When architecture senior Rioka Anne Kanazawa first told her parents about virtual study abroad, they didn’t think it was worth it. After explaining that it was her only option to experience architecture from a different cultural perspective during her years at Cal Poly, they decided to support her. Despite her parents’ initial reaction of virtual study abroad, it has worked for her.
Her professor rides his bike around Rome with his phone on a selfie stick as he shows the class the city, according to Kanazawa.
“This is funny because he sometimes runs into people riding his bike and talking while trying to show off the Roman architecture,” Kanazawa said.
Kanazawa is among the thousands of Cal Poly students who were signed up for an in-person study abroad program this fall. Many students had to either postpone their study abroad trip or choose to do a virtual option due to the COVID-19 travel restrictions. While virtual study abroad has worked for Kanazawa, other students have found it to be challenging.
According to a student survey done by Educations Media Group in March, 44.9% of students said they would be interested in studying abroad if it was online, while 55.1% of students said they would not be interested in a virtual program. Although a majority of students would prefer to physically go abroad, there is “a remarkable interest in studying abroad virtually,” according to the survey.
All Cal Poly in-person study abroad programs this academic year through the spring of 2021 have been suspended, while summer and fall 2021 programs are still under consideration, according to Study Abroad Advisor Chuck Petranek.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been the biggest challenge for study abroad.
“Nearly a quarter of Cal Poly students study abroad by the time of graduation as a way of investing in their future,” Petranek said.
Because students cannot currently travel to other countries to study abroad, there are several virtual opportunities available for students. These different models are provided by the Cal Poly International Center’s Partners and offer the opportunity of cross-cultural exchange.
Architecture students like Kanazawa tend to study abroad their fourth year because they take five years to complete their degree. Kanazawa was supposed to study abroad this year in Copenhagen with an in-person DIS Study Abroad Program but that was cancelled.
Kanazawa was left with two choices: either taking virtual studio classes at Cal Poly or doing a virtual study abroad program. She thought the virtual program sounded more intriguing. Her virtual program is the AIA Cal Poly Architecture Program in Rome. The professor lives there and is conducting virtual classes from Rome.
Kanazawa has mixed feelings about the program. She was very sad that she wasn’t able to travel this year but remains optimistic about learning in a different cultural mindset.
“In addition to the professor giving us tours, we use Google maps and Google Earth to tour the area,” Kanazawa said. “For one of our projects, we were put into groups of four and had to take notes on all of the places we’ve toured virtually. It is interesting because we are acting and mimicking as if we were actually there.”
Kanazawa would recommend this program to students in the future because she is learning about architecture from a different cultural perspective.
“This is something you cannot learn at Cal Poly,” Kanazawa said. “This program has opened up my mind to design outside of America. It has inspired me to travel after I graduate and look at firms outside of the country for future jobs.”
Kanazawa hopes to travel to Rome in the summer of 2021 for the remainder of her program.
A popular program for Cal Poly students is CEA Study Abroad. This program offers a network of study centers in eight different countries throughout Europe and Latin America. CEA has adapted to the circumstances surrounding travel by offering virtual programs. The three programs include a virtual global internship, a virtual study program and a global internship and virtual elective courses program. These programs range from $1,495 to $3,395.
CEA Regional Director Matt Janus explained that he has seen the most interest in the virtual internship program. There are a sizable number of students signed up to do the virtual internship program in summer of 2021, according to Janus.
“Students can still be working for an organization in Rome or Barcelona, but they are doing so remotely,” Janus said.
The goal is that the virtual summer internship will lead into an in-person one in the fall of 2021 for the summer student interns, according to Janus.
Another popular program that is not affiliated with Cal Poly is ALBA Study Abroad in Barcelona. Many Cal Poly students choose this program because of its affordability compared to other partner programs. The program cost depends on how many classes the student is enrolled in so it ranges from $1,500 to $3,200.
The COVID-19 situation has also been a challenge for ALBA as their spring, summer and fall terms were cancelled.
“The real challenge has been trying to navigate the ever-changing scenario and to inform students accordingly. Our stance has been to always play it safe, stay positive and have plenty of contingency plans for when students do decide to join us,” Harris-Inman said.
ALBA began offering their online Global Learning Experience (GLE) program in the spring when students were sent home from Barcelona due to COVID-19. ALBA did not cancel their program for the fall of 2020 but the few students who were still signed up opted to wait and attend a future term when there would be more students and less uncertainty about travel.
“We are confident that students will be able to travel for winter term,” Harris-Inman said. “With the new GLE, in the event that students are here in Barcelona and we have to adapt to a situation that commands elevated distancing measures as a whole or for individual students, we can easily move to a hybrid system without interrupting studies, and the student still experiences the benefit and fun of living and studying abroad.”
While virtual study abroad has worked for some students like Kanazawa, many students feel that they have missed out on a life-changing experience that was built into the architecture program.
Architecture senior Joyi Larasari, who is doing the same program as Kanazawa, believes it would’ve been far more beneficial if they were actually in Rome. One of the most difficult aspects of virtual study abroad is the time difference, according to Larasari.
“Since the professor is conducting the class from Rome, he gave us a virtual tour at 10 p.m. our time, so we had to log onto Zoom at a weird hour,” Larasari said. “It was nice that he gave us a tour but it was a Friday night and I had other plans.”
Larasari also said she was excited to take an Italian class that was going to be offered in person, but it was cancelled.
“One of the assignments for the class was to practice our Italian,” Larasari said. “We were supposed to be given instructions in Italian, go down to the pastry shop and order a pastry in Italian. That’s a really good, hands-on experience that Cal Poly always talks about.”
Architecture senior Jennifer Jaing said she was sad that she wasn’t able to do any traveling.
“We had this past week off from classes,” Jaing said. “It was originally scheduled as a travel week for us to go wherever we wanted to. I was looking forward to traveling to Florence to visit my friends who were going to do a study abroad program there.”
Architecture senior Leeann Schmutz agrees that she misses the traveling component of study abroad. She has never been out of the country and has family from Lucca, Italy. She was looking forward to connecting with them during the week-long travel break.
“I wanted to visit the Colosseum, the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Pantheon,” Schmutz said. “I was excited for the pizza and the pasta. On the first day of Zoom, the professor walked past a pizza place and I was bummed that I wasn’t there in person to try the food.”
Another aspect of virtual study abroad that Schmutz dislikes is the inability to physically be there and experience the architecture in person.
“In architecture, knowing what your site looks like is really important to understand. It is hard to design when you’re not actually there,” Schmutz said. “Our professor struggles with helping us understand what it’s like to be in Rome. There is just an obvious disconnect between what he experiences in Rome and what we experience on Zoom.”