UMD was right to cancel study abroad, but it needs to tell students what’s next

Scanning electron microscope image showing coronavirus. (Photo courtesy of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases)

Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.

Imagine the coronavirus ripping through the University of Maryland’s campus, spreading coughs and quarantines in its wake. Classes could be cancelled for at least two weeks; school could be closed for the rest of semester. How would you make up your credits — or the potentially wasted tuition for the other half of the semester? 

This is the situation that a significant group of students who decided to study abroad this semester are in. The novel coronavirus presents immense challenges around the world, and it’s unclear exactly how this university will respond to the students who have possibly lost out on tuition, or on fulfilling credits. However, this university still has a commitment to putting its students’ physical, financial and academic success first through transparency about its coronavirus plans.

This university prioritized its students’ health and safety by cancelling certain spring semester study abroad programs in countries where the coronavirus is rapidly spreading. The decision to cancel spring break and summer abroad programs may seem a little alarmist, but does show the university’s concern for imminent student safety. Bringing students home was necessary, and the university acted swiftly. It needs to follow that same urgency in communicating with students about academic and financial reparations. 

For students who had to come back to the U.S., the remaining portion of their semester is uncertain. Do they stay home after their 14-day quarantine is over? Do they return to the campus to feel like a regular student? Will they receive any refunds from the university? These students have had to go from a foreign country, to self-imposed isolation, to a bleak, murky second half of their semester. They deserve some clarity. 

Some students took semesters with heavy course loads to be able to go abroad. Some worked extra hours and multiple jobs to be able to go abroad. It’s beyond frustrating that these students had their time cut short. According to this university’s Education Abroad website, the school’s first priority is “students’ health and safety,” which is followed by a statement ensuring the university is working to continue students’ enrollment in spring semester courses. Refunds are not a top priority, and will only be addressed once “all students” from affected study abroad programs are home and taking classes.

There’s no date listed for when this process will even happen, which leaves students and their families in the dark. Students were provided with up to a $500 stipend to cover the costs of changing their flight home, but that amount pales in comparison to the money spent on an academic term abroad. Simply put: The university needs to be honest about the money it’s able to refund students. If it can’t give more than what has already been given, then it needs to say so. Leaving the question of financial reimbursement up in the air only creates more exasperation among students and resentment toward the university. 

Understandably, the university only has so much control when an unexpected pandemic decides it also wants to study abroad — everywhere. Still, they need to be able to have a standard, transparent response that gives students peace of mind about the money they spent and the credits they were completing.

Studying abroad is a privilege. It’s not a guarantee, and many choose not to go at all. But for those that are able to go, it can be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to live in another country and experience new cultures. For the students who planned to be — or already were — abroad in Italy, South Korea or other programs that were cancelled, it’s a devastating scenario. 

Despite how disheartening this is for the affected students abroad, the university did the right thing by canceling programs that were most at risk for either catching or spreading coronavirus. Now, it needs to continue acting in the best interests of its students and be open and clear about financial and academic compensation — whether its students agree with the decision or not. 

Maya Rosenberg is a sophomore journalism and public policy major. She can be reached at maya.b.rosenberg@gmail.com.

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