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All Aboard: Study Abroad Programs Resume with Excitement, Careful Planning

All Aboard: Study Abroad Programs Resume with Excitement, Careful Planning

Group of students posed near bridge in Venice

After enduring a year of pandemic-induced travel interruptions, many travelers are using the summer months to take that long-awaited trip – including the 180 OU students who are participating in a study abroad program this summer.

While OU began easing its study abroad restrictions for the spring 2021 term, sending five students to South Korea, students this summer are also participating in study abroad programs in Spain, Greece, Mexico, Italy, Israel, the United Kingdom and again, South Korea.

“It is so exciting to see our students experience the wonder of study abroad and travel again,” said Shanna Vincent, interim director of OU Education Abroad. “At OU, inspiring our students to become well-rounded, global citizens is central to our mission as a public research university, and studying overseas provides an immersive, transformative experience to help our students achieve that.”

Since the pandemic began, the OU Travel and Screening Committee, comprised of medical and public health professionals and university administrators, along with the College of International Studies, have met regularly to monitor the state of COVID-19 around the world and make recommendations for OU study abroad program locations.

When COVID-19 first emerged in the early weeks of 2020, one of the university’s earliest concerns was protecting the 140 OU students who were spending their spring 2020 semesters at numerous locations around the world – including the nearly 30 students who had just begun their stay at OU’s Study Center in Arezzo, Italy. Now, students have returned to the Arezzo campus for the first time since the pandemic forced the program to suspend operations last March.

After her Arezzo experience was cut short last spring, senior human relations major Lily Macias has returned to the Tuscan hills this summer. Macias said after last year’s sudden disruptions, it’s surreal to be back in Arezzo.

“Studying abroad in spring 2020 was one of the most overwhelming moments of my college experience, as it became a rapid shift from ‘we’re observing the situation’ to ‘you have to go home,’ where I packed my bags and said goodbye to Arezzo all in the span of 24 hours,” Macias said. “[This year], even after two weeks of living here and interacting with the community, I find it hard to believe that I am actually here. Every day I am able to walk through Arezzo and utilize my studies thus far to engage with others in Italian, appreciate the history of the buildings, and discover more about the regional differences of the language and culture. I look forward to the weeks yet to come and the memories I’m bound to make while I am here.”

students posed together sitting on a Gondola

OU students studying at Arezzo on a recent weekend trip to Venice.

Ashlee Abel, a senior public relations major, is currently spending five weeks in Arezzo, earning six upper-division credits through the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication. Abel said studying overseas had always been something she’d longed to experience, and she credits the program’s faculty members and administrators for making it happen.

“In all honesty, I really believe we wouldn’t have been able to make it to Italy if it weren’t for our professors’ and mentors’ tenacity,” she said. “As COVID restrictions were constantly changing, they were on top of it and made the process as simple as possible for us since it was a rather challenging situation to enter the country.”

Willow Arana, a junior majoring in industrial and systems engineering analytics, is currently studying abroad at OU’s Study Center in Puebla, Mexico. Arana said she’s using the experience to immerse herself in a new culture while also furthering her education.

“As soon as I arrived in Mexico, I immediately felt welcomed – every person has treated me with warmth and hospitality,” Arana said. “It has been a great opportunity to utilize my Spanish-speaking skills and learn phrases that are common in Mexico. I’ve loved walking along the cobblestone streets in the historical part of Puebla, surrounded by colorful buildings and the scent of fresh churros. Being enveloped by a new culture has been a wonderful experience, and I am excited to continue my journey.”

students posed together outside stone historic church building in Mexico

OU students enjoy the sights of Puebla, Mexico.

According to Vincent, it’s the holistic experience of studying abroad that’s just as big of a benefit as the degree credit earned.

“Study abroad allows students to gain everything from valuable professional experience – through things like internships, or professionally related site visits – to skills that are highly employable, like adaptability, flexibility and teamwork,” Vincent said. “Students also gain valuable perspective about themselves as individuals as they are taken outside of their comfort zone, where they can see the U.S. from an outside perspective.”

Macias and Abel echoed that it’s these outside-the-classroom experiences that have had considerable impact.  

students posed together in gymnasium

Students studying at Puebla are hosted at a local university, Universidad Popular Autónoma del Estado de Puebla (UPAEP).

“While obtaining six upper-division credit hours is fantastic, I feel there is so much more to gain from our time in Italy, such as developing lifelong friends, learning to appreciate different cultures, gaining independence and becoming more well-rounded individuals,” Abel said. “Those who have previously studied abroad say the experience is life-changing, and I now understand this statement since I already feel as if I am seeing the world from a new perspective.”

OU has conditionally approved fall 2021 study abroad to 14 countries and territories. Students who are interested in learning more about studying abroad are encouraged to sign up for a study abroad 101 session. More information is also available on the OU Education Abroad website.


By Melissa Caperton

Article Published:  Wednesday, June 30, 2021