Oh, The Places You’ll Go! Risk, Uncertainty, and the Future of Global Education

Students wearing backpacks hike along a path with a mountain in the background.
By Bradley A Feuling, Chairman and CEO, The Asia Institute

In 1990, Oh, The Places You’ll Go! was released, the last book to be written and published during the life of Dr. Seuss. The final line of the book reads, “And when things start to happen, don’t worry, don’t stew. Just go right along, you’ll start happening too!” In 2020, undoubtedly a lot has happened, including a pandemic, the suspension of travel, and disruptions to education that were once unthinkable. But what has happened to opportunities for global learning? What is on the horizon for the field of study abroad?

For many in the global education field, early 2020 saw unprecedented interest in study abroad by American students at institutions of higher education. From semester-long programs in London to faculty-led customized programs in Japan, it seemed like a significant milestone had been achieved.

However, as Spring semesters resumed and students began to settle into their host campuses abroad, global education was suddenly forced to reinvent itself. What began in China as a localized novel virus that required adaptation in study abroad programming in Asia was soon a global pandemic. The suspension of international travel created unforeseen and unprecedented challenges for global education that will continue well into the future.

To better understand this seismic transition, the Global Learning Collective conducted a survey in early May to assess decision-making at American university and college campuses. The Global Learning Collective is the first truly global consortium of educational organizations that share similar values, offering a personal connection to in-country partners, while providing on-the-ground expertise and local access in each region of the globe. The Asia Institute is a founding member. In May, the survey conducted looked specifically at the continuation of Fall 2020 study abroad programming. In total, ninety-six institutions participated in the survey and answered two questions:

  1. What is your institution’s current position on operating Fall 2020 study abroad programs?
  2. If your institution has a date to make a decision, what is the cutoff date?

The results of the first question pointed to widespread uncertainty about Fall 2020 study abroad planning. Of the 96 total institutions that responded, 74 institutions (76%) noted that they were uncertain whether Fall study abroad would continue as planned. Eleven institutions (12%) reported that they had already canceled their Fall 2020 study abroad programs, while eleven other institutions had decided to continue as planned. Given this uncertainty, and more recent trends, the Global Learning Collective revisited this survey, looking to the prospects of global programming in 2021.

In the most recent survey, conducted in August, the results clearly indicate a continued high degree of uncertainty regarding global education. Of the 71 total institutions that responded in August, 47 institutions (66%) noted that they were uncertain whether Spring study abroad would continue as planned. Nine institutions (14%) reported that they had already canceled their Spring 2021 study abroad programs, while fifteen other institutions had decided to continue as planned. These decisions raise important questions about the ability of campuses to recruit students for global learning programs in 2021 at all. Will institutional decision-making limit global learning for students until 2022 or even later? Or, is the field of global education undergoing a renaissance, leading to new global learning models already being implemented?

The University of Pittsburgh is well recognized as one of the largest sending institutions of study abroad students, and hence adds a good case study of how an institution committed to global education made their decisions. It should be noted that Pittsburgh was uniquely one of the few institutions that decided in April to cancel their Fall 2020 study abroad programs. This decision impacted study abroad plans for roughly 200 students, but also allowed the offices involved in global education the opportunity for deep reflection. Their re-evaluation included a review of their entire portfolio of study abroad programs, emergency preparedness planning, and the integration of new opportunities for global programming. Jeffrey Whitehead, Director of Study Abroad at the University of Pittsburgh, noted, “We immediately realized that we could not be completely reliant on mobility in our efforts to provide global education to our students. We began mining for, developing, and cultivating new and innovative tools and modalities that will take us through the pandemic and well into the future.”

Male student stands holding University of Pittsburg flag on a rooftop with mountains in the background.

In moving forward, the University of Pittsburgh is looking at three fundamental components to global education: first, what student mobility looks like in a new era of study abroad; second, how the university can mitigate certain risks, so that the events of 2020 do not reoccur; and lastly, how does global education remain relevant on campus, where student’s academic lives have been so dramatically influenced.

Similarly, The Asia Institute is reinventing itself, taking much of 2020 to evaluate internal processes and reassess the future of global learning. The Asia Institute has long believed that around the world, education has the power to impact societies for the better. To positively impact global learning, The Asia Institute leverages its unique and comprehensive regional network of private, public, not-for-profit and educational institutions, to develops innovative and immersive learning programs that fundamentally change how students perceive the world. Additionally, The Asia Institute fosters connections between educational institution partners worldwide to support opportunities for students at the high school, undergraduate and graduate levels.

The Asia Institute is looking ahead to 2021 and 2022 with the first of its kind Return to Asia Scholarship Program. In total, $125,000 in scholarship funding will be provided to students participating in faculty-led custom programs, virtual learning, or internship experiences in Asia. Priority will be given to faculty-led and internship programs that were originally scheduled for 2020 and then canceled. The purpose of the Return to Asia Scholarships is to encourage students to continue with their original goals of studying abroad.

In addition, The Asia Institute is closely monitoring the effects of the pandemic on diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in the field of global education. Two primary concerns which could negatively impact non-traditional study abroad student enrollment have become apparent. The first is campus closures and cancellation of study abroad at universities and colleges where non-traditional study abroad students represent a higher percentage of the student body. The second is an increase in the cost of study abroad, as a result of the events in 2020, which would disproportionately affect lower income populations that typically include non-traditional study abroad students.

The year 2020 will be long remembered on American university campuses because of the impact of COVID-19 and its lasting effects on global learning. Many global program offices have suggested they are “pivoting” as international travel has been suspended. Noah Rost, Director of Study Abroad at Arizona State University, however, suggests, “The future of global education will be clear when we are beyond the pivot.” As we look ahead, 2021 may very well be a defining year for global education as the field demonstrates its resiliency after a year many could not have imagined.

For more articles on the future of International Education and why it matters now, more than ever, watch for the Fall issue of IIE’s The Networker, publishing early October 2020.