With study abroad programs suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Loyola’s modern language professors have reimagined how to give their students an immersive language experience without leaving their house.
Loyola first brought students home from studying abroad in February 2020, when the pandemic was just beginning its rapid spread throughout the world, The Phoenix reported. Studying abroad hasn’t been an option for students since.
Julia Elsky, Loyola’s undergraduate program director of the French section and professor of French, said she’s seen how disappointed some students have been over not being able to study abroad the past academic school year. Elsky said students who study abroad can make “huge” progress in their speaking, writing, reading and listening skills.
“I think also personally, it’s a moment of a lot of personal growth for students because they’re living on their own in a different culture or, a lot of [students] do home-stays which means they live with a [host] family,” Elsky said.
Prior to the pandemic, about 800 Loyola students studied abroad each year, according to Dr. Brian Johnson, associate director of study abroad. A common thread among these students is foreign language acquisition, but students may also travel for other reasons, Johnson said.
The Rev. D. Scott Hendrickson, S.J., Loyola’s associate provost for global and community engagement who oversees the university’s global activities such as study abroad, said with the suspension of study abroad, the university has been developing ways to translate international activities into a virtual form.
One new initiative is called virtual dual immersion — meaning students in certain language classes have the opportunity to virtually interact with students from Jesuit universities in other countries to practice conversing with a native speaker or discuss class material, according to Hendrickson. Right now, it’s only available for Spanish and Polish classes, but Hendrickson said he hopes to open it to other languages soon.
Italian senior lecturer Anna Clara Ionta said studying abroad at Loyola’s John Felice Rome Center is a great experience for her students, where they can “be acquainted with the global perspective of the world” and fully immerse themselves in the language.
“The brain reacts to the environment,” Ionta said. “As soon as you change the environment, you go in Rome, in Italy, this is going to be extremely beneficial because the brain understands that this is Italy and this is Italian, the language spoken here.”
Ionta, who’s also the undergraduate program director for Loyola’s Italian program, said it was disappointing when students had to come home early from abroad last spring.
“Those are the students that went through the most difficult time,” Ionta said. “Imagine the disappointment — you are already there and then all of the sudden you have to come back here.”
Loyola Director of the Chinese Language and Culture Minor Hong Chen said she estimates about 15-20 of her students study abroad in China during a normal year. With the pandemic preventing students from getting experience speaking with native speakers, Chen said she’s tried to provide more opportunities by hosting extra practice sessions outside of class.
“We talk about the current situations and current issues and read stories in Chinese, understanding idiomatic expressions,” Chen said. “We do what we can.”
The university is also developing a new course called a COIL — collaborative online international learning — class, which would be a course team-taught by a Loyola professor and a professor from a university in a different country, according to Hendrickson. Both Loyola students and students from the other university would be enrolled in the course. Hendrickson said the university’s goal is to pilot one or two COIL courses in fall 2021, and then add more in the future.
Even after the pandemic is over and study abroad becomes an option again, Hendrickson said he hopes the virtual dual immersion and COIL programs will continue at the university so students who aren’t able to travel for other reasons — such as financial restraints or a busy course load — are still able to benefit from immersive language experiences.
The university’s suspension of study abroad will continue throughout the summer of 2021, and officials are still deciding whether or not any study abroad programs will be offered to students in fall 2021, according to Hendrickson.