Education abroad programs open up after COVID closures
Linda Torricelli, coordinator of education abroad in the Office of International Education and Global Initiatives, is getting busier by the day, post-COVID.
“We’re the magic office that makes students’ dreams come true and we haven’t made any dreams come true for the past two years,” said Torricelli.
“It’s much, much better now that the pandemic is easing up,” she said. “In a normal year, we usually send about 500 Binghamton University students abroad. We’re not near that yet, but we are getting there.”
In spring of this year, 38 students were able to study abroad; two of them were on Binghamton programs and the remaining 36 were participating in non-SUNY or other SUNY programs. “That’s still low compared to normal years, but so much higher than 2021,” Torricelli said.
Throughout the pandemic the Office of International Education and Global Initiatives (Education Abroad Office) targeted first- and second-year students with advising and would talk to students about non-SUNY programs as well. “We also had to be ready to have students go abroad because we didn’t know when the thumbs-up would come,” she said.
And though 80-90 Binghamton students typically study at Lorenzo de’ Medici in Florence and Tuscania, and they allowed students to attend there in fall 2020, Binghamton couldn’t send any until SUNY allowed it. “But throughout the pandemic we talked with them; we knew their COVID protocols and knew they were good to go, so we had continued to recruit and we just had our first summer cohort there and the second went out June 30, so we knew they could handle it,” Torricelli said. “They’re an amazing partner.”
This past summer, 73 students studied abroad and this fall there are 80, with options increasing as programs have reopened. “Japan opened this fall for example, where for inbound non-nationals they have very tight COVID restrictions. We’re back at Korea, and have a student in Austria for the first time since pre-pandemic.”
We opened in Korea in spring 2022, and for summer 2022, we opened programs in Italy, Spain, Iceland, Germany, England and the Czech Republic, Torricelli said. “This fall, we have a variety of those except Iceland, and will also have those that have previously run, including Waseda University in Japan. We’re slowly ramping up and it’s exciting.”
Our hope is that all students come to realize that studying abroad is a possibility, Torricelli said.
“Every major can study abroad, even in summer, versus spring or fall; another myth is: “I don’t know a foreign language so I can’t study abroad, but for example, we’re fortunate that a student can very easily study in the Czech Republic and not know any Czech,” Torricelli said. “And a third myth is that it’s too expensive, but with the creation of exchange programs where you pay Binghamton University tuition and go to a school we have a specific exchange agreement with, the [tuition] costs will be the same as if the student is at Binghamton.
“There are economic options,” she emphasized. “You can study in the United Kingdom for less than at Binghamton, for example, and perhaps through other SUNY programs. We also have a ton of scholarships available for students studying abroad.” Financial aid can also be applied to many study abroad programs.
The Education Abroad Office is also preparing to meet students where they are, Torricelli said. “Many of these students have been somewhat isolated for the past two years. These are the students who need to go and develop a sense of independence and have the opportunity to be solution-oriented and have the opportunity to experience culture shock,” she said. “We need out students to flourish, to have roots and wings and go abroad and see something new.”
And the application process for students should start early, Torricelli said. “Typically students should apply the semester before, so for fall the application deadline was March 1, and for winter the deadline is Oct. 1,” she said. “A lot has to do with academic planning, but for Binghamton programs they are in our system for billing, and so financial aid can transfer over. It just takes a lot of planning.
“The sooner students start planning, the more likely they will find a match that is right for them,” Torricelli said. “We want them to benefit as much as possible.”
A final thought from Torricelli: “It’s challenging to think about in 10 years that this whole subset of people never got to go abroad. What will that look like in our workplaces and communities?” she asked. “That’s another reason we are very eager to have everyone who wants to go abroad be able to.”
Three student stories
Patrick Yip, a senior in the School of Management, is majoring in business administration with a concentration in marketing and a minor in global studies. He had applied for an education-abroad experience beginning in his sophomore year, but was stymied by the pandemic until now. He was finally able to complete an application and is attending Korea University this semester.
“I’ve wanted to go abroad since entering college,” Yip said. “Being able to finally go felt very weird at first, but as summer progressed and things like flights and housing started getting sorted out, it started to feel real and nerves started to settle in. Despite all of this, I couldn’t be more excited. It’s like a sigh of relief and honestly feels surreal to be going after so many years and semesters of applying.”
Korea University’s program fits Yip’s schedule and goals for going abroad. “It’s a business school, it’s in Asia, and it has a super-rich culture/nightlife,” he said. “It checked the boxes and at the end of the day, it didn’t really matter where in Asia I went so long as I was able to go.”
Yip plans on taking some intro to Korean, hopefully something about the Korean culture and some business courses to round off his Binghamton degree when he comes back. “I have a decent amount of freedom with what I can take in Korea thanks to my global studies minor, so hopefully I can stray away from the number/equation-focused business courses and take the semester to really learn about the country I’m staying in.
“There isn’t really anywhere in particular that I am super set on seeing,” Yip added. “Not having a solidified bucket list of places I want to see gives me a feeling where I can just truly blindly explore the country and focus on the time I spend getting around, rather than focusing on specific spots.”
Yip is going in to his education abroad experience with no expectations. “This will be a completely new experience for me, so I have genuinely no idea what this time will bring me,” he said. “But I’d rather live my life knowing and finding out what it’s like to live in another country, instead of passing the opportunity up and never knowing about the experience that everyone speaks so highly of.”
Melissa Zhu, who was also a School of Management business major, spent her final Binghamton semester at Korea University in spring 2022, and is now working in marketing for an advertising agency.
“I didn’t want to go my last semester, but really wanted to go abroad because I felt I wouldn’t have this time again, so I decided to go for it and it all worked out,” Zhu said. “I took all my really important classes in the fall and I only had one credit left and took it abroad.
“The class I took in Korea was quality of life and leisure and I learned what makes you happy,” she said. “I also took a Korean culture class and a class on readings in children’s literature—nothing related to my major!”
All of Zhu’s courses were taught in English and classes were a mixture of both Korean students and other students who were studying abroad, like her.
“My only knowledge of Korea was from watching Korean drama,” Zhu said. “I did take the language for two semesters, so knew a little, but I also went into this experience with expectations, and it far exceeded my expectations.”
She, of Asian heritage, traveled to Jeju (known as Korea’s Hawaii) and Busan outside of Seoul, and learned the concept of being a foreigner in another country, she said. “In America, I don’t feel like an outsider when I speak English. It was different in Korea because I’m not used to not being in the inner circle.”
Zhu said she learned a lot about herself because of the experience. “I’m from New York City and when I was in Binghamton I was in a bubble with New York people. Being able to go to another country and make friends really defined who I was and who I thought I could be,” she said.
“I now realize I could do this again. Life after college isn’t the next 40 years; it’s 40 different years and they can all be different. What’s stopping me from doing it again?” Zhu asked.
“When I went abroad, there was supposed to be two others with me but one couldn’t go and the other was kind of far away and we only met up once. So, I went on social media and spent my time shopping and making new friends,” Zhu said.
“I had a really bad shopping problem there,” she joked. “Korea is a country of capitalism; there were so many things to buy and the U.S. dollar is strong, so I would say, ‘I can afford that!’”
When asked about her what she took away from her time in Korea, Zhu said it was all the little things all the way along.
“I remember eating a lot and shopping a lot, but it’s the little moments of being able to connect with people and now I have connections with people all over the world,” she said.
Francesca Varriano, a junior from New Paltz, is double majoring in integrative neuroscience and philosophy. She spent the summer of 2022 in Italy; one month in Florence and another month in Tuscania, studying through Binghamton’s Instituto Lorenzo de’ Medici (LDM) Program.
“With a STEM major a lot of people think it’s not as easy to go abroad, that it’s harder to take their major classes abroad and easier to take them on your home campus,” she said. “But I really wanted to go abroad and I was able to do my Gen Eds abroad. Because of the way that Binghamton is set up, it makes it really easy to spend time abroad without it interfering with your path. You can still graduate within a reasonable amount of time.
“I could probably still even graduate in three years if I really wanted to, but I really like it here and want to stay for the full four!” she added.
Florence and Tuscania were very different, Varriano said. “I loved Florence and it was my favorite place in Italy, but I also really liked Tuscania. My classes there were a little more intense, which was good and I had no problem with it, but it was just a different lifestyle.”
Varriano also had an ER situation when I first got to Tuscania, so that set an interesting tone for the beginning. “Honestly, it was the easiest thing,” she said. “The hard part was nobody really spoke English, but they sent someone to translate. It was 10 hours which was not fun, but for an ER experience it was fine. The whole visit was free. I paid for a doctor’s home visit but was reimbursed through insurance I had through Binghamton University.”
Public transportation also made it very easy to travel the country. “We took trains everywhere, so I went to Venice, to Cinque Terre twice, to Rome, and I went to Greece during the break by plane,” she said. “It was super easy to navigate and quite simple.”
Varriano’s father’s family is Italian and her grandparents grew up in Italy, so going there was important to her. “For me, it was maybe not life-changing, but life-affirming,” she said. “I felt like I was connecting to part of myself and I was learning the language a little bit and eating these foods … everything felt right there.
“And it’s beautiful and amazing. Every day I woke up and thought about how grateful I was,” she added.
While there, Varriano took two classes in each location, including an Italian class in both Florence and Tuscania. She also took an archaeology/history class and an art class, taught in English. “It was the perfect place to take those classes and I think all of the classes LDM offers are really great,” she said.
Varriano also met people from all over Italy, and from other parts of the world including Sweden and Canada. “There were a lot of people from California, Hawaii, and a lot of people from the South, from North Carolina, Kentucky, all over,” she said.
“I still am in touch with them; we’re planning reunions,” she added. “The Tuscania group, which was about 15 students, became pretty close in many ways and there’s going to be a reunion in New York City around New Year’s. People are coming from Iowa, Canada and maybe California, and, hopefully, the next vacation I go on will be to Sweden to visit my Tuscania roommate. We became really close and I invited her here as well.”