Many University of Michigan Program in International and Comparative Studies (PICS) students chose to embark on a study abroad experience during the Winter 2020 semester to embrace the PICS mission of “Learning The Transcends Borders.” However, the COVID-19 pandemic prompted these study abroad experiences to be cut short, students had to quickly travel home, and many had to shift to remote learning for the rest of the semester. 

These International Studies students reflected on their abroad experiences learning, exercising resiliency, and overcoming challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic in an international location and at home. The students were able to tremendously grow academically and personally in a short period of time and make the most out of their abridged experiences studying abroad. Learn more about their abroad experiences below.

PICS is proud to have been able to provide financial support to these International Studies students through PICS Study Abroad Grants to help offset the cost of air travel, local transportation, room and board, research expenses, fees for educational opportunities, and visa fees.

Kayleigh Crabb

BA International Studies (Global Environment and Health), Honors

Paro, Bhutan

“The study abroad grant I received from the Program in International and Comparative Studies helped fund my study abroad program in Paro, Bhutan. This program was run by the School for Field Studies, and the structure of the program enabled me to achieve new educational goals that would be difficult or impossible in many other places around the world. For example, I was able to visit monasteries and interview people in different parts of the country about their environmental beliefs and activities, which helped me learn how spiritual beliefs are often key in conservation in Bhutan.

Although my time in Bhutan was cut short, it was a valuable learning opportunity not only from the classwork completed and people I met, but also in crisis response. Countries like Bhutan that acted quickly to contain COVID-19 within their borders and prevent it from arriving have been able to maintain extremely low infection rates as well as more normal operations, excluding international travel/trade. It was also a reminder of how quickly plans can change, and how important it is to have an open mind and remain flexible even in the most unpredictable circumstances.”

Sophia Filipe

BA International Studies (International Security, Norms and Cooperation), BA Organizational Studies; minor in French and Francophone Studies

Senegal, Dakar

“This past semester, I spent 2 months living with a Senegalese/French family living in the capital of Senegal, Dakar. Dakar, while it still reflects Senegalese roots, is a very globalized city, with the presence of western business, thought and culture. There, we were taking courses on Wolof (the local language), international development, and Senegalese history. The second component of our program was meant to be internships out in villages in which less-globalized Senegal was presented. I was meant to be working with a women’s rights organization in the village of Kaolack, but despite that not coming to fruition, we were able to experience village life during our weekend excursion to Toubacouta.

To sum all the wonderful, goofy, embarrassing, nerve wrecking and confusing moments I experienced in my two months, Senegal gave me a plethora of “firsts.” I had my first networking experience in a second language with my host sister’s colleagues, giving me confidence in pursuing difficult conversations en francais. It was the first time that I felt frustrated by my identity as a woman, as the western-liberties I’ve been habituated to did not travel with me. After bargaining in Wolof at the market, I had a beautiful celebration-style dress made to attend my first Muslim wedding ceremony. Finally, I had the confusing experience of explaining cultural appropriation to my host sister as she braided my hair, who laughed at the concept.”

Gabriella Gigante

BA International Studies (International Security, Norms and Cooperation), BA Spanish, BA Communications and Media; minor in Business Administration

Madrid, Spain

“During my time in Spain, I became very committed to doing as much as I could, especially as news of the spread of COVID-19 began to become more publicized. Since Italy was the first European country to suffer from it, it made me aware that I could be sent home at any moment, making my time there even more precious. I tried doing a couple of new things each week, so that by the time the semester had come to its premature end, I was confident that I had taken full advantage of my time in Spain. I have to admit, it was daunting at first because it took a while to adjust to my surroundings, the new language, and venturing out alone was extremely intimidating initially. However, it taught me to become more independent, to put myself out there, and to embrace the unknown which allowed me to grow as an individual rather than simply a student. I was also able to meet amazing people that I would not have otherwise.

Obviously, I wish that I had spent the entire semester in Spain as I had planned, but I count myself very lucky. I lived in Madrid for exactly two months which was a lot more than other study abroad programs were able to be held for, and I made the most of my time there. Studying abroad was definitely the greatest decision I have made in my life thus far, apart from deciding to attend the University of Michigan, because although cliché, the popular quote that states “not everything can be taught in a classroom” is undoubtedly correct. Some things require you to live through them first-hand because opportunities such as this one can stimulate the greatest amount of growth in a short period of time. Furthermore, even the experience of waking up in the middle of the night to news of Trump’s European travel ban forcing me to buy a plane ticket for a flight that very same day, was truly unforgettable and a learning experience in and of itself.”

Suma Kanuri

BS International Studies (Comparative Culture and Identity), BS Data Science; minor in Business Administration; Honors

Barcelona, Spain

“Barcelona was an experience that I could not be more grateful for, and the only thing I would change is the amount of time I spent there. I loved meeting people from all over the world. I became friends with a girl in my class who was from Indonesia. Aside from my peers and teachers in my classes, meeting people along the way was insightful as well. From nights out to tours in other countries, I met people from all over. My most distinctive meeting was a couple of girls from Poland who had studied abroad in Barcelona the semester before. They had come to visit and reminisce for a weekend. They were very kind and gave us recommendations for the city. It was lovely meeting students from another country who went through a similar experience as me and could advise us. In fact, the girl was so nice that even after she left Barcelona, she sent me information about a cool concert to attend later that week!”

Kelsie Johnston

BA International Studies (Global Environment and Health), BA Spanish; minor in Science, Technology, and Society (STS) Minor

Madrid, Spain

“Although my experience was cut short due to COVID-19, I was still able to achieve my academic goals. First, I gained experience speaking with native Spanish speakers. Near the end of my trip, I was very confident in my Spanish-speaking abilities. Being able to speak fluently and confidently to native Spanish speakers was my main academic goal coming into this trip. I have been taking Spanish classes for 8 years, but never applied my skills to the real world. I wholeheartedly believe that I would have never been able to achieve my current Spanish-language proficiency if I hadn’t participated in this study abroad experience.

Another one of my academic goals for this study abroad program was to learn about something that I am passionate about from a different perspective. At the University of Michigan, I am studying global health and environment. I am very passionate about healthcare and public health. While I was in Spain, I had the opportunity to intern at HM Hospitales, a major private-hospital network. This was a life-changing experience for me because I learned about the business aspect of hospitals and I also worked with international patients and helped them navigate the health system that was likely unfamiliar to them. 

Finally, I learned so much more in Spain than I ever expected. My main takeaway from this experience is that there are many ways to live life, and one is not better than the other. I have always been exposed to the United States’ way of life where people work all the time and the only way to move up in the world is to work harder. Meanwhile in Spain, the motto that I heard repeatedly was “work to live, not live to work.” I found this new perspective on life to be very refreshing. At night, people went out and had food, watched sporting events, listened to live music and so on. This was an every night occasion, not just on weekends. This mindset taught me a very valuable lesson that I hope to never lose sight of; I can work hard to achieve my goals and still enjoy life at the same time. “

Hannah Noglows

BA International Studies (International Security, Norms and Cooperation); minor in Entrepreneurship

Prague, Czech Republic

“Prague was a perfect place to study abroad because the foreign language, the previous communist history, and being located in Central Europe allowed me to experience a new culture and force myself to try new things. COVID-19 cut my study abroad program short by 10 weeks. While I was devastated when I left Prague, I am extremely thankful for the opportunity I had to study abroad there. I was able to make lifelong friends from all over the United States that all attended different universities. I was also able to explore many different areas of the Czech Republic, and immerse myself into local culture to the best of my abilities. I was lucky enough to explore Europe, and I was able to visit five new countries and eight new cities. Although my study abroad experience did not last as long as I wanted it to, it has made me even more determined to make it back to Europe and continue to learn more about the world.”

Ellie Simon

BS International Studies (Global Environment and Health), BS Environment, BS Earth and Environmental Sciences; minor in Mathematics; Honors

Aix-en-Provence, France

“My winter 2020 semester was spent abroad in Aix-en-Provence, France, studying at the Institute for American Universities and living with a host family. My experience abroad, although cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic, was profound in its ability to open my eyes to different cultures and ways of living. As an International Studies major with a focus on Global Environment and Health, it was very interesting to learn about the European perspective on these issues. In particular, in my class on Global Environmental Politics, we had many discussions on the differing approaches to climate change and spent a lot of time comparing the views and actions of Europeans to Americans as well as to other places around the world. In addition to gaining the perspective of a different country, my experience was bettered by interacting with my classmates who came from all around the U.S. and world. It was wonderful to be able to connect with new people and enjoy exploring and learning about a new place together. 

One of my favorite parts of studying abroad was living with my host mom and enjoying spending time, especially meals with her. It was great practice for my French to discuss a variety of topics with her and my roommate each night at dinner; anything from politics, to places we had traveled, to her favorite markets in Aix. I also really enjoyed the style of life in the South of France, took time to explore my new home, and discovered many parks and small shops. Although my program did not end as I expected, I still enjoyed and appreciated every moment I was able to spend in Aix-en-Provence and I am looking forward to being able to go back in the future.”

Annalise Steketee

BA International Studies (Global Environment and Health), BA Environment

San Jose, Costa Rica

“At first, I was a bit shocked by how structured my program was—it was basically a summer camp on steroids (and with classes).  We lived together, learned together, dined together, and played together. It took some adjustment, especially being an only child used to a quiet household and sleeping in, but I learned to love our jam-packed days and the people with whom I shared them. Being so structured, we didn’t have a whole lot of time to explore Costa Rica and its surroundings on our own. Unfortunately, our spring break and all but one of our weekends away were cancelled due to our return to the United States. But, our group of 27 students traveled on a field trip nearly every weekend—from Thursday to Saturday. From these trips came some of my most memorable and impactful moments. On one trip, we visited Monteverde—an area rich in biodiversity and the corresponding ecotourism. We toured a coffee farm that specialized in agritourism and was focused on making their coffee production more of a closed-loop system in order to be more sustainable and environmentally-conscious.

It’s probably quite obvious to say that the COVID-19 evacuation came as a disappointment. I was just at the point where I had resurrected the Spanish from the back of my mind and was ready to learn more. Nonetheless, I took away new knowledge about environmental issues in general, the environmental legislation and protection that Costa Rica has in place, and the ways in which local communities handle these environmental issues from the bottom up.”

Erin Strauss

BA International Studies (International Security, Norms and Cooperation)

Vienna, Austria

“Although my time in Vienna was cut short, I am so appreciative of the Program in International and Comparative Studies and my family for giving me the opportunity to study abroad. The two short months allowed me to grow tremendously both academically and personally.

Traveling has always been extremely important to me because I value global awareness. However, my time abroad brought a whole new meaning to what it means to travel. Traveling does not simply involve seeing tourist attractions, trying new foods, or catching on to new languages. Studying abroad in Austria taught me to learn and really appreciate other countries’ histories, as they explain a lot about how countries still present themselves and operate today. It also taught me to focus on the little cultural differences. I became more observant of how people interacted on the streets, restaurant etiquette, fashion, and political views. I realized that people really appreciate a true effort to speak in the native language, but that there are many ways to communicate aside from verbally. Lastly, my studies reminded me of the importance of being open-minded. Rather than being critical of other cultures, I learned to understand them. It was eye-opening to see new perspectives that I would have never been exposed to through a text book.”

Catherine Turner

BA International Studies (International Security, Norms and Cooperation), BA Middle East Studies

Amman, Jordan

“Completing my semester from home was an unimagined conclusion and much harder than I thought it would be. After making it back to the U.S., I found myself with a couple days left of spring break, and work piling up. My professors worked magic to fit everyone’s new locations into a revised program, and for them and their incredible support, I am truly thankful. The transition and continuation of courses back home were difficult for me. Quarantine with an intensive study abroad program and my family, as well as limited bandwidth, was extremely stressful.

Overall, I am so grateful to have come out of this program with the odd and somehow wonderful culmination of experiences that I had. There are so many things I learned and my two months in Jordan immeasurably helped my language skills. I studied Middle Eastern conflict history and Jordanian society beyond my language classes in Arabic, and through that I gained an amazing beginning of a new perspective, a new context in Arabic.”

Anna Barr

BA International Studies (Political Economy and Development), BA Spanish; minor in Moral and Political Philosophy

Buenos Aires, Argentina

“Since Argentine universities operate on a March - July semester, I was only able to spend about two weeks there. Though I was only physically present for a short time, I was able to explore some of the city's greenspaces, restaurants, distinctive neighborhoods and even visited Iguazú Falls in the north, which in and of itself was worth the long, cross-continental plane ride. Sadly, I only got a small glimpse of the richness and magnitude of those places. It is surprising how quickly I began to feel at home there. That was lucky for me, though, since I was in mandatory quarantine with my host mother for five of the 14 days. Clearly, living through the beginning of the pandemic in Buenos Aires was a once in a lifetime experience. Even in the midst of all of that fear and uncertainty, my host mother, Lidia, was such a comfort. We managed to form a close bond in those days and I look forward to returning to Buenos Aires and staying with her when she can show me the city at its best. I shifted to taking classes from Buenos Aires online, which means my experience did not really end, just changed format. Overall, I am so grateful for the time I was able to spend in Argentina. I feel fortunate to still be learning from my professors in Argentina and I know that this experience will still be very meaningful to my education in the long run.”