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Study abroad is coming back. But with more hurdles

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Across the country, college study abroad programs are starting to ramp up again. That's after most were put on hold last year because of the pandemic. As Rich Kremer of Wisconsin Public Radio reports, students appear eager to have the chance to study in a different country.

RICH KREMER, BYLINE: Nearly 350,000 college students in the U.S. studied abroad during the 2018-2019 school year. Most traveled to countries in Europe and Latin America. Proponents say learning overseas gives students unmatched opportunities for honing second-language skills and helping them gain a better understanding of global issues. Scott Tayloe is the chief strategy officer for CIS Abroad. He says while programs have worked through pandemics like swine flu before, this one was very different.

SCOTT TAYLOE: We realized with coronavirus, COVID-19, this completely put a pause on our industry we had never seen.

KREMER: A pause that led to the vast majority of schools freezing their study abroad programs. Caroline Donovan White is with the Association of International Educators. She says students and schools are now starting to engage again.

CAROLINE DONOVAN WHITE: Now we're seeing that applications are up, that students who have been pausing on study abroad are eager to get out there again, which is very, of course, reassuring for everyone who works in higher education.

KREMER: Still, the pandemic is creating new hurdles for universities trying to organize international trips. Melissa Torres heads the group Forum on Education Abroad. She says campuses have relied on State Department travel advisories to assess student safety. But last year, CDC warnings were included, and that moved 80% of countries students traveled to into the do-not-travel category.

MELISSA TORRES: So when you're a university trying to plan six, 12 or 18 months out and enrolling students and having them choose their courses and lining up faculty to run some of these programs or working with overseas partners, it's really problematic.

KREMER: University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire senior Anna Green was only three weeks into a semester in Chile last year when the pandemic forced her to return to the States. She was among thousands of Americans struggling to get back home.

ANNA GREEN: I got to the airport. It was shoulder-to-shoulder everywhere you went - any lines, everywhere. Every plane was booked full.

KREMER: Green now plans a study trip to Guatemala in January. While the State Department has issued a do-not-travel advisory, she's upbeat about the trip and encourages other students to embrace the opportunity.

GREEN: You just might be able to go and have that experience you've been dreaming of. And if you just don't at least try and go for it, well, then you're not ever going to have that possibility and that opportunity.

KREMER: During a walk to the grocery store in the Belgian city of Kortrijk, University of Wisconsin-Stout senior Melissa Neumair used her phone to record sounds from the neighborhood she's living in while spending a semester at Howest University. Neumair says she was nervous about leaving home and was daunted by mountains of visa paperwork and mandated COVID-19 tests. But like other students who have made it overseas, she says the additional challenges were worth it.

MELISSA NEUMAIR: Just being here, even before my classes, I've definitely opened my eyes and have become more confident in myself and just being able to be in a different country and further my skill set.

KREMER: Surveys are showing that by next year, most schools will broaden their study abroad programs to pre-pandemic levels, meaning that study abroad will once again be a viable option for tens of thousands of students. For NPR News, I'm Rich Kremer in Eau Claire.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.