Absences abroad

Katie Ribbens–Staff Writer


Contributed photo

Once, a student’s primary concern when studying abroad was fitting the off-campus semester into their schedule. Now, students are faced with a number of complications. This year, some never made it to their destination.

As countries across the globe deal with COVID-19 spikes caused by the Omicron variant, study abroad programs must consider public health when taking in students from around the world. 

Of Dordt University’s programs, the Studies Program in Contemporary Europe (SPICE) in Zwolle, Netherlands and the New Zeeland program faced cancellation, while programs in Chicago, Denver, Nashville, Spain, Oxford, Nicaragua, and New York City still ran. 

Morgan Stolzfus, a junior graphic design major, planned on attending the SPICE program because she wanted to live with a host family and immerse herself in another country’s culture. She looked forward to connecting to her Dutch heritage and experiencing where her great-great-grandfather grew up. She crammed six classes into her previous semester to accommodate a semester abroad. Stoltzfus believed it would all be worth it for the opportunity to get out of her comfort zone. 

A day and a half before the Dordt students left for the Netherlands, they received an email. SPICE had been cancelled. 

For weeks, as the Omicron variant surged throughout Europe, Stoltzfus had held onto the belief that her semester would not be cancelled. 

 “It was on my radar, but my optimism was telling me that it wasn’t going to happen,” Stoltzfus said.

Rather than accept defeat after its cancellation, Stoltzfus jumped at the opportunity for an open spot in the Chicago program. In just a handful of days, her semester’s location changed by 4,000 miles. 

“It was just a whirlwind,” Stoltzfus said. “I didn’t really have time to process the fact that I wasn’t going to the Netherlands anymore.”

While the thought of missing out on SPICE saddened Stoltzfus, she thought Chicago offered a solid second option. Her adjusted semester even came with a graphic design internship. She also appreciated the greater degree of freedom in Chicago, since she knew the culture and language. 

Dordt senior Clara Peterson faced two SPICE cancellations. She planned to go on SPICE in the spring of 2021 and again in the spring of 2022. Now, she is spending her last semester at Dordt. 

“At first it was kind of difficult because every class was waitlisted,” Peterson said. “But the registrar has been amazing.”

The ease of access from the Netherlands to other countries made the SPICE program most appealing. Peterson wanted to visit Sweden and Germany during her stay in Europe. While planning her freshman semester around studying abroad, cancellation didn’t ever cross her mind. But after the program was canceled last year, she wondered if it might face cancelation again.

“I dreamt about going and staying abroad for a long time,” Peterson said. “So, it’s kind of hard to adjust my thinking of things a little bit.”  

Stoltzfus and Peterson hold onto plans to spend time internationally this summer. Stoltzfus saved money to go backpacking after SPICE, so she hopes to put it to good use. Peterson also plans to use her airline credits to visit the Netherlands. 

“Everyone should go abroad at some point for at least a week,” Peterson said. “It’s invaluable to see things differently and to learn.”

Rebecca Tervo, coordinator for global education at Dordt, discovered the value of global education when she moved to China to teach English after graduating from college. She believes spending time abroad fulfills students’ calling to explore God’s earth and see the beauty in diversity.

“It helps grow us as people and helps create us into the people that God has created us to be,” Tervo said. “It helps us expand our horizons beyond what we know.”

If students plan early, most can fit studying abroad into their four-year plan in some form, whether it is for a semester or a month. 

“We can learn and grow in a different way when we’re not comfortable,” Tervo said. “We’re in a place where we don’t have all the answers. I think it helps develop empathy, because when you’re in that place where you’re not in the majority culture, you start to see people in your own culture that maybe aren’t in the majority culture differently because you understand how they feel in some way.”

Tervo encourages students to continue to pursue studying abroad and not let fear of COVID-19 complications hold them back.

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