Illustration by Amelia Madarang

COVID-19 threatens future of LC language programs

In March, many students at Lewis & Clark were spending time overseas through the study abroad program. When the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic, many students overseas were forced to return home. A lot of these students were language majors fulfilling their graduation requirements. Now, with study abroad canceled for the spring semester of 2021, there is considerable uncertainty as to how requirements for language majors will be fulfilled.

Chinese Professor and Department Chair of World Languages and Literatures Keith Dede had students studying in Taipei, Taiwan, at the time. Initially, Taiwan was expected to have low transmission rates, and students would not have had to leave the country. 

“Then, the government made the decision that everyone should come home,” Dede said. “Everything shifted online for them as well.” 

LC’s language department has made some temporary curriculum changes. 

“Our short term goal is to get the students who have already declared majors to complete their degree on time,” Dede said. “The great majority of students have already completed the study abroad requirements.” 

There are a few students at LC who are graduating this spring and, instead of studying abroad, will have additional classes in the language they are studying. 

“It is a disappointment, but it is going to be OK,” Dede said. “They are going to have to take a couple of extra classes, but I think they will get the linguistic experience pretty well, but what they will miss out on is the experience of immersed in a culture.”

According to Overseas and Off-Campus Program Director Blythe Knott, uncertainty remains if study abroad companies may face the risk of closing entirely. 

“Most organizations had the reserves to make it through the fall, with no programs and some will struggle now that almost all schools are canceling spring,” Knott said. “I’m not sure any will cease to exist, but several will probably go into a hibernation until students are able to study abroad again.”

The pandemic has impacted international institutions associated with LC’s overseas program. For students studying French, one of the language intensive study abroad options included Dakar, Senegal. The program ran through the non-profit international education and exchange organization Council on International Education Exchange (CIEE). 

CIEE’s Dakar, Senegal program was permanently suspended due to COVID-19. The overseas office has replaced the language intensive program with a program in Cameroon, a Francophone country, through the Middlebury language intensive program. Other canceled programs include Valparaiso, Chile; Moscow, Russia; and Alicante, Spain.

The long term impact is unknown for LC’s language majors, as there are still many uncertainties about COVID-19. For the many LC students planning to graduate in Spring 2022, the possibilities of studying abroad are looking slim. 

“(The language department) will also make accommodations for them and will also require taking extra courses in the target language and some other courses about the culture of the language,” Dede said. 

For the German program, the year in Munich program was an important immersion component for majors. Niall Gifford ’22 is one of many students at LC who is impacted by this pause. Gifford is a double German studies and international affairs major who initially planned on spending the 2020-2021 academic year at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. 

Gifford will likely not continue the German studies major if Spring 2021 study abroad is canceled.

“Study abroad is such a crucial aspect of majoring in a language that even if I found a way to complete the required credits here on campus, it would be a hollow experience,” Gifford said.

To Dede’s understanding, the majority of students who have declared a language major are staying in the department. The biggest concern for Dede is the future of the language department. There is a growing concern that first and second years will find majoring in a language unappealing. 

“First and second-year students are looking around the world and the curriculum, seeing what is possible and how they can complete their degree in a timely way and seeing language majors as a real challenge,” Dede said. 

According to Dede, studying abroad is the best part of the liberal arts curriculum. Though language majors are missing out on the experience of studying abroad, Dede is still a firm believer that studying abroad is a quintessential component of the liberal arts experience. 

“It is broadening the mind and enriching the soul, and there is no substitute,” Dede said.

On behalf of the overseas office, Knott is optimistic that the cancelation of study abroad in Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 will not heavily impact the office’s funding and staff, nor LC’s budget and enrollment. 

“I think we will be sending students abroad again in the fall of 2021 and we have already completed the application cycle for that semester,” Knott said. “I expect things to bounce back quickly enough that I don’t anticipate changes to be made to our office in the meantime.”

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