By Jim Malatras, Francesca Cichello | June 15, 2020

Study Abroad Programs Are Suspended. Global Education Shouldn’t Be.

In early March, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the State University of New York — like many other colleges and universities — suspended its spring and summer study abroad programs due to public health concerns. With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention travel warning remaining at Level 3 and the US Department of State’s Global Health Advisory at Level 4, the highest possible warning levels, it remains unclear when students will be able to travel abroad again.

Studying abroad is an invaluable experience with benefits that can be hard to capture in a course grade. In the larger political context, it plays an even more critical role. For many students – our future policymakers, analysts, entrepreneurs, and so on — it’s often the first true step away from home to experience another culture, encounter entirely new perspectives, and begin to understand their role in a larger global community.

Public health dictates that study abroad programs continue to be suspended. But that doesn’t mean we need to hole ourselves up at home and wait for this to pass. In fact, it is critical that we continue to open ourselves to the world – safely – to foster global understanding and collaboration.

In that spirit, SUNY Empire State College and SUNY’s Center for Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) are bringing together campuses across the system to launch the 2020 COIL Global Commons, an innovative virtual abroad program to offer international experience and cross-cultural learning during the pandemic.

The six-week session, beginning July 6, will connect students here in the US with community-based organizations around the world to study real problems of food insecurity, poverty, gender equity, access to education, clean water and energy, and climate change – all problems that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. While learning about these issues and gaining cross-cultural experience, students will also be actively participating in solutions.

Let’s not just learn about the problems; let’s be the change we want to see.

And students are stepping up. The creation of the program was driven by students eager to expand their learning beyond the borders of their state and country, despite the travel restrictions, with more than 180 students of all ages from 27 SUNY campuses enrolled as of this writing.

SUNY Empire, with its 25 years of expertise in online education, is ideally suited to lead this important initiative. But we knew it was too big to do alone. Our collaboration with SUNY COIL, SUNY Online, and with campuses across the system was key to making it happen. We believe in harnessing the power of all of SUNY’s institutional strength. That is the power of unity.

This is not a perfect replacement for studying abroad. Travel is sensory and the disorientation and discovery of a new place are part of the learning process. But nothing about this pandemic is ideal. We have a choice: to stop and wait, or to adapt. We choose to adapt.

As we all work to slow the spread of the virus, the threat of crystalizing isolation is real and dangerous—and has been the operating playbook of the most powerful office in the land. To come out on the other side a better world, and not a more divided one, we must work harder to build bridges and foster a sense of unity and understanding.

180 students – and counting — understand that. They signed up for this program to move forward with their international education, challenge their assumptions, and make a difference. We applaud them, more than anyone. The world needs these change agents now more than ever.


Jim Malatras is President, SUNY Empire State College. 

Francesca Cichello is Executive Director of the Center for International Education, SUNY Empire State College