By Skyler Stark-Ragsdale
“I am confident that our cancellation of our Spring Programs … even before the specific countries were in any difficulty, was the right decision.”
That’s according to Allen Bertsche, the Colorado College Director of Global Education. Bertsche directs all Colorado College blocks abroad. He also helps CC coordinate with affiliated or third-party study-abroad organizations.
In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, Bertsche participated in the decision to cancel all CC study-abroad programs in early March. While he said he was first worried that the Global Education committee was being overly cautious, he is now confident in their decision to cancel.
“I believe that the events of the past month have shown that our cautious approach helped us to avoid major concerns with students trapped overseas, placed into quarantine, or with even greater potential exposure to the virus,” he said.
Bertsche’s conservative action in relation to COVID-19 extends beyond this spring. He said he believes the effects of COVID-19 will continue into the summer as the crisis will not be resolved quickly.
“I do not share President Trump’s belief that we can quickly get back to life as normal,” Bertsche said. “I expect disruption of travel, restrictions on entry into various nations, and lock-down conditions to last well into May, and perhaps beyond.”
However, Bertsche acknowledged that CC’s decision to cancel study-abroad programs early was straightforward, when compared with other study abroad institutions. While Bertsche said CC was significantly more cautious, he noted that COVID-19 posed greater challenges to affiliated or third-party study abroad organizations. CC was able to cancel block-abroad programs before they started, while semester programs had to consider stopping instruction mid-semester, suspending or redesigning their courses.
“For schools and organizations that have full-time centers overseas, with staff they have to take care of, and financial models that depend on attendance in-country, the choices are a lot tougher,” said Bertsche.
Sarah Sutherland ’21 spent just over two weeks in the CC-approved study abroad program Institute for Study Abroad (IFSA). Unlike CC Global Education, IFSA did not take a particularly conservative approach to COVID-19, according to Sutherland.
After spending ten days in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Sutherland said she and the rest of her program experienced a government-mandated quarantine for all travelers coming from the U.S. When the Argentinian government announced that the last outgoing flights would be on Monday, March 16, Sutherland said, “many students, encouraged by their parents or home institutions, immediately bought flights out of the country.” According to Sutherland, it wasn’t until Wednesday, March 19, that IFSA withdrew from the country due to the rapidly tightening borders of Argentina.
Despite IFSA’s delayed response to the COVID-19 crisis, Sutherland said Argentina’s early preventative measures were probably well-founded.
When compared with the preventative measures enacted by the U.S., Sutherland said, “I think Argentina dealt with the crisis much more seriously and rapidly than the U.S. With under fifty cases in the entire country, the streets were completely empty.”
Likewise, Colin Suszynski ’21 returned home to the U.S. before the promised end of the CC-approved IFSA-Butler study abroad program in Valparaíso, Chile.
“They didn’t want to shut down but saw the writing on the wall when the borders tightened,” said Suszynski.
Suszynski said Chile’s response to COVID-19 was also different from that of the U.S.
“Even when I was buying my return flight, I was sure that the U.S. response was putting far more people in danger than the response in Chile. I had discussed with many of my fellow students for weeks before we all left about how we all thought Chile was safer than the U.S., and I stand by that.”
Nick Penzel ’21 recently returned to the U.S. from his CC-approved study-abroad program, African Ecology and Conservation, after COVID-19 cases emerged in South Africa, where the program was based.
Penzel said that after canceling all scheduled trips in the future, this program does not know if it will financially survive the pandemic.
Penzel said the South African President, Cyril Ramaphosa, was quick to mandate preventative measures against COVID-19. He said South Africa had more of a “cultural consciousness” than the U.S. when dealing with infectious disease, because of the country’s experience with the HIV and Tuberculosis pandemics. However, Penzel noted that, should COVID-19 continue to spread, South Africa will not have the infrastructure to deal with the influx of cases.
Penzel remains hopeful that, despite the obvious repercussions of COVID-19, the world could benefit in some ways from the challenges posed by the crisis.
While the impacts of COVID-19 might be felt disproportionately by those without adequate access to healthcare, those who are being racially stigmatized as a result of the virus, and those who have or will lose jobs or loved ones to the pandemic, both in the U.S. and globally, Penzel noted that despite the disparities COVID-19 is revealing, the pandemic is still something the whole world is dealing with right now.
“The coronavirus does not care about nationality, does not care about borders, it’s indiscriminate,” he said. “It has the potential to be a way we can all unite around a common enemy.”