Foremost on the minds of students and parents right now – especially those interested in study abroad – is the COVID-19 pandemic. 

We are cautiously optimistic that our program can return to the Steger Center in the fall of 2021.  No doubt it will be a different experience, with new travel precautions to be taken and new health protocols to observe. 

While the virus will not be with us indefinitely, public health experts expect a difficult winter.  Still, there are bright spots.  We are aware that several vaccines are now in the final stages of large trial testing, and we are heartened by reports that up to three or four safe and effective vaccines could become available as soon as early spring of 2021.  Vaccine production capacity is already ramping up in the U.S. and in Europe to meet the high demand.

When the coronavirus emerged this past spring, Yannis, Aislinn, and I were in the final stages of planning for our third fall semester at the Steger Center.  By late February we were securing visas for a new cohort of students, all of them as eager as we were to spend the fall of 2020 in Switzerland.  Caitlin Cook and her colleagues in the Global Education Office (GEO) would soon be helping us finalize travel arrangements for the trips to Geneva, Brussels, Nicosia and Athens.  Flights needed to be booked and hotel rooms reserved.  Our partners in Cyprus and Greece – Dr. Pavlos Koktsidis and Dr. John Nomikos – were also in the loop, finalizing itineraries for the week-long excursions we were planning in those countries. 

By late spring, as news of a global pandemic settled upon us, we kept to our schedule and held out hope for the best.  Maybe the virus would be contained, as H1N1 was in 2009.  But as the public health horizon darkened, and as the university finally announced the cancellation of all study abroad programs in the fall, each of us moved onto other projects, as did our students.  We were all disappointed.

It was not the first time we experienced this kind of setback.  Yannis and I were first approached to create a study abroad program in 2006, and in 2007 we built the foundation for a program that eventually became European Affairs in a Global Context.  Those plans were suddenly shelved when the Great Recession hit in 2008.  We made a second attempt in 2014, but our Dean at the time felt we were either too valuable or too handsome to be spared by our department for study abroad.  Then, in 2017 – thanks to our colleagues Guru Ghosh and Bob Bodnar – we got the nod again.  And with the assistance of the fine staff in the GEO, Yannis and I – joined by a newly appointed Steger Center Fellow, Aislinn McCann – launched the program in the fall semester of 2018.  We were joined by 16 terrific students that year, and 19 students in 2019.  Yes, that second cohort was terrific, too. 

That was then.  Today, as the summer has turned into fall, and as fall will soon give way to winter, COVID-19 continues its aggressive spread in the northern hemisphere.  We are all learning a lot about public health, and especially the politics of health and health care in national as well as global perspective.  No doubt we are also learning a lot about ourselves.  Because this study abroad program addresses questions of economic governance and national identity – focusing on institution-building and political responsibility in the context of Europe’s fraught twentieth century – we regard the COVID-19 pandemic as both crisis and opportunity.  What is going wrong today with national and global politics?  What can political institutions – governments, regional compacts like the EU, organizations like the WHO – get right?

Our plan for the fall of 2021 is to try to turn negatives into positives.  We will be elevating the issue of global public health in the context of the program, and we are planning to visit the World Health Organization in Geneva as part of our week of visits to the international organizations.

Of course, the university will have the final say if study abroad can go ahead in the fall of 2021.  But because these programs require a lot of advance planning, we must start early.

We welcome comments and questions.