By Brent Dondalski
Contributing News Reporter
January Term is a unique experience at Saint Mary’s that many students really look forward to. Typically, students register for one class that meets 4 days a week for all of January. A main attraction for students is the Jan Term study abroad program, which gives students an opportunity to travel for one month and explore the world in places like South Korea, Bonaire, and Rome, to name a few.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic caused the suspension of Jan Term study abroad in 2021. However, students were flummoxed to discover that—after they paid for Jan Term—the cancelation of study abroad would continue into 2022.
At about 9PM on Sunday September 19th 2021, Saint Mary’s students received an email from the school announcing the suspension of all non-local Jan Term travel courses for 2022 due to the uncertainty of the pandemic. Per the recommendation of the SMC Travel Risk Assessment Committee (TRAC) and the January Term Committee, the school decided that “forecasting the safety of each location in January would not be possible” and “committing the financial resources of our students to programs that have a likelihood of cancelation is not morally justified.”
Aaron Sachowitz, the director of the January Term program and chair of TRAC, spoke of the lack of reliability due to COVID-19 safety precautions when traveling to different countries. “I would hate to have an entire class to get quarantined trying to come back and then they're stuck for two weeks, then they miss the beginning of the spring semester,” he told me, elaborating that “if they were more consistent across countries, it would be much easier to plan.”
This announcement came as a shock to students across campus, many of whom were optimistic about study abroad in 2022. “My heart just fell” said Kyle Torneros ‘22 of receiving the email. Torneros, a data analytics major planning to travel to South Korea was not alone in his feelings of discontent.
Other students, such as business major Tyler Smith ‘22, emphasized how outright devastated they were. Seniors especially were heartbroken over seeing their last possibility for study abroad fade away, with Torneros explaining that “as first-years, you're not allowed to travel. As sophomores you don’t get priority registration. We didn't get to travel junior year. And then as seniors, it's taken away again. So that's where I feel like it's kind of unfair, especially for our class.”
Not all students were upset. “For the last 18 months every time I'm excited for something new to change that it doesn't actually end up happening,” explained sophomore biology major Keely Dumars ‘24. Though she is grateful she’ll have the opportunity to study abroad in the future.
Despite some skepticism of travel possibilities due to the pandemic’s persistence, many felt reassured by what they heard from professors, information sessions, and the Jan Term office prior to suspension. The announcement of Jan Term scholarship recipients as well as frequent info sessions on Jan Term served as a confirmation for some students. Hadley Peterson ‘22, an allied health sciences major, shared “the second I was awarded the scholarship is when I really was like ‘this is happening,’ I would be literally going to Greece.” However, according to Sachowitz, suspension was always on the table, explaining that he “tried to communicate this with the faculty from as early as April, that it was really going to be dependent on ongoing review of the risks associated with travel.” He discussed how the source of the school’s early optimism was their expectations of vaccination rates to rise and transmission rates to fall, both of which ultimately fell short of what they wanted to see.
Moreover, health concerns were only one of the reasons Jan Term study abroad was suspended. Sachowitz did not want to risk canceling later, which could result in financial loss for students since non-refundable fees such as airline tickets or tour providers would have already been paid. To TRAC, this was a worse alternative than canceling in September. “I really wish that we weren't in a pandemic, and that was not the kind of choice we were having to make,” Sachowitz explained. Though disappointed, some students generally understood that this decision was not easy. Psychology major Victoria Jacobo ‘22 as well as Torneros both expressed acceptance that the school had to “pull the plug” at a certain point before more financial or public health risks became imminent.
Still, the timing was less than ideal for students, with the announcement coming only 2 days after the $2000 deposit ($500 for those who got the scholarship) was due and with registration approaching in the next two days. Peterson detailed “I put down $500 of my own money, and it took them a week to email us about the deposit being returned. From there, it's going to take two weeks for it to actually get back into my account, which, as a college student, is a lot of money.” Additionally, students like Jacobo felt that the announcement did not give students adequate time to research what on-campus courses were available. According to Sachowitz, the announcement came after the travel deposit had been due because they wanted to spend as much time as possible weighing whether or not travel was possible while also making this decision before registration.
Despite the suspension of Jan Term study abroad, 2022 Spring study abroad is still supposed to take place. Sachowitz explained how “a lot of the risks related to Jan Term travel are less of a risk in a study abroad program,” citing how the Spring programs are supported abroad by institutional partners rather than a one or two faculty members. He also detailed how potential quarantine periods and other COVID-19 related complications would be less of a burden in Spring because the timeframe isn’t nearly as condensed as Jan Term is. He mentioned that “the health piece stays somewhat the same” but that “some of those other risks of injury or loss from students, or the interruption of the travel or the program are much reduced in a semester abroad versus Jan Term.”
The cancelation of Jan Term 2022 study abroad comes as a disappointment in general to the Saint Mary’s community, with both faculty and students wishing that a different decision could have been made. The announcement coming after the deposit was due was the biggest contention students had with the decision, with the seniors being devastated that their last chance for Jan Term study abroad had disappeared. Though the optimism for this study abroad program was not realized, a study abroad program for those who missed this opportunity is in the works for after graduation. Sachowitz detailed his aspirations for this make-up program, saying “nothing has been approved yet...I'm hopeful that we'll be able to, maybe in the beginning of spring, have something planned for summer and fall, that'll be a little bit more resilient.
Madison Sciba '24,