Revisiting Ethical Perspectives on Study Abroad in a COVID-19 World by Scott G. Blair, PhD

Consultant in International Higher Education

Copyright © Scott G. Blair, 2020

In light of the globalized origins of the COVID-19 pandemic and now the struggle to gain wider awareness, particularly in the United States, of the depth and breadth of systemic racism across society, the D.I.E.+ process model of analysis might just help students better contextualize and situate their unexpected confinement and loss of experiential learning opportunities in 2020, for which a virtual internship or study abroad is, I submit, a poor substitute.

Describe: Students today are pretty well-versed in the process of describing the perfect rising storm of our current unjust and unsustainable world. Climate disruption, collapsing biodiversity, resource depletion, rising inequality, uncontrolled human migration, increasing demographic pressure, and overall declining human happiness—these are problems students have learned to describe with disconcerting ease and precision. They see and know what’s going on. What is perhaps new to them is just how urgent and interconnected these wicked problems have become. The full crisis is unfolding before their very eyes—decades ahead of time—and it’s almost, well, indescribable! Students are right to be anxious and alarmed.

Interpret: Asking and understanding why things are the way they are is something students find more difficult. A study of history, philosophy, ethics, literature—and study abroad—is really crucial but too few universities impose sufficient curricular requirements in such areas. Plus, let’s remember that, often, there is no good reason for things to be the way they are. So, if you know your history—how human attitudes, values and social structures came to be as they are—it’s a lot easier to detect the injustice and privilege embedded in a given system. But without historical awareness, what we see around us we mistakenly take as natural and normal. Yet, by experiencing cultural difference in historical contexts—across both space and time—students grow in interpretive power. And in doing so, they become more skeptical, more questioning, more ethically grounded, and, importantly, more demanding. And we need this turn of mind now more than ever.

Evaluate: Once students appreciate that structures of power and privilege were purposely built into core social systems over time—e.g., health services, nutrition, education, employment, housing, policing, due process, penal incarceration and, yes, access to education abroad—they are better able to identify the minority who benefit most and who naturally view such systems and processes conservatively as something both natural and just. Free trade and market capitalism, for example, have become the basic organizing principles of our global economic order. But in the absence of the necessary corollary of such world capitalism—a global political order of rules and regimes able to control how it all plays out—globalization will increase inequalities and protect the undue and often unearned privileges that finance and capital provide. Students know this system is unfair and unsustainable and they are getting pretty good at evaluating the power, privilege and self-interest that is involved in being part of a status quo. It’s no surprise that they are judging it harshly.

+ Action: Learning to ask what it would take to change the status quo—this is where students have the greatest potential for weathering today’s perfect storm and enacting real and lasting social and political change. The individual and collective actions they are employing for challenging the status quo and global “order” might just work: i.e., engaging in widespread, sustained, and peaceful protest; demanding that politics align with science; supporting international and cooperative strategies for tacking global problems; rejecting nationalism and go-it-alone diplomacy; demanding accountability and transparency in public affairs; recognizing one’s own implication within current unjust and racialized social structures; applying critical thinking skills when using media; and perhaps the most important—voting. Make no mistake: in a democracy, changing the status quo doesn’t take a lot of people making a huge effort; it only takes a lot of people doing a single simple thing—voting. As such, the fate of the planet probably now depends on how many people often classed as minorities—the young, ethnic groups, people of “color”, women, the apolitical—decide to express themselves across the rest of 2020—in the streets, in conversation, in the media, and in the voting booth. The stakes couldn’t be higher.

By the end of 2020, over three-hundred thousand US students will have seen their study abroad programs recently cancelled, moved-online, delayed or significantly altered due the COVID-19 pandemic. The lives and educational plans of over a million international students in the US will have been similarly disrupted, and such disruption is likely to continue into 2021. Put bluntly, a very great number of students will simply miss the opportunity to study abroad during their college years, and this with the corresponding loss of intercultural learning and personal development that comes with it. At best, they might substitute study abroad with curricular, co-curricular and community-based intercultural experiences on campus. But even internationalization-at-home will suffer to the extent that fewer international students will be on campus to help drive it. These are hard times for international, intercultural, and experiential education. And this is likely to last for some time.

Yet, there is some consolation. Students can use the D.I.E.+ process model of analysis to better describe the ecological, culturalized, and globalized origins of the COVID virus that so upset their lives.  The model can help them better interpret how and why the virus infected and killed people in different percentages depending upon social, economic, and ethnic injustices embedded into different societies and cultures. It can empower them to evaluate the permissive causes of its speedy propagation across a globalized world and the failure of political leadership to respond with global and collaborative counter-measures. And with the murder of George Floyd and subsequent light thrown onto wider problems of police brutality across the globe, the model suggests important ways to upset the status quo and start challenging and changing the global order through action.

If positive social, political, and ecological change comes from all of this, and if young students and their allies see themselves as a driving force behind it, both in their own local community and across their living planet, then let’s hope they’ll take these lessons in intercultural learning and personal development as outcomes even more valuable than what they might have acquired through a semester of study abroad. It’s true: study abroad can change your life. But at this crucial moment in history, it might be better that students change the world.

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