Student Stories

How undergraduate students studied abroad during the 2020-21 school year

US-based students enrolled in intensive virtual study abroad programs, while international students studied, cooked and toured cities together

Last year, popular UChicago Study Abroad programs adapted in creative ways to enable College students to satiate their cultural appetites through virtual tours, local guest speakers and community-building activities in Paris, Beijing and Hong Kong. Though international education has looked different during the pandemic, UChicago Study Abroad aimed to support as many experiences as possible, putting forth a wide variety of opportunities for students to live in and learn about different communities around the world.

Continuously monitoring the COVID-19 situation, the office has had to adjust to restricted travel mandates, lockdowns, visa implications, evolving public health guidelines, and more.

Numerous steps, however, were taken to create enriching and stimulating opportunities to explore cities and cultures, build community and engage with peers as part of UChicago’s distinctive international education.

The end result, utilizing virtual programming, study spaces and bonding activities for international students, has sought to balance between supporting students in their endeavors and adhering to public safety protocols.

“Rather than immediately cancel our study abroad programs, UChicago committed to evaluating the viability of each program and location, quarter by quarter, on an individual basis. Our goal was to give every program the opportunity to succeed, and it led to multiple creative ways for students to pursue their studies while maintaining their health and safety,” said Sarah Walter, associate dean for international education and director of study abroad.

Reflections on these unique learning environments follow from students who participated virtually and through living abroad.

Virtual study abroad

“Western Mediterranean Civilization” (Winter 2021) / “Jerusalem in Middle Eastern Civilization” (Spring 2021)

Eager to step out of his comfort zone, rising fourth-year economics major and statistics minor Joey Cipriano was excited for the opportunity to fulfill his civilization requirement in a way that allowed him to focus wholeheartedly on each course. Though he was not able to travel to Barcelona as he hoped, the virtual course still proved to be an enriching experience.

Attending Zoom sessions three days a week for the three-part “Western Mediterranean Civilization” sequence during Winter Quarter, Cipriano felt that the professors adapted well to virtual learning and supplemented the students’ experience with a multitude of materials, such as virtual tours.

Similarly, this past Spring Quarter, rising fourth-year sociology and public policy double major Sophia Egrari was eager to learn more about the history and current state of Israel-Palestine relations in the “Jerusalem in Middle Eastern Civilizations” course. Through reading old biblical texts, completing a mock negotiation and presentation, and engaging with guest speakers, Egrari felt more confident in her abilities to speak about this complex topic.

For Cipriano, “Western Mediterranean Civilization” provided an opportunity to analyze history more holistically through reading sources written by people who had fought back against the actions of the Spanish government.

“Studying abroad taught me a lot about Spain and Barcelona in particular, but I think it also showed me the amount of stuff there is to know about the world,” Cipriano said. “That perspective feels extremely valuable and is also probably pretty unique to the study abroad experience.”

Egrari enjoyed the interdisciplinary nature of her course on Jerusalem, which used a multimedia approach to explore conflicts between and within religions, nationalities and political parties. Additionally, the intimate class setting encouraged her to participate in discussions and connect more deeply with the guest speakers, which included linguists, artists and tour guides.

“[This course] was a really good experience getting to know everyone in the class and felt like a very participatory environment,” she said. “I think it has been especially important to have such a small class for a Civilizations curriculum, which isn’t about teaching from a textbook or for memorization, but really about thinking deeply and being able to discuss and debate socio-historical topics.”

Supporting students living abroad

Center in Paris

UChicago’s Center in Paris was able to open its doors to a small cohort of College students in Autumn Quarter 2020.

In addition to a small faculty-led European Civilizations in French program, the International First-Year Student Program in Paris ran during Autumn Quarter for incoming students from Europe who were unable to secure student visas in time to matriculate in-person to campus. Taking remote Humanities, Social Sciences and other first-year classes together, the students bonded with one another over the quarter.

Matteo Calabresi, an economics major and now rising second-year from Tuscany, experienced complications with his visa and other travel documents. However, when he learned that other European students were going to participate in the program in France, he got in touch with them. He then made up his mind—he was going to Paris.

“The greatest success of this program—one that I will cherish for all my life—was uniting a group of students during such a challenging time in the history of the world,” he said.“Still today, my closest UChicago friends are the people I met in Paris. We bonded over the challenges of our very first term and of online education, and we were able to spend a good amount of time visiting the city together.”

Catalina Castañeda, a physics major and rising second-year from Barcelona, enrolled in the program in Paris because it was the perfect opportunity to start the first year of her College studies while still living close to her family. Some of her best memories were from the common spaces of the Cité Universitaire, where the students resided.

“We studied in the libraries together, cooked Italian dinners in the kitchens and spent the evenings in the lounge,” she said. “There were lots of really special moments in the dorms, which I will really treasure. Trips around Paris were also really memorable, too.”

Community-building activities abroad

Center in Beijing and Francis and Rose Yuen Campus in Hong Kong

Due to strict COVID-19 international travel restrictions, the Center in Beijing and the Yuen Campus in Hong Kong implemented plans to provide study spaces and socializing opportunities for students in the region.

Adrian Aldana, AB’15, program and outreach manager at the Center in Beijing, worked tirelessly to provide a fulfilling experience for the students living in and around China during the pandemic. Through the Beijing Center Community-Building Activities, the cohort participated in a documentary film screening night with a local scholar from a university in Beijing, an outing to the 798 art district, a tour of the Forbidden City with a local scholar and a cooking class with a Mexican chef.

"It felt great to be able to contribute to building a small community for the College students who decided to stay in Beijing this academic year. I think we at the Center are fortunate to be in the position to organize social activities for students, given the local conditions here,” said Aldana.“Most of the students who attended are first-years who haven't yet had typical UChicago experiences. These activities helped create important bonds that they'll develop more once they're on campus."

The Hong Kong Jockey Club University of Chicago Academic Complex | The University of Chicago Francis and Rose Yuen Campus in Hong Kong was opened to students as a study space. All registered students—undergraduates and graduates—were able to sign up for appointments, either individually or in small groups.

Along with hosting in-person study spaces, the team at the Yuen Campus also created a number of online webinars featuring UChicago faculty members and outside experts, including population demographics, politics, climate change and culture. Students, faculty and staff also participated in the student-led Crowdsourcing COVID History Project (CCHP) to document the experiences of the community in Hong Kong, including students, during the pandemic.

Victor Ooi, a rising fourth-year and economics major, decided to stay at home in Hong Kong for the year since many of his friends did the same, and because he knew it would be more reasonable to apply for summer internships there.

Ooi first heard about the Yuen Campus as an incoming first-year and even got to have lunch with Francis Yuen, one of the alumni after whom the Center is named. It wasn’t until the pandemic, however, that Ooi finally toured the Center and learned about its history and exhibitions.

Ooi and his peers are looking forward to using the space to study or socialize in the future.

“To me, [the Campus] imbues a sense of familiarity, as [we were] able to be on a UChicago campus despite not being in Hyde Park,” he said. “It amazes me how globalized the UChicago community is and makes me feel an even stronger connection with the community. The Hong Kong Campus is a facility I can use for study, socializing and also learning. I look forward to visiting more frequently before I return to Hyde Park and also post graduation.”

Plans for the 2021-2022 school year

Looking toward the 2021-2022 school year, the College will continue to monitor the COVID-19 situation and is optimistic about resuming in-person study abroad for more students.

In preparation, the College has already added Civilization programs for this upcoming year, while also expanding the number of student spots to include deferrals from last academic year and new applicants.

“Despite the challenges of this past year and a half, I have remained inspired by the creativity and resilience of our students, faculty, and staff, who have come together to embrace new modes of international study and engagement," Walter said. "With the resumption of many of our in-person study abroad programs this year, we feel encouraged by the increased opportunities for intercultural learning and connection, the importance of which feels greater than ever.”