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Nikki at Cap de Formentor in Spain

Nikki Salazar at Cap de Formentor-Pollença on Mallorca Island.

UNC’s Study Abroad Office adapted its programming during the pandemic, creating new global learning opportunities for students at home while helping others travel internationally safely.

Students in Sevilla jump up and down with excitement.The UNC in Sevilla cohort at the ancient Roman amphitheater of Itálica.

Stirling, Scotland. Seville, Spain. Seoul, South Korea. Manheim, Germany. For undergraduates Melanie Carmichael, Nikki Salazar and Tracy Ridley, these cities represent more than dots on a map; they served as home during the students’ semesters abroad.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began to affect travel in March 2020, nearly 95%  of the 382 UNC undergraduates studying abroad returned home, finishing their term online with their host institution. While many other universities put their study abroad programs on hold, staff at UNC’s Study Abroad Office — led by interim associate dean Jason Kinnear — wrote a different narrative beginning the following semester. Kinnear and his team developed a complex risk assessment tool using a variety of metrics to gradually resume programs with safety precautions in place.

South Korea was the only country available to UNC students in fall 2020. Twelve countries were available in spring 2021, 11 in summer 2021, 14 last fall, and this semester students had a choice of 33 countries. (Before COVID, a typical semester would have UNC students studying in about 60 countries.)

“We started slowly because we wanted to ensure the safety of our students,” said Kinnear. “But we are committed to making global opportunities available to our students because these experiences are truly life-changing.”

Carolina remains a leader in global engagement, a commitment prioritized in Carolina Next, the University’s strategic plan. During the pandemic, Study Abroad has continued to innovate to serve students and create new global learning opportunities. Virtual global study, research and internship programs with partners throughout the world are just some of the ways that UNC provided students with a global experience. Carolina faculty who ordinarily lead study abroad programs worked with international partners to teach new Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) courses.

In recognition of its inclusive and comprehensive efforts to internationalize the campus, UNC recently received the Platinum Award for Global Learning, Research and Engagement, the highest award given by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.

“The biggest takeaway from my experience was how it fast-tracked my journey to feeling like an adult. I was in complete control of how to spend my time and money, and I learned what I valued in the real world outside the classroom.” — Nikki Salazar ’22

Nikki Salazar stands in front of a huge buillding at a park in Barcelona, Spain.Growing up in the small North Carolina town of Lincolnton, Nikki Salazar ’22 spoke Spanish as her first language with her Costa Rican immigrant parents. Salazar attended the UNC in Sevilla program in fall 2021 with the academic goal of strengthening her ability to read and write in her native tongue. A recipient of the #HeelsAbroad photojournalism scholarship, Salazar took over Study Abroad’s Instagram account for a week, documenting her Sevilla experience.

Studying abroad had been a dream of Salazar’s since she was accepted by UNC and received an Excel at Carolina summer grant fellowship of $5,000 to study abroad. Her original plan to use that money in the summer after her sophomore year was thwarted by COVID.

A Covenant Scholar, Salazar says that as a first-generation college student she was thrilled that her scholarship covered overseas tuition.

Her travels, which included trips to France, Italy and other cities in Spain, helped her learn to be proactive and to think on her feet. “In France and Italy, where I don’t know the language, I had to figure things out without a lot of help, which made me a better traveler and made me feel empowered,” said Salazar.

The beautiful water and cliffs at Cap de Formentor.The breathtaking view at Cap de Formentor.

Living with a host family provided a stepping stone to independence. With three host siblings close to her age, Salazar “attended birthday dinners and just hung out with young people in the house, learning words I probably shouldn’t have,” she said, laughing.

COVID protocols — including masking, social distancing and showing her vaccination record to gain entrance to sites — did not decrease the impact of Salazar’s experience. “After this trip, I can dream bigger,” she said. “Meeting so many people and traveling gave me a lot of hope for the future.”

“Everyone can get something out of studying abroad, whether you’re looking to improve your language skills or just seeing something new. The people I’ve met who have studied abroad come back with a completely different mindset, are a lot more open and want to keep seeing the world.” — Tracy Ridley

Going down the Third Tunnel at the Demilitarized Zone. Ridley and friend in hard hats.When choosing to study abroad, Tracy Ridley ’23 ventured to both a familiar destination and one outside his comfort zone. For the latter, he chose Seoul, having never traveled to Asia. After spending the fall 2020 semester in Seoul, Ridley returned home to Matthews, North Carolina, for two weeks before boarding a plane for Germany, where he spent the spring 2021 semester at the University of Mannheim.

With a mother who is German, Ridley grew up speaking German as well as English, but never studied German in school. “My classes and experiences in Germany gave me the ability to give a 45-minute presentation and write a 20-page paper in German,” he said. “I feel about as near-native in the German language as possible for having grown up in the United States.”

While Ridley’s initial vision of study abroad in Europe was filled with weekend jaunts to nearby countries, the risk of COVID shaped his decision to remain in Germany throughout the semester.

“Germany was very strict regarding traveling outside the country and then returning,” he said. But he was exposed to what he describes as “a good cultural mix” since his classmates hailed from diverse countries, including Belgium, Italy, France, Denmark, Switzerland and Slovakia.

Ridley’s study abroad motivated him to successfully apply for a summer 2022 internship with Bertelsmann, a German multinational corporation. “Without the in-country experience and mastery of the language, I don’t think I would have gotten this internship,” he said. “Since I’ve been a kid, I have wanted to live in Germany. My study abroad experience helped me be ready to make that big step.”

Tracy Ridely and friends sit at the top of a mountain after hiking.Climbing Hallasan Mountain, the highest mountain in South Korea.

The semester at Seoul’s Yonsei University as a Phillips Ambassador expanded Ridley’s horizons as he stretched himself to try new things, including starting Korean language classes, hiking and visiting museums. “Studying abroad taught me to keep an open mind,” he said.

Tracy Ridley in front of a Seoul Sky Observatory sign with wings.
Tracy Ridley at the Seoul Sky Observatory at the top of the Lotte World Tower.

Because of COVID, South Korea did not allow travel out of the country, and Ridley had to quarantine for two weeks upon arrival. And while he was in the first small cohort of UNC students to study abroad in fall 2020, he describes his stay “as about as normal as you can get nowadays,” filled with new friends, adventures throughout the country and immersion in a new culture.

“Studying abroad gave me more hope for the future,” he said. “Being away [from home] helped me find those things that I really like to do and motivated me for what’s to come.”

“Studying abroad isn’t a vacation; it’s a learning opportunity. I learned to understand the cultures that I was surrounded by, find commonalities with others and see different perspectives. I learned so much culturally and academically.” — Melanie Carmichael

Melanie Carmichael stands in a dress on a brick patio.While most Carolina undergraduates spend their first semester exploring Franklin Street, the Old Well and the Pit, Melanie Carmichael ’26 was discovering the Scottish Highlands, the Isle of Mull and London. As a participant in the new Carolina Global Launch program, Carmichael completed a study abroad program at Scotland’s University of Stirling in fall 2021, before beginning classes on the UNC campus this spring.

In addition to the 25 students who were in Stirling with Carolina Global Launch, Carmichael interacted with students from throughout Europe and the United Kingdom.

“Starting college this way made me independent and responsible,” said Carmichael. “The rule for Carolina Global Launch is that if you don’t do well in your classes, you won’t be going to UNC, so we had to make sure we were on top of our studies.”

The Huwon Secret Garden at the Changdeokgung Palace in Seoul.

Being a disciplined student did not prevent Carmichael from taking part in every excursion offered by the study abroad company with which UNC contracts for this program. She went on 20 excursions, including weekend trips to the Isles of Mull, Iona and Skye and the town of Oban. Carmichael even flew to London to tour the sights with her dad.

Melanie and group hold a giant saber at the Highland Games Academy.Carmichael, second from right, at the Highland Games Academy, where she was the only one who flipped the women’s competitive caber.

Students wore masks in classes and had easy access to free COVID tests and tested themselves before any excursion or event. “I was just happy that I was able to do everything I did during a time when many people weren’t traveling at all,” she said.

Melanie Carmichael stands in a green field with mountains in the background.
Melanie Carmichael at Loch Tulla in the Scottish highlands, en route to the town of Oban.

Carmichael remains close with her fellow Global Launch classmates now that they are in Chapel Hill.

“We go to dinner together all the time, and we are just there for each other,” she said. “My parents commented that since my return, I seem like a different person. I’ve grown so much from this experience and now I’m always ready to do the next big thing.”

By Michele Lynn


Published in the Spring 2022 issue | Features

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