People were stressed out, on edge; their nerves were frayed. Self-motivated high achievers were struggling in their jobs. Some were developing physical-health problems due to the strain.
McFarland, Kentucky’s executive director for education abroad and exchanges, knew she wasn’t equipped to tackle what was going on. So in early 2021 she invited therapists from the university’s counseling center to come in and talk with study-abroad staff members who were interested. She sat out the meeting so the others could speak openly.
Afterward, the therapists were frank with McFarland. “They said, ‘This sounds like a trauma response. The team is suffering,’” McFarland recalled. “When they called it that — I’d only associated trauma with car accidents or that kind of awful event.”
For the field of international education, Covid-19’s impact has been deep and profound. With planes grounded and borders locked down, the worldwide public-health crisis stopped global academic mobility in its tracks for many months. The very purpose and objective that guides international educators’ work was suspended, suddenly and indefinitely.
That isn’t to say there wasn’t work to be done, lots of it. In the outbreak’s early days, there was a mad scramble to bring Americans back from studying overseas and to help international students return safely to their home countries. As the pandemic stretched on, administrators had to design virtual alternatives to education abroad, facilitate Zoom classes for foreign students half a world away, and provide support to those who decided to — or had to — stay in the United States. Abrupt changes to visa rules left colleges scurrying to ensure their international students could legally remain here, even if classes were taught online.
Still, many global programs were planned only to be canceled. International students were recruited yet couldn’t make it to campus. Those challenges amped up anxiety in a sector where many positions are funded directly by student fees.
There’s no comprehensive accounting of just how many international-education jobs have been lost during the pandemic. An October 2020 survey by the Forum on Education Abroad found that 40 percent of study-abroad offices had experienced staff reductions, and eight in 10 reported their budgets had been cut. Among English-language programs, two-thirds reported program reductions and layoffs or furloughs in 2020, according to the Institute of International Education. EnglishUSA, an association of intensive English centers, said 60 of its programs had closed since July 2020.
Anecdotally, everyone in international education seems to know someone who has lost a job or been furloughed.
Niamh Minion, who works with McFarland as associate director of education abroad at Kentucky, said the uncertainty weighed on her. At dark moments, she wondered, “Maybe what I do won’t be around anymore — not just my job but the whole field.”
Add international educators to the list of employees in and around higher ed who are still reeling from the pandemic. The toll on them threatens colleges’ global ambitions.
Then, on March 11, with case counts skyrocketing in countries like Italy, President Donald J. Trump announced a ban on travelers from Europe. In Amman, Jordan, Lin Larson, director of student recruitment for the University of Texas at Arlington’s college of engineering, was woken at 4 in morning and told to pack a bag and rush to the airport — her group of college recruiters, on an admissions trip through the Middle East, had to transit through Europe, and they feared the window to return home was closing. CK Kwai, then chief international officer at Jacksonville University, was also on an overseas recruitment trip; his flights would be canceled four times before he made it back to the United States.
Europe is far and away the top destination for Americans studying abroad, with all five of the most popular countries for international study. Although Americans were not actually included in the presidential order, college policies are often tied to U.S. Department of State travel warnings, and tens of thousands of study-abroad students had to be evacuated.
McFarland and the rest of Kentucky’s education-abroad team were called to the university operations center, where they worked in around-the-clock shifts for three days to bring about 80 students home. “It was a real adrenaline moment,” said Susan M. Roberts, Kentucky’s associate provost for internationalization and McFarland’s boss, who joined the group in the operations center.
The work continued even when students were back on American soil. Colleges had to come up with ad hoc quarantine advice for returning students and create new course schedules mid-term so students wouldn’t lose an entire semester’s worth of credit.
International-student advisers were also operating in crisis mode. Around the globe, countries were closing borders, forcing international students to make split-second decisions of enormous consequence to stay in the United States or return home.
In the first months of the pandemic, as many as nine in 10 international students remained in America. That created a new set of problems: Campuses were closed to stop Covid’s spread, yet many of these students had no place to go. On their own during an unprecedented global crisis, students needed financial, logistical, and emotional support.
Yet, many international educators said the earliest days of the pandemic were somehow easier, a blur of emergencies that had to be tackled five minutes ago. “It felt like you were drinking from a fire hose,” Minion said. “But I think I did better in triage mode, being busy.”
As it did for others across higher education, Covid forced international educators to find new ways of doing their work, but that adjustment was complicated by the global nature of their jobs. International recruiters, for example, shifted to online admissions events, holding virtual fairs or beaming into Q&A sessions with international schools. Given time differences, that meant losing hours of sleep. “No one thought anything of working a fair from 1 to 4 a.m.,” Larson said of her fellow international-admissions officers. “But then their boss would expect them to be on the job during regular hours.”
Throughout the pandemic, colleges remained hopeful that student travel could soon resume, but they also had to prepare for the real possibility it wouldn’t. The contingency planning increased workloads: International-student advisers continued to process visa paperwork for students, even as they stood up plans for remote study from overseas. Education-abroad administrators instituted stringent new health and safety policies for on-the-ground study in case travel restrictions were lifted. But they also developed virtual programs for international exchange or internships to give students exposure to cross-cultural learning.
“We’ve never worked harder than during the pandemic,” said Amy Ruhter McMillan, senior associate vice president for marketing at IES Abroad, a nonprofit study-abroad provider.
Mackenzie Kerby was furloughed for four months in the summer of 2020 from ELS, which runs English-language centers. Returning to the office, she was struck by the exhaustion and strain among her colleagues. While she had used the four-month furlough to start a side business and figure out her professional and personal priorities, “they had been going at a crazy pace,” she said.
Over time, some international educators said they found the work demoralizing. Used to having a clear set of expectations for a job well done, they found a sense of accomplishment illusive. “We do so much planning and planning, and then we end up undoing it all,” said one administrator at a large public university who asked not to be named because she didn’t have approval to speak about her institution. “It’s hard to feel motivated.”
Telling students they couldn’t travel wasn’t in international educators’ DNA. “None of us got into this work to chase down vaccination cards and check travel restrictions,” McFarland said.
Some struggled because Covid cut them off from their normal support networks. Larson, who has worked in international education since 1998, typically traveled about two-thirds of the year, and her closest colleagues were those on the road. Grounded in Texas, in a 700-square-foot apartment, she felt isolated. “I had travel wives, travel husbands, travel friends,” Larson said. “I felt an incredible sense of loss of community.”
As the pandemic wore on, international educators said they also felt out of step with the rest of campus. In the initial months, there was a shared sense of crisis, but as time went on, the challenges they faced seemed to be less visible. Early on, for example, many colleges provided emergency housing for international students. During the most recent winter break, however, international-office staff members at several institutions said they had to fight to get approval for students to stay on campus, even though quarantine requirements in their home countries made it impossible for them to visit their families.
The global nature of the contagion meant that administrators responsible for international programming were almost always grappling with a new outbreak somewhere. Even as mask mandates have been lifted across the United States in recent weeks, parts of Asia have been battered by the worst Covid case numbers in two years, and Europe is seeing a fresh wave.
For McFarland, the push to be back to normal on campus when her world was nowhere near normal proved to be the most jarring. It was her lowest point, she said. “We were the first ones hit, and I’m convinced we’ll probably be the last ones out of it.”
“Folks would cry in interviews,” Mwangi, an associate professor of higher education at George Mason University, said. “I wasn’t expecting how unsupported staff felt and how put to the periphery their office could be given that this was a global pandemic.”
Yao, an associate professor of educational leadership and policies at the University of South Carolina, said they heard the same stories again and again: Colleges failed to consider implications of their decisions for international students. International staff members were constantly putting out fires. And layoffs and furloughs left them doing more with less.
Fears that they could be next weighed on many international educators. Overnight, revenue from study abroad disappeared as programs were canceled. International-student fees sank as the number of new foreign students declined by nearly half in fall 2020. Though many offices and programs had reserves, some worried about how they would make payroll.
At the University of New Orleans, LaTesha Charbonnet Gonzales, director of the intensive English-language program, lost two adjunct instructor positions but was able to retain her full-time staff of five, thanks to university support. Still, it was hard not to be anxious as she watched other, larger English centers shut down. “I had to live for the now, to keep my sanity,” she said.
Others weren’t so fortunate. Sonja Lind lost her job as director of education abroad at California State University at San Bernardino in March 2021. At first she thought she would take advantage of being out of work to regroup and recharge, living frugally and hiking throughout California while applying for jobs — “my hot-vax summer,” she joked. But after 78 applications, 17 interviews, and no offers, her mood turned darker. To make ends meet, she did freelance writing work and picked up shifts at Starbucks. “A real ego-buster,” she said.
Finally, after 11 months, Lind landed an interim position in study abroad at the University of California at Los Angeles.
Barbara M. West was furloughed for a year from her job as a vice president at a study-abroad provider before being laid off. She’s still looking for a job, but not in international education, a field where she spent 17 years. Instead, she has been focusing her search on educational technology, using her spare time to network and add new skills.
The choice to leave international education wasn’t easy, but it was pragmatic. E-learning pays much better, and, West hopes, offers better job security.
Some international educators made similar calculations during the pandemic, even without the pressure of job loss. Andrea Cheney left her job in international-student recruitment in August 2021 to work in career development at Ohio State University. Like West, she worried about the stability of the field. “I was dizzy from all the pivoting,” she said.
Others could follow them out the door, among them the public-university administrator. “I think about the reasons so many of us took the job, to travel and to meet people and to encourage our students to have those cultural exchanges,” she said. “Now we’re just saying no.”
Many worry that the pandemic’s imprint on the field could linger, the loss of staff members sapping it of both expertise and energy. Meanwhile, international education is in a rebuilding phase: Job-search boards are now full of ads for study-abroad advisers. In New Orleans, Gonzales can’t find enough English-language instructors to hire to meet student demand.
The need to deal with the impact of Covid-related burnout will also continue, even as restrictions lift and travel fully resumes. McMillan of IES Abroad said the study-abroad provider will maintain some of the programming it began as a way to support staff members, such as companywide Zoom discussions and a “shout out” Slack channel to share public praise.
The dark days of the pandemic made clear how much such efforts are needed, McMillan said. “We call it ‘thanks, Covid’ stuff.”
After the meeting with the therapists, McFarland and her education-abroad team at Kentucky brainstormed ways to deal with pandemic-related strain. They sought ways to manage workloads, such as through dedicated no-meeting times, and to reinvigorate staff members through “moon shot” projects of their own choosing. They do regular check-ins, as a group and individually. The goal, McFarland said, is not just to deal with the stressors but to make space for the emotional response.
“We were on a rapid path to burnout,” she said, “and we had to get unstuck.”