The Higher Ed Podcast: How This Study Abroad Organization is Surviving COVID-19

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Alyssa Nota, CEO & President of the University Studies Abroad Consortium (USAC), joined Kamaar and George on this week’s Higher Ed Podcastto talk about how COVID-19 has affected the study abroad world, and how it has shaped the future of study abroad. Be sure to subscribe to the podcast to hear weekly episodes and actionable advice from the higher ed industry.

Alyssa Nota has been the CEO and president of the University Studies Abroad Consortium (USAC) for over 20 years. Having spent most of her life in Italy, Nota has taught Italian language and literature, which gave way to her career in study abroad. She was also able to study abroad herself, which gives her an added sense of passion for the programing she currently oversees as USAC. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Nota is enthusiastic about the future of study abroad, and like all the best players, she’s been using this time to develop stronger programs and processes that will serve well beyond the pandemic.

Before COVID-19 started spreading from country to country, Alyssa noted that study abroad enrollment was greater than it’s ever been. As a response, USAC hosted over 50 programs in 30 different countries. But, as the pandemic set in around the world, they had to pull students out of study abroad programs for safety purposes: “It was just, you know, a terrible, terrible moment. But for the safety, of course, of the students, it was it was the right thing to do.”

What they thought would be a few weeks of disruption has instead turned into a few semesters. Alyssa explained that “I’ve seen the ups and downs. I experienced 9/11, we experienced the 2008 economic crisis, so certainly study abroad numbers have been impacted over the years by these kinds of things. This however, was a scope like we had never seen before. And so yeah, we were suddenly thrust into this crisis management moment, crisis response. First of all, for the safety of the students- get them home and make sure they have…academic continuity. So you know, so we help them to get on to online courses, finished their credits. And that was a big move for us.”

These setback have been monstruous, but that doesn’t mean USAC is done for. On the contrary, Alyssa talks about how it’s using this time to provide more options than ever: “our application numbers are not down actually. They’re actually comparable to the two past years. …even though this has been a terrible crisis, for the last, you know, seven, eight months, there definitely have been some silver linings in there. And a few of those for us as an organization have been really the unity. Crisis brings people together. …this pushed us over that line to look at online coursework to look at virtual international internships. And to keep building those, and we’ve, we had been researching them a little bit before, but this really forced us…to move forward and to implement those things. And we’ve seen the internships be very popular, very successful. Because students weren’t able to get out into the world, we had to find ways to bring the world in them. And they really love the opportunity of these internships, they were able to work with these international companies, and learn so much and even some of them have even been hired as a result of that experience… it’s been a great result.”

Even though study abroad is not an options for anyone right now, and will be one of the last things to return, USAC is continuing to stay relevant by remaining diligent with online resources and shifting to do what they can during the pandemic. “We’ve discovered pretty much by accident, the power of virtual formats like…Zoom…or other kind of meetings. So we’ve created all sorts of virtual advising sessions for students, we’re involving professors and staff abroad to also give presentations at universities all over the US. We’ve been holding all sorts of webinars, for example, not only to just promote our programs, but definitely to show the safety and attention to health and wellness at each site. So we’ve had, for example, our resident directors abroad, create videos, show them moving around their cities…because I think that’s what people need to see, they need to see it with their own eyes.”

Many schools, colleges, and universities have had to go through shut downs and changes, but none for quite as long as study aboard programs. USAC’s resiliency and innovation demonstrates how creativity and problem solving can help organizations baton down and get through challenging periods. If USAC – an organization based entirely on studying abroad- can work to stay alive, so can your institution. If you have a study abroad program, be sure to leverage it in the future, as students want to travel even during a pandemic.

If you don’t have a study abroad program, there’s still a lesson to be learned here when it comes to shifting and evolving. Those that haven’t used this time to enhance their operations will not be able to keep up with other universities during the pandemic and beyond. This means a lot more than switching to online classes; from budget and staffing changes to admissions, marketing, outreach, and more, organizational changes must occur under times of duress.

The good news is it’s not too late. If you or your institution needs help strategizing for survival and optimizing processes and operations for the post-pandemic world, reach out to Engine Systems and learn about our wide range of consulting services for higher education institutions.

For more insight on the higher ed industry, be sure to check out more of our Higher Ed Podcast series.

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