MINNEAPOLIS — Sunlight peeks over the mountains surrounding the historic city of Toledo, Spain, illuminating the city as Emma Mulhern, a fourth-year student at the University of Minnesota, gets ready to start her day.
Once a 16th century convent, the large building has been renovated into the "San Juan de la Penitencia Residence," the University's study abroad center in the city.
The buildings of old Toledo bask in the morning sunlight as bells chime in a nearby church. Mulhern dons her mask and makes her way downstairs to eat breakfast, which starts promptly at 8:30 a.m., before her classes.
Mulhern is one of 28 students studying abroad from the University during the 2021 spring semester amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. She, along with her cohort of seven other students, is enrolled in the Study and Intern program in Toledo.
Last March, the Learning Abroad Center abruptly brought 1,075 students home from their spring semester learning abroad experiences at the onset of the pandemic. All programs remained suspended for the remainder of the 2020 spring semester, then the summer term and fall semester, The Minnesota Daily reported.
Other Big Ten schools, such as the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, chose to continue the suspension of all study abroad programs for the spring 2021 semester; the University of Minnesota's learning abroad team took a different approach.
After reimagining how study abroad programs could operate safely during the pandemic, the staff was able to launch five programs in two countries, France and Spain. These programs are center-based, meaning they have on-site staff to support University students and they allow for a greater degree of control over COVID-19 restrictions on campus. The tight pandemic protocols in France and Spain and high enrollment numbers also allowed for these programs to run this semester.
Students were also prepared to go to Denmark, but, one week before departure, the Danish government shut their borders to students due to new COVID-19 variants circulating. The students are taking remote classes through their study abroad program and will travel to Denmark as soon as the restrictions are lifted.
The learning abroad staff analyzed University's COVID-19 guidelines, as well as those of the Minnesota Department of Health and the health departments of host countries, to redesign traditional study abroad programs. The University's International Travel Risk Assessment and Advisory Committee needed to approve all programs before they launched.
"We're trying to make sure that we cover all of the COVID precautions," said Peggy Retka, the director of programs in Montpellier, Morocco and Senegal. "So everything that they're doing on campus in Minnesota, and everything that they're doing on campus in France, and taking the best of both worlds. You know, if one is more stringent than the other one, use the more strict process."
Although students were able to reach their destinations, the programs look different than in years past. This semester, the University is not permitting homestays for any program in an effort to limit COVID-19 exposure for American students and host families. Instead, all students are staying in apartments or dormitories that could be used to isolate if necessary.
Curfews are in place in Madrid, Toledo and Montpellier, and masks are mandated by law in all cities. Students are not permitted to travel outside of their host countries.
Class structure varies by location and program, but most students are taking all in-person classes. For some, large lectures are online-only.
Jenna Thorsett, a third-year student at the University studying English and French, is abroad in Montpellier, France. She is taking classes at a local university this semester while also taking classes at the University of Minnesota's program center location. As someone studying languages, Thorsett said she sees her time abroad as an opportunity to make the most out of her academic semester.
"I think, French studies — or language studies — probably suffer a lot from the remote format," Thorsett said. "So I figured, 'Even if stuff is closed here, even if there's a confinement, I'll learn more French just being stuck in my apartment here, and, you know, immersing in the culture.'"
There is a 6 p.m. curfew in Montpellier right now. The curfew has made building relationships challenging, Thorsett said. She said the highly populated city is "almost treated sort of like an interior," where masks are required at all times, even outside.
"If there weren't (a curfew), I'm sure I'd have had dinner with my entire cohort and the program directors at least several times by now. But because of the curfew, going to restaurants isn't a thing, people aren't supposed to be gathering or packing into their little apartments. So for me, it's the social deprivation that happens as a result of the evening lockdown," she said.
"And it's also just the inability to … get sort of an ambient socialization just by, like, walking outside … the way the city gets really quiet after hours is sort of a sad thing to experience, especially if it's like Friday or Saturday night or something."
Other students have also encountered pandemic-related challenges, such as masks making an already present language barrier more difficult to overcome without the ability to read lips.
"Learning Spanish and trying to hear people and communicate with masks in a second language has definitely been a difficulty for me," Mulhern said.
Lauren Huspeni, another University student studying abroad in Toledo, agreed.
"So, definitely there are times I'm like, 'What are you saying?' because I just can't see their mouth, and the mask subdues the sound," Huspeni said.
Despite the curfews, the language barriers and the COVID-19 regulations, many students said they are glad that they decided to study abroad this semester.
"A lot of people think that we're kind of crazy, or that we're really brave, or a lot of different things," Huspeni said. "But, for me, I wanted to go abroad no matter what. It was already my plan to go abroad before COVID, and as long as I was able to go, I wanted to take any chance I could to go out, go abroad and have this experience."