COVID-19 raises questions about study abroad programs

Wichita State students and faculty with plans to study abroad in the coming months may be filled with questions about the viability and safety of their plans. Associate Director of Study Abroad and Exchange Programs Ann Burger said those with plans to travel abroad need to monitor the situation and travel warnings closely. 

“Tentatively, right now, we had one faculty-led trip at the end of May that was scheduled for South Korea. And that has officially been canceled,” Burger said.

Burger said she’s been working with a number of students who were planning on going to Italy. Some are looking at changing locations to a different country, if that will work with what they need, she said. 

“With Italy, that one’s kind of still the unknown — what’s going to happen there,” Burger said. “Any place that has a level 3 is tentatively a canceled location unless that changes.

“Some of them may just kind of be sitting tight to see whether or not they would still want to go Italy if the level were to decrease.”

In a statement to the university on March 2, WSU President Jay Golden wrote that, “at this point, Wichita State is not authorizing any university-sponsored employee travel or Study Abroad travel for countries listed by the CDC as Warning Level 3. That list currently includes China, Iran, South Korea, and Italy.”

He also wrote that the university wants students traveling to level 2 countries to be cautious. 

The U.S. Department of State (DOS) has four warning levels for international travelers, which are updated regularly on its website.

The travel advisory levels are as follows:

  1. Exercise normal precautions
  2. Exercise increased caution
  3. Reconsider travel
  4. Do not travel

Wichita State student Nicole Brant contacted The Sunflower electronically from a study abroad program at the Asian Studies Program at Kansai Gaidai University in Hirakata, Osaka, Japan. Brant is the only WSU student currently participating in the program in Japan, which is currently classified as a level-2 threat.

Brant is a junior majoring in psychology and minoring in Japanese. 

She said the university contacted her recently to get her opinion and perspective on the COVID-19 virus. 

“Once I told them that it isn’t as serious as the media makes it out to be, they have simply been keeping in touch just to ensure I’m all right,” Brant said on Sunday.

She said the whole country of Japan has converted to online classes for the next two weeks to alleviate class gatherings and slow the spread of COVID-19. 

“We have been advised to not travel to Korea or China,” Brant said. “Yes, Japan is a level-2 country, however, to put that into perspective, South Korea is a level 3 with over 6,000 active cases and Japan still holds less than 1,000 from my understanding.”

Brant said she wants the Wichita community to understand that Japan is a courteous country that cares about the well-being of others. 

“By this, I mean they wear masks all the time — even before there was this virus,” Brant said. “So the media depicting images of people wearing masks as a panic trigger does not show the full story. I do not feel endangered because both WSU and KGU are taking good precautions for my safety. My family, though worried, also believes everything will be okay.”

On Monday, Brant told The Sunflower that the university had officially called her home. Officials wanted her back in the U.S. this week if possible.

On Wednesday, Brant told The Sunflower that Burger had reconsidered her position and told her she could stay in Japan.

“I told her that since I’m 21, it should be my decision,” Brant said. 

She reported that the university originally called her parents — not her — to tell them she should come home.

“(It) made things harder on my end. I should have been the one to confront my parents about it,” Brant said. 

Brant said Burger told her she is looking out for her best interest.

“She does understand that it’s a big deal to me, so she just wants to stay in contact,” Brant said. “She accepts my decision [to stay in Japan.]” 

With spring break around the corner, WSU Director of Student Health Services Camille Childers has some advice for students as they prepare to go on vacation.

“If you’re planning on traveling internationally, check the CDC website before you go,” Childers said. “Make sure [you know] what your risk factors are. The travel notices are put out there for public information and to help travelers decide what’s appropriate for them.”

She said people need to consider the full range of possibilities before traveling.

“Let’s say, for example, you’re going to a country where right now there’s just a few cases, they’re not on the CDC watch travel list. But let’s say while you’re over there, it starts to spread,” Childers said. “Now, when you come back to the U.S., you may have to consider the fact that if the travel health website from the CDC, or their determination is that this is a higher risk country than when you left, you may be subject to self-monitoring or quarantining yourself — even if you’re asymptomatic — for up to 14 days.”