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From study abroad to stuck at home: Students hold cautious optimism for the future of travel

The world seems to be opening back up, but students have heard that before.

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The last time Jakob Barrus ’22 boarded a plane was in March 2020 — right when Stanford sent students home. 

Unmasked and unaware of what the next year had in store, he watched COVID-19 headlines scroll across an airport TV. “Someone here must have COVID,” he recalled thinking.

His next flight was supposed to be to Florence, Italy alongside around 40 other Stanford students for a spring quarter abroad. As cities locked down and borders closed, Barrus’ plans with the Bing Overseas Study Program (BOSP) were replaced with a quarter of online classes from his childhood bedroom. And then another quarter. And then two more. 

Barrus was one of the study abroad hopefuls who were grounded by the pandemic. Starting from spring 2020, BOSP suspended five consecutive quarters of programs. 

Students are now piecing back together the plans for their college experience. After over a year of college from home, some students are more eager than ever to take their studies abroad. For others, their final quarters on campus are too precious to spend elsewhere.

Seventy undergraduates are registered to study abroad in the fall across programs in Berlin, Florence, Hong Kong, Madrid, New York, Oxford and Paris, according to BOSP executive director Shawna Knauff. However, the programs will be modified to support student health and safety. BOSP has implemented COVID-19 protocols and safety measures, according to Knauff, which include testing, modifying travel and activities, and the requirement that students are fully vaccinated.

Last fall, Oxford hosted students from the United Kingdom for a “Studying Away at Home” program consisting of virtual classes and activities from the Stanford facilities in Oxford. But that program was the only one open to students during the pandemic. Those who enrolled in the other programs had no such luck; all of them were deferred once more.

Erick Bravo ’23 was one of 16 who joined the summer 2021 Oxford program. Despite the smaller group and restrictions, this year’s program included new course offerings and field trips. According to Bravo, students could enroll in OSPOXFRD 67: “Pandemics in Cultural Context” or participate in a Bristol art walk and Black history tour of the area. The program also hosted visiting guest speakers, including Sir Andrew Pollard, the chief investigator on the University of Oxford COVID-19 vaccine trials. “He came to the Stanford House and talked to us about the process he oversaw with the trials for the AstraZeneca Vaccine and recent news about vaccine efficacy,” said Bravo. After his talk, students joined him for a formal dinner and drinks reception. 

“I heard that for this program, usually they drop you off and say, ‘Have fun!’” he said. “But this year, we’re doing something every week.” 

But Tori Pollak ’23 wasn’t so lucky. She applied to both the Madrid and Santiago programs this summer, excited to use her Spanish in a professional setting and explore new cultures. As an international relations major, studying abroad is a degree requirement, but it was also an experience Pollak looked forward to since she was young. 

She hoped that, after over a year since the pandemic began, a quarter abroad might be possible. However, when a BOSP email announced otherwise, Pollak found herself back home again for the summer. 

“Part of me saw it coming,” she said. “It’s great to be home, but I was disappointed nevertheless.” 

With the pandemic uprooting everyday routines, Story Frantzen ’22 said the “whirlwind of panic, nervousness and anxiety” he experienced prevented him from giving much thought to his canceled spring 2020 Paris program. He ended up spending his spring quarter at home in Louisiana amidst the historic French culture that piqued his interest in a trip to France. 

While Bravo and Pollak have two more years at Stanford to fit in quarters abroad, the considerations were different for Barrus and Frantzen as they planned out their last year as undergraduates. 

After a year of canceled plans, Barrus said he has been conditioned to hold some pessimism. Still, his estimates of the chances of a fall in Florence are high: “I’d say I’m 98% optimistic it’s going to happen.” Bravo also made plans for a fall away from campus in Washington, D.C. 

“This fall, I’ll have been off-campus more than I’ve been there, which highlights just how weird a college experience a lot of us have had,” Barrus said. 

However, he plans to extend his time away from campus for another quarter by enrolling in BOSP’s Florence, Italy program for the fall. “Study abroad really has been the one concrete thing I’ve wanted to do in my academic experience,” Barrus added. 

On the other hand, Frantzen said he preferred to cherish his last quarters on campus: “Paris isn’t going anywhere in the way my friends here might.” 

Pollak shares Barrus’ hopes that study abroad will resume this school year and plans to apply to the spring Madrid program. 

“I’m confident the program is doing all they can to get students back abroad,” she said. 

After a sophomore year at home, Bravo said studying abroad was an opportunity to “get out there and see as much as I can.” He looks forward to reuniting with friends on campus in the winter, a sentiment Barrus shared. 

“This last year has made me realize all the things I didn’t appreciate about Stanford,” Barrus said. “Soaking it all in those last two quarters — I can look forward to that.”

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Marli Bosler is a writer in the News section. She is a freshman from Kirkland, WA, and she enjoys making Spotify playlists in her free time. Contact The Daily’s News section at news ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.