “What will matter is that we staunchly adhere to our mission to ‘foster respect for human differences, passion for a life of learning, personal integrity, and an ethic of work and service.’ What has been a privilege transforms into something more profound: a responsibility we each take on to engage respectfully and humbly with a world community that has so very much to teach us – ultimately to transform mind, body and spirit.”

Kristen Aquilino, director of international student services, said that during a year that was trying beyond measure, Elon’s international students and their families maintained patience and adaptability.

“It’s inspiring to learn with and serve this community,” Aquilino said.

The experiences this year are prompting deep consideration at Elon of what global education is beyond the numbers and to think differently about what it means to be a national leader in study abroad.

2020: A Recap

In the spring, 245 undergraduate students began study abroad or Study USA programs, including eight students on academic year programs and four International Business Dual Degree students. 232 students departed their program early, and 13 remained on site. Of those 232 students, 229 earned academic credit through the host program offering continued instruction online.

Of the roughly 150 international students on campus, around a third departed to their home country, a third remained in the Elon area, and a third remained elsewhere in the United States.

All summer study abroad and Study USA programs were canceled, the only exception being a student completing Elon in D.C. remotely.

In July, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced that “The U.S. Department of State will not issue visas to students enrolled in schools and/or programs that are fully online for the fall semester nor will U.S. Customs and Border Protection permit these students to enter the United States,” a regulation change that sent shockwaves through the education community. Elon leadership joined colleges and universities across the country in taking legal action against the ICE directive. About a week later, the rule was rescinded.

In fall 2020, 19 students studied on global programs, including six International Business Dual Degree students, seven study abroad, two Study USA, and four School of Health Sciences Global Learning Opportunity students. Typically, around 550 Elon students would be on fall programs.

Likewise, fewer international students were on campus this fall. Among new international students, 12 deferred to spring 2021 and one to fall 2021, and two began coursework from abroad and will begin on campus in the spring. Among continuing international students, 11 undergraduate and two graduate students are taking courses from their home countries.

Add to this the hundreds of students whose programs have been canceled, plans altered, or experiences postponed, and it’s been a year unlike any other for international education.

2020 from a student point of view

We asked study abroad and international students to reflect on their own experiences amidst the pandemic and upheaval of the year. Seven students share their thoughts below, from what it was like in March, to what they’ve learned, to advice they’d offer future students.

Katherine (Kate) Axness ’21

DanceJerusalem, spring 2020

Kate Axness at the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

“As a Dance major at Elon, I merged my passions for dance and cross-cultural learning when I studied abroad in Israel from February to July 2020. As a part of the DanceJerusalem program, I had the opportunity to expand my artistic and technical training in traditional and contemporary forms of dance, perform works by renowned Israeli choreographers, and learn from Israeli, Ukrainian, and Hungarian professors. My curiosity about the ways different cultures around the world become interconnected through education thrived despite the challenge of living abroad during the global pandemic.

“As I had recently moved to this country and had no family or friends on the continent, these unprecedented circumstances tested my resiliency, cross-cultural adaptability, and language skills.

“As most of the people who shared my nationality and religion left, the decision to stay enhanced my ability to truly immerse myself in Israeli culture by interacting with the local people within my housing complex. When the restrictions were lifted, I was able to continue my education in person and to experience many cultural and religious sites intimately due to the absence of tourists.”

Jacob Wheeler

Ireland, Dublin: Dublin Business School & School of Arts – DBS (FIE), spring 2020

Jacob Wheeler at the Cliff of Moher, Ireland.

“The couple days after our program was canceled but before we all returned to the US due to COVID-19 were hard. We all felt like we got robbed. We all knew it was for the best, but it did not make it easier for any of us. Those 48 hours were the hardest. We saw the spots we all loved for the last time and had to say goodbye to the new friends we made six weeks before and had to say goodbye to a city we all grew to fondly love very, very quickly.

“It absolutely reminded me of how KEY it is to live in the moment. Because in a split second, life can change.”

Jonas Moen ’24, international student from Norway

A low point for Jonas Moen this year, who is a member of the men’s soccer team, was when the season was canceled and the team was allowed only to train.

Tell us about a silver lining or high point this year.

“A high point this year was when the American government opened up for students to enter the country, as I had been nervous for a long time if I were able to even begin my education at Elon this fall.

“I’ve learned that life is unpredictable and that you have to adapt to every challenge life throws at you.”

Mary Thibodeau ’22

Rwanda & Uganda: Post-Genocide Restoration, Development & Peace Building, fall 2020

Mary Thibodeau meets sacred cows at King’s Palace Museum in Rwanda.

“This program in general has very much changed me. Getting to go beyond the literature of the 1994 Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi and development issues in Uganda and getting to speak with the people on the ground of their experiences. It has showed me how people can go through extreme tragedy but still try to achieve justice and reconcile their issues.”

Your advice to students?

“Have patience and be flexible. This is something that I have never been good at but had to learn as I was preparing to go abroad, especially during a global pandemic. Also, be aware of your mental health before, during, and after your study abroad program. Preparing to go abroad is really exciting but also very stressful. Take time to take breaks and just relax and spend time with friends/family.

“Even during the low times, it is important to figure out the moments that you can persist through, and the moments when to take a break and relax.”

Read more about Mary Thibodeau’s semester in Rwanda.

Nuria Menendez ’24, international student from Spain

Nuria’s first day outside following strict lockdown in Spain this spring.

“From this different and complicated year, I think I’ve learned a lot of things that I will always carry with me. First of all, I learned to live in the present. Before the pandemic, I had so many family and friend plans, as well as sports events (I run track), and of course, all of them got canceled. This taught me to be more conscious of the preciousness of life and the outdoors and the significance of spending time with the people I love every day, especially my family. I’ve also learned the importance of taking some time for myself.”

Shan (Adela) Han ’23 (China)

Adela Han on her balcony in Beijing, China.

“The challenges I’ve encountered this semester are definitely online learning and also not able to see my family and loved ones in China. … Due to the outbreak of COVID-19, I haven’t left the States since this January, while my local friends are going back to their home and celebrating Thanksgiving and Christmas, I can only see my parents and siblings via video calls.”

Emily Wilbourne ’22

 South Korea: Sungkyunkwan University (SKKU), fall 2020

Emily Wilbourne dressed in a traditional Korean hanbok (한복) at Gyeongbokgung Palace (경복궁). It is common and welcome for guests to wear hanbok to heritage sites — so much so that palaces waive admission fees for visitors wearing hanbok.

“I think that when students imagine their study abroad, they are wrapped up in considering the food, places, and things they will see; they do not always imagine the people they will meet. From both my highlight and my challenge I learned the imponderable value that people add to an abroad experience. The other students I’ve gotten to know here have become dear friends to me, and have facilitated some of my best experiences abroad. When things have been difficult, or out of my depth, it has been a significant comfort to be able to turn to these people and figure things out together. I’ve realized that I am stronger and braver than I ever imagined I was. Since I was young, I’ve strongly identified as an introvert, but in order to get the most out of this experience, I truly pushed myself out of my comfort zone to make friends and help people. I’ve learned I am capable of doing this.”

Read more about Emily Wilbourne’s semester in South Korea.