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The onset of the pandemic shutdown in March of 2020 probably wouldn’t be considered anyone’s high point, but for students enrolled in study abroad programs that spring, it was a month of keen disappointment.

Young people trudged home in droves, some of them sick, almost all of them devastated to have their adventures cut short.

According to Open Doors, a report published by the Institute of International Education, during the 2018-2019 academic year, there were 347,009 U.S. students studying abroad. The most recent report for 2019-2020 shows that the number declined to 162,633, a 53% dip reflecting the substantial shutdown of overseas programs.

The numbers for this year have not yet been tallied, but anecdotal evidence suggests that participation in study-abroad programs is on the upswing.

Caroline Donovan White, a senior director at the NAFSA Association of International Educators, noted, “Our members generally report that interest in study abroad is high and application levels are nearing their pre-pandemic levels.”

While it’s true that most educational institutions have reinstituted study abroad programs, participation has not been without complications for students enrolled in the spring term.

Venturing abroad in January meant navigating vaccine verification, time-sensitive testing and location registration that left even seasoned international travelers frazzled and frustrated.

Five college juniors from Evanston accepted the challenge and are currently studying in various far-flung regions. We caught up with them to find out if their experiences so far have been worth the effort.

(The following interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.)

Jill Collins, Evanston Township High School graduate (photo courtesy of Jill Collins) Credit: photo courtesy of Jill Collins

Jill Collins
Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Evanston Township High School graduate
Currently enrolled at Tufts University
Major: Environmental health engineering

Local COVID-meter reading. We don’t have mandates at all anymore. No masks, nothing. It’s like it’s 2019 again. Two weeks ago, everything in the city closed at 10 p.m., including the Metro. Now everything is open.

Culture shock. Everyone here is very blunt and direct. They are taken aback by how much I say ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ or ‘have a nice day.’ I think they find it a little fake. I’m dialing that back a little in my personality.

Maybe you’re not in Kansas anymore. Amsterdam has a very homogeneous population of people. Everyone here is tall and white and blond. If you don’t look like that, even if you’re just a brunette, you’re probably an international student or tourist from another country.

Something you miss from home. My dog, Mason, and the lake.

Local food you crave. Fries, for sure. There are shops selling fries everywhere. They serve them in paper cones with a choice of toppings and sauces. My favorite is garlic, mayo and ketchup.

None for me, thanks. They’re really big for sausages here. I’m a vegetarian, but even if I ate meat, I don’t know if I’d partake.

A trait you’ve uncovered in yourself. I use my niceness to make friends. That doesn’t work here and sometimes it takes a lot of energy. I think I’m becoming blunter, or maybe just more direct, and that’s a good thing.

New world view. I’ve realized that the U.S. is so isolated from the rest of the world. It’s a big, powerful country, but so far away from everyone else. Here in Europe, everyone is so connected. I think I have a better idea of my identity in the grand scheme of the world.

Impact of the war in Ukraine. It’s what everyone’s talking about. The topic isn’t COVID anymore. Now it’s Ukraine. The flag is everywhere and there are protests against the war. The American students are definitely stressed out about the possibility of having to return home.

Place to take your favorite person. Vondelpark is a pretty park located near all the museums. It’s a great spot to picnic or people watch. A lot of Amsterdam feels very urban, so this is nice place for a break.

Owen Pearlman, Beacon Academy graduate (photo courtesy of Owen Pearlman) Credit: photo courtesy of Owen Pearlman

Owen Pearlman
Quito, Ecuador
Beacon Academy graduate
Currently enrolled at Macalester College
Major: Psychology
Minor: Spanish and Philosophy

Local COVID-meter reading. In terms of specific numbers, I believe we’re down, but you wouldn’t know it. As far as you can tell here, we’re at the height of the pandemic.
Everyone wears masks. Pretty much if you’re not in your own home you’re wearing a mask. You’ll see people driving alone in their own cars wearing masks.

Culture shock. People are a lot friendlier. I feel like all the people I’ve met here talk to you like friends right away. People are very open and expressive about how they’re feeling and what’s going on.

Maybe you’re not in Kansas anymore. We visited the town Baños over Carnival and the way people there celebrate is to throw eggs and water balloons and spray foam at anyone walking down the street. It’s like a war zone, and they especially loved throwing and spraying at us non-natives. Carnival is a good time.

Something you miss from home. Family, of course. Friends, food. Things like fast, reliable internet and drinkable tap water, but not having those is just a small inconvenience.

Local food you crave. Bizcocho, a sort of elongated biscuit that I have as a snack. You can eat them plain or some people like to dip them in caramel. Everything is much cheaper here. You can get 9 for a buck.

None for me, thanks. Cuy, roasted guinea pig, a popular local street food.

A trait you’ve uncovered in yourself. Flexibility. Recently I had a bike trip scheduled, and I woke up and it was raining and then I thought, ‘who cares?’ I got a little wet and I got a little lost, but it was a good time and I’m glad I went. I can do things I didn’t think I could. Ask things. Ask directions. Ask about food.

New world view. My feelings about being an American haven’t changed much. I still see it as a two-sided coin. I’m lucky to have been born in a developed country with good opportunities, but American aggression and imperialism make me uncomfortable, especially U.S. interventions in leftist South American governments during the late 1900s.

Impact of the war in Ukraine. Outside of my immediate circle (other students from the U.S.), I haven’t really heard much discussion of Ukraine.

Place to take your favorite person. Mount Pichincha. It’s one of the mountains that overlooks Quito. You take a cable car up and then hike the rest of the way. By the end you can only walk 10 feet or so and you have to stop and breathe. By the time you get to the top, you’re standing in a cloud.

Gia Clarke, Evanston Township High School graduate (photo courtesy of Gia Clarke) Credit: photo courtesy of Gia Clarke

Gia Clarke
Rome, Italy
Evanston Township High School graduate
Currently enrolled at Loyola University, Chicago
Major: Advertising/Public Relations and Anthropology

Local COVID-meter reading. Italy’s levels are much lower now. We don’t have to wear a mask outside anymore, and the nightclubs have re-opened.

Culture shock. I’ve never been somewhere where I don’t speak the predominant language. You just feel a little stupid. A lot of Italians know English and they’re happy if you speak even a little Italian. It’s nice to be able to practice your Italian while they practice English. I’m currently enrolled in Italian 101 and it’s helpful, but I feel like I’ve learned a lot more from being in restaurants, coffee shops, places like that.

Maybe you’re not in Kansas anymore. The way that men act here is a little different, not threatening, just different. The waiters are flirty, but they don’t expect anything. Once you realize everyone is flirting all the time … the men, the women … you understand it’s more friendly than anything else.

Something you miss from home. My dog, Paisley, and ice coffee. They do not do ice coffee here.

Local food you crave. Spaghetti carbonara. Here the sauce is less of a cream sauce and more just egg and fatty bacon. It’s everywhere, and it’s really, really good. They say that when the Americans were here during World War II, they wanted eggs and bacon and the Italians turned it into a pasta dish for them.

None for me, thanks. There’s some green vegetable Italians eat all the time that looks like spinach but does not taste like spinach. Chard? Chicory? It’s served a lot, but I just can’t get into it.

A trait you’ve uncovered in yourself. I think I’ve discovered my ability to go with the flow. I used to get anxious about plans changing, but since I have less control here and don’t speak the language well, I gotta roll with the punches.

New world view. In the United States, we’re working all the time and if we’re not thinking about work, then we’re doing something wrong. Italians have a different attitude about time and work. The lifestyle here is a lot of walking, a lot of eating, just more enjoyable. I think we should take some parts of that to America.

Impact of the war in Ukraine. There are Ukrainian flags all over the place. Everyone except Russia seems to be on the same page about the war. Everyone is on the side of Ukraine and wants to be as supportive as possible.

Place to take your favorite person. The area right around the Colosseum and the Roman Forum. There are not many trees, so it’s very bright, and suddenly you’re surrounded by these ancient Roman buildings and ruins of emperors’ palaces. It’s pretty touristy, but that also means there are a lot of good restaurants and fun cocktail places. You can do a four-hour tour and see the whole area.

Johnny Couri, Loyola Academy graduate (photo courtesy of Johnny Couri) Credit: photo courtesy of Johnny Couri

Johnny Couri
Barcelona, Spain
Loyola Academy graduate
Currently enrolled at Miami University, Ohio
Major: Finance

Local COVID-meter reading. When we first got here in January, there was a 1 a.m. curfew in place, but by mid-February, that was over. Now we just need to wear masks when we walk into the restaurants or shops.

Culture shock. The biggest surprise to me was how the locals schedule their days. They have breakfast when we would have lunch. They have lunch at around 5 p.m. and then dinner at 9 or 10 p.m. I don’t know how they do that, because I get really hungry. At night, people stay out until 3 or 4 in the morning, and then they start the next day super-late.

Maybe you’re not in Kansas anymore. There’s this little tapas place right outside our house. It’s a super nice restaurant and when you walk in, they have all these legs of jamon (dry-cured ham) just hanging from the ceiling.

Something you miss from home. I miss my family a lot and the easy conversations we have. The language barrier here is a frustration. When I meet new people, I miss being able to have deeper conversations. It’s hard when I’m speaking broken Spanish and they’re speaking broken English.

Local food you crave. There’s a little café where you can get these massive Mediterranean sandwiches for just 5 euros. They’re served on freshly baked bread with steak, chicken or falafel and tons of toppings. I always get all the toppings and then the sandwich is so big, I have to eat it over a bowl. Chorizo is another local food I really enjoy and, of course, jamon.

None for me, thanks. Steak croquetas. I ordered them once, and they tasted weird and had a bad texture, but honestly everything else here has been really good.

A trait you’ve uncovered in yourself. In college, I had a pretty large friend group, and so I didn’t always try as hard to be outgoing and meet new people. Since I’ve been here, I’ve learned again how to build a new relationship from nothing.

New world view. I think the quality of life is a little bit better here. You don’t really see so many flashy things. People here are happier with what they have, and they’re content with their lives and with the people around them. In the U.S., it seems like we’re always wanting more.

Impact of the war in Ukraine. Outside of class, we haven’t talked about it too much. Our program recommends we avoid travel to Eastern Europe.

Place to take your favorite person. The Boqueria right off Las Ramblas. I think I especially like it because I stumbled on it myself without anyone telling me to go there. You walk through a small entrance, and it opens to this huge colorful market with all these assorted cheeses and meat stands and fish stands. I like it because it gives you a great sense of the Spanish culture, and obviously they have a bunch of jamon there.

Maria Iordanov, Evanston Township High School graduate (photo courtesy of Maria Iordanov) Credit: photo courtesy of Maria Iordanov

Maria Iordanov
Edinburgh, Scotland
Evanston Township High School graduate
Currently enrolled at McGill University
Major: Psychology

Local COVID-meter reading. On March 21, they’re easing all COVID restrictions, no masks, no vaccine passports, nothing. You’ll still have to quarantine though if you have COVID.

Culture shock. One thing that surprised me is how connected the people my age are with the Scottish culture. They do the Ceilidh dance and tell old stories and sing traditional songs. I think it’s pretty cool that even the young people here are so in touch with their culture.

Maybe you’re not in Kansas anymore. Haggis (a dish of sheep intestines mixed with oats) always seemed to me like something from the movies. I didn’t really expect that people would eat it all the time in Scotland, but they actually do. Literally every restaurant finds a way to incorporate it into the menu. Haggis nachos, haggis breakfast sandwich, haggis pizza. They put it on everything.

Something you miss from home. Mexican food, because it’s really bad here.

Local food you crave. Scottish fry-up or Scottish breakfast. It’s a full plate including beans on toast, fried eggs, sautéed mushrooms, a tomato, a potato scone and regular or vegetarian haggis.

None for me, thanks. Marmite. It’s a yeast spread I was really excited to try it. They eat it on toast or in sandwiches. It’s like nothing I’ve ever tasted before, very hard to describe. It burns your whole throat and mouth. That was a disappointment, and now I have a whole jar of it.

A trait you’ve uncovered in yourself. In the past I’ve been a more passive person. Being here with all new people and all different kinds of people, I feel like I’m becoming more assertive in a good way. I’m taking the lead more now.

New world view. I’ve become more aware of how people don’t always view Americans in a positive way. Everyone’s very nice, but the English and the Scottish definitely go hard with the anti-American comments.

Impact of the war in Ukraine. There have been protests against the war most days and lots of street signs encouraging people to take action. Recently there was a protest near my school where a Russian woman burned her passport. The war in Ukraine is definitely something people are talking about.

Place to take your favorite person. Arthur’s Seat. It’s this beautiful, incredible green mountain and it’s so close to the city, just a 15-minute walk from where I live. At the top you have 360-degree view. You can see the ocean. You can see all of Edinburgh.

Nancy McLaughlin

Nancy McLaughlin is an Evanston-based freelance writer who has a fascination for the everyday events that shape our community in extraordinary ways. She covers human interest stories for the RoundTable.

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  1. I loved this article, responses to the same questions from students in the moment in all different places with all different perspectives! I studied abroad for a semester in Rome, Italy, back in 1982 when I was in college at the University of Illinois. One of the best things I ever did for myself! It gave me a confidence I didn’t have previously. Living abroad is very different than traveling abroad, though both worthwhile. A pivotal experience, it definitely informed my life thereafter. It opened up my world to travel and took away the fear of not knowing the language. Although sometimes frustrating, you can always find a way to communicate. I “required” my four children to study abroad and happily they complied. I truly can’t recommend the experience highly enough! You learn so much about yourself and the US by leaving it. Buon Viaggio!