Timely updates, community building, hope—these are just some of the key takeaways that attendees left with from the 5th European Conference, held virtually from October 26-30, 2020.
Much like what the field of international education is currently experiencing, the 5th European Conference, which was planned to originally take place in Milan, Italy, went fully online with the spread of COVID-19. The silver lining of this change? Almost 240 conference participants were able to fully engage in high-quality programming and interact with colleagues from 16 countries without leaving their homes.
Thoughtful, Relevant Programming for a Field in Need
The theme for the virtual conference, Beyond 2020: Innovative Practices for an Evolving Landscape, was developed in Fall 2019 before the pandemic began, it couldn’t have been more timely. But once the coronavirus began directly affecting the field of education abroad, the committee wanted to do more. “We recognized the need to provide content that directly addressed COVID-19 response in the European context, and opportunities for attendees to connect and find support during difficult times,” said Forum Director for Programs and Resources Elizabeth Frohlich, Ph.D., who works with the European Conference Committee and co-presenter for the 5th European Conference.
So, the committee issued another call for session proposals in May 2020. The result? A fresh pool of strong proposals that focused on topics such as the impact of the pandemic, ongoing preparation and planning, and online global learning.
In addition to the new session proposals, the conference committee also incorporated new programmatic elements to provide opportunities for virtual connection, support, and networking, including Community Connections sessions in French, Spanish, and Italian, and European Country Updates for Spain, Ireland, France, and Czech Republic. Conference attendees also had the pleasure of creating a robust conference experience that included:
- 3 Pre- & Post-Conference Workshops on How to Build a Responsive and Adaptive Emergency Action Plan, Student Learning & Development I: Advising & Orientations, and Mental Health Issues in Education Abroad
- 41 concurrent sessions presented by 83 presenters that covered seven new tracks:
- Career Development & Internships
- Equity, Diversity & Inclusion
- The Forum on Education Abroad
- Health, Safety & Wellness
- Resident Directors & On-site Staff
- Student Learning & Development
An Engaging Opening Plenary
The conference began on October 26, 2020, with an introduction to the European Conference and the Opening Plenary, Traveling While Black in France: A Case Study to Improve All Students’ Stay in Europe, by award-winning French filmmaker and activist Amandine Gay.
President & CEO Melissa Torres introduced Amandine, and shared, “As education abroad professionals, we know it’s important to create a conversation and to build bridges between students’ experiences to those of their host communities. It’s especially important that we do that for Black students by connecting them to the history and the present-day realities of the people living in those communities.”
Amandine spoke openly about her personal experiences as a French Black woman studying abroad and traveling the world. “Studying abroad is a way to experience your identity in a new way,” said Amandine.
But her experiences abroad were not without some difficult, teachable moments. She stressed the importance of study abroad professionals needing to prepare their students for micro aggressions and more extreme forms of racism that they may encounter. “Warn students that they will hear things that they’re not used to hearing. They will hear things that will infuriate them and outrage them,” said Amandine.
She advised attendees to research European (and other) countries where they send students abroad to be knowledgeable of the current climate and figure out how to best prepare them for their experience abroad, then initiate conversations with students to ensure they feel comfortable and safe about their experience abroad. “Find ways to make study abroad terms moments of joy, discovery, and [where students] experience freedom and empowerment in discovering another country, culture, and themselves,” said Amandine.
Sessions = Opportunity for Learning & Connection
Tuesday through Friday of conference week was filled with concurrent sessions that highlighted one or multiple conference tracks. Tracks were new to the conference this year so that attendees could easily identify a selection of sessions that would deepen their knowledge around a specific aspect of education abroad.
An Open Forum on New Challenges in Education Abroad, a conference favorite with attendees, allowed conference participants to have an open dialogue with their fellow attendees about the issues they are currently facing. Themes discussed included:
- Pros & cons of virtual learning
- Diversity & inclusion
- How virtual internships have diversified education abroad opportunities
- Climate change
- Staff retention
- Financial pressures
Ending on a Hopeful Note
Daniel Mulhall, Ambassador of Ireland to the United States, served as the European Conference’s Closing Plenary, providing on overview of Ireland’s proactive approach to handling COVID-19 and highlighting how the country is keeping student health and safety top of mind now and in the future. “This pandemic has shown that this is a global problem, and it requires global solutions,” said Ambassador Mulhall. “It should encourage people to want to study in different parts of the world”.
He enlightened attendees and left them with a sense of hope for what Europe, and Ireland specifically, are doing to handle COVID-19 and welcome international students back to Ireland. “Ireland ought to be a very attractive option for students because we have handled [the pandemic] very well, and we have the capacity to deal with these challenges,” said Ambassador Mulhall.
He highlighted students’ access to free medical care, single bedrooms at Irish universities, free transport from the airport to university as just some of the ways that the government prioritizes student health.
Ambassador Mulhall also shared how his eyes were opened when he studied abroad in the United States and Australia, and he hopes that students won’t stay home as a result of COVID-19. “One of the antidotes to isolationism is for students to travel around the world,” he said. “Study abroad is a positive good for anyone who has the inclination and the capacity—spending time abroad is really an important part of a student’s formation.”
The Forum thanks all the colleagues who virtually attended the 5th European Conference. “I hope that attendees appreciated the opportunity to come together at a moment of great challenge to find support and community,” Elizabeth said. “I also hope that we were successful in adapting the hallmarks of Forum conferences—deep discussion around substantive issues and practical takeaways—to address the unique challenges we’re facing at this time.”
The Forum is also grateful to those who dedicated their time to making the conference a success, including session presenters and our 18 European Conference Committee members.