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Studying Abroad During Times of COVID-19

by Katie Gortz on 02/02/2021


While COVID-19 has posed significant challenges for international travel and education, SLU-Madrid welcomed 50 study abroad students to campus for the Spring 2021 semester. 

For many students, studying abroad is an integral part of their personal and academic development—an experience that will broaden their perspectives and expand their horizons. With comprehensive campus-wide safety protocols in place, SLU-Madrid continues to prioritize the health of its community while offering students a transformative international experience.

SLU-Madrid’s study abroad counselors, Katherine Smith and Kate Brooks, explained that in preparing for the semester abroad, all students were informed of travel restrictions and other safety measures being implemented in Madrid. While acknowledging that studying abroad during a global pandemic would not be a typical experience, these determined students have overcome considerable obstacles and are excited to be in Madrid to experience all of the things Spain has to offer. 

Hear from several study abroad students who share their initial impressions and their aspirations for the semester.

Nia Donfris: An Aspiring Nurse Follows Her Dream to Study Abroad

Nia Donfris
Nia Donfris is pursuing a double major in Spanish and nursing. She believes study abroad to be an integral part of her education and good preparation for her future career plans.

Nia Donfris has always known that she wanted to combine the study of nursing and the Spanish language. “When I was first looking at universities, I knew exactly what I wanted. I looked for a school with a direct admit nursing program, a study abroad program, and the opportunity to minor in Spanish.” She credits SLU and her advisors Julianne Mason and Christina Garcia for helping her plan for a double major in nursing and Spanish with the opportunity to study abroad. “SLU has offered me even more than I could have asked for,” she said.

Donfris believes that studying abroad in a Spanish-speaking country is integral not only to her studies in nursing and Spanish but also to her future career plans. Speaking Spanish “will allow me to interact with more patients and help them through difficult times by connecting with them in a language that they are more comfortable using.” 

“I was originally planning on studying in Madrid for the entire year, but COVID-19 had other plans for me. Since this is my only chance for a full semester abroad, I intend on making the most of it,” she continued. “The major difference between this semester and a 'normal' study abroad experience is the travel restrictions. However, that has not stopped us from exploring Madrid and making the most of the experience. If anything, the restrictions have allowed us to really get to know Madrid, from the metro system to the language and the culture. I absolutely love exploring the city and learning about Spain; even taking the wrong turn can become a new adventure.”

In terms of the health and safety restrictions, Donfris notes that on campus, “everyone wears a mask inside and outside, windows are kept open, class sizes are small, and students sit 1.5 meters apart at desks.” 

Her host mother even wears a mask around the house. “My roommates and I eat dinner together but separately from the rest of the family. We still get to talk to my host mom about our day and ask questions about Madrid, but we keep each other safe by staying masked, cleaning often and keeping windows open.”

Michael Vega: Studying Public Health Abroad During the Pandemic

Michael Vega
Michael Vega (submitted photo)

For Michael Vega, a public health student from the St. Louis campus, studying abroad at SLU-Madrid this semester has already provided invaluable insight into what global health looks like. "I'm getting a firsthand understanding of what public health looks like around the world. In my political science classes, we are analyzing global responses to the pandemic. From Europe, to Asia, and the Americas, each country has handled the pandemic in an array of ways. It is fascinating to see how our interconnectedness has shifted based on responses.”

“I wanted to take advantage of this incredible opportunity, no matter what changes there would be in comparison to a 'normal' study abroad semester,” said Vega. While he would have enjoyed traveling around Europe, he is enjoying getting to know the city of Madrid. “Despite the current pandemic, Madrid continues to appear alive and active. Being a very metropolitan city, walking and public transportation are the norm here, and they are the easiest way to explore the city. Coming from a Mexican household, Barrio La Latina has been my refuge whenever I am in need of a piece of home. I have found a vibrant community of Latinos and Latin restaurants—and Mexican, to be specific.”

Beyond the classroom, Vega hopes that his study abroad experience will allow him to become more independent and self-aware. “I push myself to be more open-minded when it comes to daily activities such as mannerisms and even gastronomy. I am incredibly excited for this opportunity and cannot wait to see what the future holds.”

Catlin Clemmons: Cultural and Linguistic Immersion

Catlin Clemmons
Catlin Clemmons (submitted photo)

Catlin Clemmons, who is studying health management with a minor in Spanish at the St. Louis campus, was determined to study abroad in Madrid because she wanted to improve her Spanish language skills and experience life in another culture. 

Clemmons is already enjoying the opportunity to take her language learning beyond the classroom and into the streets as she goes about her daily life in Madrid. She aspires to one day become fluent in Spanish. “I believe my time at SLU-Madrid is just what I need. I am taking every opportunity to speak and learn,” she said. “As of now, I speak Spanish for about 80% of my day. I can already see that this is helping build my confidence and vocabulary.” 

Clemmons finds that living with a Spanish host mother offers ample opportunity to practice her conversation and listening skills. “My host mom loves to tell us stories about her experiences traveling throughout Spain and about aspects of Spanish culture through the meals that she prepares. Spanish is her only language which has really forced me to have conversations in Spanish and keep practicing.” 

Like Vega and Donfris, Clemmons realizes that European travel is unlikely, however she acknowledges the advantages of staying in Madrid. “Another goal of mine this semester is to see as much of Madrid as possible. I put on my best walking shoes and just go for walks around town on the weekends.”

On a personal level, she believes that the study abroad experience will teach her to be grateful and courageous when it comes to life’s challenges. Initially, she experienced a degree of culture shock beyond the language barrier, such as taking public transportation to the university or seeing differences in fashion. “You have to really try to take note of differences and respect the local culture,” she said. “I believe that learning to understand others is transformative.”

Anna Teien: Study Abroad as a Complement to a Double Major in Psychology and Spanish 

Anna Teien
Anna Teien (submitted photo)

Studying abroad has always been a priority for Anna Teien, who is pursuing a double major in psychology and Spanish at the St. Louis campus. She knew that a semester at SLU-Madrid would afford a valuable opportunity for language immersion while challenging her to develop new intercultural perspectives. When she found out that study abroad would be possible in the Spring 2021 semester, she jumped at the opportunity.

“Even though our study abroad experience is going to be very different from previous students and we may not be able to explore other places, I believe it's a great opportunity to become immersed in the Spanish culture,” said Teien. “We will be living in Madrid for four months allowing us to really explore the city, language, and lifestyle more.”

After less than two weeks in Madrid, Teien claims to love the city. “The architecture and 'vibe' of the city are so intriguing and unlike any place I have been to in the United States,” she said. She enjoys exploring the city and trying new foods, and, so far, her favorite areas of Madrid are Fuencarral and Sol. 

In terms of her goals for the semester, Teien is challenging herself to adapt to the culture and not stand out as a foreigner. With a keen interest in both the language as well as the culture, she hopes that immersion in the Spanish culture will broaden her perspectives and teach her to be more independent.

Institutional Approval for Study Abroad at SLU-Madrid in Spring 2021

The International Travel Advisory Committee (ITAC) at Saint Louis University is charged with determining whether Saint Louis University students in St. Louis, Missouri can travel overseas to study. Though ITAC did not choose to send students to SLU-Madrid in the Fall 2020 semester, the campus remained open and fully operational as degree-seeking students continued their education. A four-year university campus, SLU-Madrid is uniquely positioned to continue operations and remain an option for study abroad for students from SLU in St. Louis as well as dozens of other universities in the U.S. and beyond.

For the Spring 2021 semester, ITAC considered each of the 40+ approved study abroad programs individually. Ultimately, they approved study abroad at SLU’s Madrid Campus because, as part of the same institution, SLU-Madrid offers important guarantees in terms of transparency, safety, and expectations as well as procedural concerns such as refunds. In addition to study abroad students from the St. Louis campus, SLU-Madrid is also hosting students from the University of Mississippi and the University of San Francisco this spring.