International Interrupted

Studying Abroad with Covid

Assuming she was exhausted because of her weekend in London, Kreiss took a long nap, but fatigue followed her through the next week.

A sophomore in marketing with a concentration in international business, she had been studying abroad in Barcelona since January. Now the world around her was beginning to shut down amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Knowing they would soon be sent back to the United States, Kreiss and her four American roommates decided to enjoy the local fare one last time. “That’s when I realized I couldn’t taste anything,” Kreiss recalls. “I still didn’t feel very sick, but I knew something was wrong.”

A few days later, she flew back to the states. The airport was packed with people trying to get home in the midst of an unfolding global crisis. When she reached New York, health officials questioned Kreiss about her recent travel and current symptoms. They put her on a flight to Knoxville the following morning and urged her to get tested as soon as she got home. Following these recommendations, she tested positive for COVID-19.

By the time of her diagnosis, she’d had the virus for more than a week and was starting to feel better. While in quarantine, Kreiss processed her experiences and considered her academic situation. “Haslam’s international programs and study abroad (IPSA) office had done a great job of keeping us informed about what was going on,” says Kreiss, who emailed director Sara Easler about her positive test. “She immediately set up a Zoom call to check on me.”


Haslam’s IPSA team watched with trepidation as events unfolded in Europe. The reality of the situation hit home for Easler, who was scheduled to give a presentation in Rome but had to cancel her flight the day before departure. “My family was coming with me,” she says. “If we’d gone, we would have been stuck in Italy for weeks.”

As the pandemic hit, Haslam’s IPSA team had to bring home 73 students who were studying abroad in 18 countries. They also needed to replace coursework for 344 additional students who had planned to study abroad during the summer.

“It was a tricky few weeks as we realized the full scope of the crisis,” says Easler. “The news changed daily and we had to shift our plans to anticipate many potential scenarios.”

As students struggled to adjust their plans, the IPSA team spent time counseling them. Striving to keep communication lines open to ease student tensions, Easler says the office received positive feedback from appreciative students.

Students also reached out to each other to offer support. Joe Roebuck, a junior in supply chain management and president of Haslam’s international business club, started an online support group for students whose plans were interrupted. “It was nice to be able to tell our stories,” he says, “and remember that we weren’t alone.”

One complication was the need for students to continue their studies uninterrupted. If there is a pause of more than a few weeks, undergraduates are technically withdrawn from the university, creating an enrollment gap that can interfere with federal aid. Because of the extraordinary circumstances, the federal government relaxed those rules.

IPSA also transfers in about 2,200 credit hours per year from international universities when students study abroad. Without that resource, the team wondered if Haslam professors would need to teach additional courses to supplement. In the end, all students who came home early from their study abroad programs were able to continue with distance learning through their international universities, although Haslam faculty also taught 541 hours of “emergency credit” to shore up the need for interrupted or cancelled summer, fall and spring coursework.

The initial transition solved, IPSA looked ahead to another problem looming in the global chaos: if study abroad programs continued to be impossible for a year or more, how would international business students gain the experiences they needed to graduate?


Remote learning options would need to be created to replace international programs, and quickly, to keep students on a path to graduation.

“We knew we couldn’t just sign waivers, because that would undermine the value of the degree,” says Easler. “We focused on highly interactive experiences, such as virtual internships, international research, and consulting projects.” Students also had the option to participate in international business case competitions and area studies. This year, the office also launched a series of free online cultural competency programs, which are available to the full university community. Participants earn Canvas badges and LinkedIn certificates for completing the self-paced modules.

Many of the programs are curricular options IPSA has long wanted to add. This year, they’ve been able to focus their energy and build out an impressive array of options that are now available to students both inside and outside the Haslam College of Business. “Not only are these great academic and co-curricular experiences, most of them are offered for free, removing one of the largest barriers to student engagement with international programs,” Easler says. “These offerings will definitely stay with us long after our regular study abroad programs resume.”


For her part, Kreiss is looking forward to a day when she can travel again. She’s tentatively planning to study abroad next fall and hopes international experiences will continue to be part of her story for years to come.

“I’ve always wanted to live in another country, and that hasn’t changed,” says Kreiss. “I love having new experiences and meeting people from all over the world. Even though it was cut short, studying abroad this year and experiencing what I did was an awesome experience.”

While plans remain tentative for international programs in the coming year, most faculty-directed programs remain in place for summer 2021.

Looking back at a tumultuous year, college administrators are proud of IPSA’s efforts. “Demonstrating compassion and flexibility, Easler and the IPSA office worked with students to provide creative alternatives to keep them on track for graduation,” Lane Morris, associate dean of undergraduate studies and student affairs, says. “They reinforced the college’s long history of commitment to our students.”

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