Students scramble to change plans as Macalester cancels fall study away


Hannah Catlin, Editor-In-Chief

On Wednesday, May 6, Macalester announced that it would not sponsor student participation in any fall 2020 study away program, a policy that will affect 160 students who had planned to study away next semester. 

In an email to the campus community, Provost Karine Moe cited “health and safety concerns, as well as the lack of clarity around the effects of the virus on travel in the months ahead” for the college’s extraordinary decision

According to Director of the Center for Study Away Kevin Morrison, the decision was ultimately made by upper administrators, though he endorses their choice.

“I think it is the wise decision,” Morrison said. “There is a difference between handling a situation that’s unfolding while students are currently abroad and having all of the evidence of that experience to know that I don’t want students to be in that situation again.”

Getting students back home from study away programs this semester was a sizable financial burden for the college, which had to pay for last-minute airline tickets and refunding room and board fees. 

The college’s finances will play a large part in determining whether students disrupted by cancellations will be able to have their study away experiences during a different semester. 

That is the hope and that is the goal,” Morrison said. “It’s really going to be a question of whether financially the college could handle that or not.”

The college spends millions on its study abroad budget annually — a number that was on the rise as of January. The college’s operating budget allocated 4.8 million dollars to study away this fiscal year and had planned to spend 5.8 million next year. That being said, Macalester is entering uncertain financial waters.

In an email to The Mac Weekly, Moe confirmed that tuition revenue will definitely impact “the college’s ability to manage study away” — though she did write in her email to the campus community that the college “will make every effort to accommodate students who want to reschedule their study away experience.” 

For now, administrators are waiting to get a sense of what the college’s enrollment next year will be. Macalester has pushed its deposit deadline for first-year students back to June 1, which has slowed the process down.

But the decision to cancel fall study away programs didn’t just come down to protecting the college’s budget. 

The Center for Study Away anticipates that many if not all fall study away programs will be canceled in the coming weeks.

Last Thursday, April 30, the Institute for Study Abroad (IFSA) canceled all of its programs. That announcement came on the heels of the cancellation of roughly half the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) programs, as well as the suspension of Macalester programs in Singapore and South Africa. In total, nearly 30 students saw their programs canceled last week before the college made its decision. 

Morrison said that his office wanted to ensure that students could prepare for the fall semester at Macalester and not be blindsided by last-minute cancelations. 

“If we stayed in the process of ‘yes you can study away, yes you can study away’ and then in August things fall apart, then we’ve really disadvantaged those students in terms of housing,” Morrison said. 

“Right now, all the evidence points to the fact that study away is ultimately going to be canceled by the program providers and I would rather students know that now and start making plans than be panicking in August,” he continued.

Already, most students who planned to go abroad in the fall registered for Macalester classes — a precaution the college decided to take back in April as a safeguard in case programs were canceled later on.

In a joint statement to The Mac Weekly, Moe and Vice President for Administration and Finance David Wheaton wrote that they are unsure whether they will need to “add more or different sections of courses” to accommodate for having an additional 160 students on campus. Again, senior staff is waiting to get fall enrollment numbers before making that call.

But class registration is far from the only thing weighing on students who had planned to study away.

As of now, there is no more on-campus housing available for next semester. Students interested in living on-campus can contact residential life to be put on a waitlist for on-campus housing, but there is no guarantee the college will provide housing to students who do not make it off the waitlist and cannot find a place to live off campus.

Macalester, which has just a two-year on-campus residency requirement, has relatively little on-campus housing compared to its liberal arts peers.

According to Assistant Dean for Residential Life Coco Du, there was already a waitlist to live on-campus next year before Macalester canceled fall study abroad. Now, that list is growing.

For now, the best Du can offer are resources on the college’s website — including a special page with advice on how to find off-campus housing. But competition is already heating up as 160 students vie for last-minute leases.

Kaitlyn Brown ’22 was planning on studying away in Buenos Aires next semester until IFSA canceled its programs last week. She had planned to live in the Summit House when she returned to Macalester next spring, but now needs a place to live in the fall.

Brown said that, in a way, she got lucky that IFSA canceled her program when it did. She had about a week’s headstart on the housing hunt and was able to find a place with students from St. Catherine University.

But a lot of the people she knows are still in the fray. One of Brown’s friends thought she had found a place to live, only to have another student grab the spot the minute before she was able to.

“So many people are in competition for housing that if you can’t make a decision or you can’t make it work really quickly, it’s going to get taken off the market,” Brown said.

Part of the reason Brown had initially planned to live in campus housing next spring was that it was the most affordable option given her financial aid package. While Brown was ultimately able to find somewhere that was in her budget, it was “a really hard task.”

“When I first started looking at places — housing around campus is pretty expensive at least for me coming from a place where the cost of living is really low,” Brown said. “It was a really stressful experience.”

Brown doesn’t think students blame the college for their housing predicament, but she said morale is notably down among the rising junior class. 

“I don’t think anyone is really frustrated with Macalester, but I think people are definitely frustrated with the situation,” Brown said. “A loss of optimism… is something that I’m sensing from people.”

Not only is the last-minute housing scramble stressful, but many are grieving the loss of their study away experience. Macalester sends 60 percent of its students to study away sometime during their four years, and heavily emphasizes its study away office to prospective students

Lauren Dunnewald ’22 was planning on going to Cusco, Peru fall semester and swapping rooms in an off-campus apartment with a student going abroad in the spring. Now, she and a friend are part of the housing scramble — trying to find a place to live together next semester.

But her heart isn’t in apartment-hunting right now. She’s more worried about how this change will affect the rest of her college experience. Dunnewald is thinking about trying to defer her study away to fall 2021, but such a move could seriously disrupt her class schedule during her senior year. 

Indeed, some departments only run capstone classes during one semester, and students who go abroad senior year might have to give up the opportunity to do a year-long honors research project. 

On the other hand, the language departments as well as anthropology and international studies require majors to study away — and there’s no word yet whether these requirements will be waived for programs affected by the pandemic.

“I’m such a planner and this is just completely derailing what I thought I was going to be doing,” Dunnewald said. “I had just had this idea that I would be on-campus my senior year to have that experience, but I don’t know that that will happen now. Either that will happen or I won’t study away at all.”

While Macalester shut down fall study away, her program in Peru is still up and running — at least for now. 

“It kind of feels like a parent saying ‘you can’t do this, you can’t do that,’” Dunnewald said. “I understand the Macalester has certain safety protocols — we want to be safe. 

“But if I still had that opportunity… I feel like I would rather make that decision for myself than [have] the college decide for me,” she continued. “Or at least work collaboratively with the school to figure out what’s good for me.”

Morgan Doherty contributed to the reporting of this story.