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U of C study abroad and exchange programs after COVID

By Rachneet Randhawa, January 3 2022—

It’s been nearly 20 months since Canada eased COVID-19 restrictions for non-essential travel. Recently, Canada has opened up its borders to fully vaccinated travellers with many now opting for leisurely travel. Despite the quarantine and fourth wave of the pandemic, travelling for tourism purposes has once more ignited, especially for the holidays. What does this mean for the many students still hoping to do an international exchange before they graduate? 

There’s a good chance they should still consider pursuing it sometime shortly. The Gauntlet sat down with the Director of University of Calgarys’ Study Abroad Office, Colleen Packer, to learn more.

Why is studying abroad important for students? 

“Traveling is so important because it opens your eyes to just how much there is out there that you’re not aware of,” said Packer. “It also really helps to dispel the myths that you might have about people or about a place. We often get a very narrow view of different countries and different cultures based on what we see in the media. Being able to travel and see things for yourself it’s just so important.” 

There are three formats for study abroad programming — Exchange, Group Study and lastly, Virtual. An exchange is more independent and flexible and customizable as you get to choose courses, accommodations and timelines that are suitable for you. 

“The exchange program, you can go to one of our partner universities for a summer program for a semester, either in fall or winter, or you can go for a full year,” said Packer. “We have probably about 150 plus different exchange partners around the world, many of whom are top-ranked universities.” 

For those looking for a more intimate approach alongside your classmates, going for a group study is the best option. 

“A group study program is where a University of Calgary instructor is taking a group of students into the field and it’s usually for a very short period, anywhere from two to six weeks,” said Packer. “And most of these take place in the spring or summer semester. So it’s essentially taking University of Calgary courses, somewhere else in the world.”

COVID-19 affected Study Abroad programs at U of C after March 2020 due to the last-minute cancellations of student exchanges — everything was on hiatus. 

“That initial period was really hard because we were having to cancel students’ study abroad opportunities,” said Packer. “They had no choice but to pivot and adapt so they began creating virtual opportunities that students could take with partner universities alongside their online courses to still gain those crucial skills on a typical exchange.” 

Similar to everybody else they’ve had to adapt and remain resilient. for instance, with the launch of UCalgary Global Online last year. This program brings cross-cultural learning and engagement with the global community into an accessible online format. Basically, as a virtual exchange student, you have the opportunity to take online courses from one of U of C’s partner universities around the world for credit towards your degree. 

For example, one of the new virtual exchange programs is Global Community Challenge YYC. This is an 8-week competition-style program with an intercultural focus in which students receive set challenges of real-world problems and students from around the world at partner universities work together on the community challenge in interdisciplinary teams. 

For U of C, each team consists of six students and works with a local community partner organization to find solutions and give a pitch at the end of the competition in which the judges select a winner. As resources, students participate in a series of professional development workshops that they offer in conjunction with the Hunter Hub and Career Services and the Leadership and Student Engagement Office including International Student Services. 

Students gain skills such as improving communication and results-oriented skills by working in different cultural contexts within varying time zones by coming up with a creative solution to a problem. One of the best aspects of virtual travelling is the accessibility factor. 

“A lot of students are reliant on working full time or have family commitments or other issues that prevent them from being able to do traditional travel programs,” said Packer. “And so being able to do some of these virtual opportunities [where] there’s not a cost barrier because you’re just paying the tuition, you don’t have to worry about the flight and accommodation and some of the other expenses that can make study abroad a little more expensive.” 

Packer suggested booking a consultation appointment with one of the study abroad advisors. 

“We also have fantastic study abroad advisors who will help you narrow down your choices and talk about all of the different aspects of the programs that you’re looking into and hopefully answer all of the questions that you have and guide you through every step of the process as well,” said Packer. “And we also of course really strongly encourage you to connect with your academic advisor and your faculty as well to make sure you know what you need. For some students, there may be a specific time and their degree that’s better to incorporate study abroad.” 

For those interested in customizing their exchange, Packer suggests that it’s advised to choose within the curated options they offer through their many accredited partner universities as it would take too long for a student to find a different destination and university not listed. 

“Partner universities are often identified through academic connections that the university has and so there could be research that’s going on or another collaboration that’s happening that then starts to expand in scope and eventually becomes a student exchange,” said Packer. “So it often takes a few years to establish an exchange partnership.” 

For students still struggling to save up to go abroad, there are also funding options available. 

“We have a travel grant that is available to students and there’s a lot of different university scholarships that are specifically for study abroad,” said Packer. “It’s something that we’re really trying to build on as well.” 

Some options include the International Study Travel Grant that most students receive if they give back by volunteering to promote study abroad programs during the school year. And others include faculty-specific awards like the Group Study Program Scholarship valued at $1,000 per grant. The Students’ Union also offers travel and conference funding for non-academic programs per academic year with a maximum allotted amount of $125. 

For students going virtual, the UCalgary Global Learning Ambassador Award valued at $1,000 per grant is awarded to select students. And of course, you can always apply for student loans as a failsafe. At the end of the day, you have to take that risk before the net appears. 

Unfortunately, it’s frustrating as students self-select out because of misconceptions that it won’t fit into their degree program or that it’s too expensive, which is false. 

For those interested in jetting off on their first study abroad excursion be sure to check out the university’s Study Abroad website and book a consultation appointment with one of the appropriate region specific global learning advisors — whether you choose to do it in-person or opt for one of the virtual programs. We guarantee that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that is well worth the investment and one in which you will make unforgettable memories for years to come.

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