SFU’s Study Abroad team ramps up student support during global pandemic

May 21, 2020
Carolyn Hanna, director, International Services for Students at SFU

By Shradhha Sharma

One of the most sought-after experiences for many students is the opportunity to gain international and intercultural experience through the array of Study Abroad Exchanges and Field School programs offered by SFU’s International Services for Students (ISS).

But in closely monitoring the events unfolding in China starting in January this year, Carolyn Hanna, director, ISS and Kris Torno, manager, International Mobility, realized very early that their seven-member Study Abroad team would have to strategize quickly to minimize the impact of the emerging global health emergency on SFU students studying abroad.

“We have dealt with many international incidents and emergencies over the years, but a global pandemic is new,” says Hanna.

While assessing the initial impact of COVID-19, the Study Abroad team worked closely with SFU’s COVID-19 operational response team and was in regular contact with the university’s International Travel Safety Program.

The program supports SFU students’ international learning abroad. The university also relies on its membership in International SOS – a global medical and security services company – to provide relevant travel and safety updates to students, staff and faculty travelling abroad.

On January 29, the Study Abroad team cancelled SFU‘s student exchange programs to China.

“At that time, we helped a small number of students who were scheduled to attend programs in China, with choosing alternative destinations, deferring their exchange term and/or enrolling in classes,” says Hanna.

In early February, the Study Abroad team supported a small number of SFU students in northern Italy, who were there when the local outbreak began.

By mid-March, it was working actively to support 123 students in 26 countries, who were on exchange for the spring 2020 term, to leave their host location as soon as it was safe and feasible to do so. Other students scheduled to attend programs in March and April, and as part of the summer exchanges and field schools, were informed about cancellations.

“Most students (who were abroad for Spring 2020 exchanges) have returned home; there are a small number of students who have made personal decisions to remain abroad for a variety of reasons,” says Torno.

The team also provided logistical and financial support to returning SFU students in the midst of a constantly evolving response strategy from governments across the world as the pandemic spread.

“Every student’s individual situation varies, and that determined what kind of support they needed for their early return,” says Torno.

An additional layer of uncertainty was added to the students’ return once Canada imposed further travel restrictions.

“There was a lot individual case management for weeks on end,” says Hanna, adding that SFU’s strong connections with international partners across the globe helped students navigate an incredibly stressful and complex time.

“I cannot emphasize how appreciative I am of the Study Abroad team,” says student Shirin Pedram, a third-year behavioural neuroscience student, who was in Belgium earlier this year on an exchange program.

“The support that the SFU Study Abroad team provided—both financial and emotional—made the transition back home a lot easier. They were constantly checking in on us and worked incredibly hard to make sure everyone was safe and sound, regardless of where students ended up staying for the remainder of their exchange. I feel incredibly fortunate to be a part of an institution that has my back. I would highly recommend the Study Abroad program to every student.”

Students participating in exchange programs usually plan their trips a year and half in advance. But a premature return and the move to online course instruction has posed challenges for returning students. Study Abroad is working to expand its standard 'returning home' programming to address the unique challenges this cohort of students has faced.

This also means recalibrating programs for the fall 2020 and spring 2021 terms.

“Like our partners across the globe, SFU is doing scenario planning,” says Hanna, adding that her team will look to public health and the Canadian government for direction to inform all future decisions.

“We recently had to make the difficult, but necessary decision to cancel all inbound and outbound Exchanges and Study Abroad programs for the Fall 2020 term.”

“We are supporting students through their options, and are in the early stages of discussing with our partners and with academic units at SFU about how students can gain the skills and experience they would get through Study Abroad in new and different ways,” she adds.

“It opens up many interesting new conversations.”



'Work from Home' perks

SFU NEWS asked Carolyn Hanna and Kris Torno about how they were adapting to the 'new normal' of social and physical distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Carolyn Hanna, director, International Services for Students

What's your favorite distraction right now?

Zoom calls with friends around the globe.

Who is your office mate?

There are five of us in our "office" — a very spoiled Siberian Forest cat, two middle-school learners, a teacher and myself.

What are you most looking forward to when physical distancing measures are lifted?

Visiting with family.

Kris Torno, manager, International Mobility 

What's your favorite distraction right now?

Extra-long dog walks in place of my work commute.

Who is your office mate?

My dog Louie, who steals the spotlight on every Zoom meeting.

What are you most looking forward to when physical distancing measures are lifted?

Being able to hug friends and family again.