75 students study in Austria despite COVID uncertainties

Photo provided by Emily Rodriquez

Cecilia Engbert
Assistant Editor

If there were one word to describe the Franciscan University of Steubenville Austria study abroad program this semester, it would be “uncertainty” as COVID-19 continues to bring ever-changing restrictions to international travel.

But, according to Franciscan’s manager of Austrian enrollment, Megan Boland, uncertainty is a normal part of studying and living abroad.

“The interesting thing about a study abroad semester is there is never a normal semester,” Boland said. “It’s just the nature of international travel and study abroad. Even my semester there … in the spring of 2016, there were changes constantly happening in the world.”

As the semester approached, many students who had planned to study abroad dropped out of the program, resulting in a drop from 200 to only 75 students living and studying in the Kartause in Gaming, Austria.

Many students were motivated to leave the program because of the vaccine mandate that Austria announced in November that would be enacted in February. This mandate requires that all who enter the country be either vaccinated or recently recovered from COVID-19 within the past six months.

Junior Chris Heinen is one of many students who had planned on going to Austria and dropped out several times because of COVID-19. Heinen said he held onto going in the spring as long as he could but finally decided to drop out so he could hold onto his main campus housing.

While Heinen dropped because he didn’t want to get the vaccine, he was also concerned about the civil unrest in Europe, a concern shared by many other students.

“Europe seems very unstable at the moment,” he said. “Just from what I see of the news, there’s a lot of rioting and angry people. And I didn’t want to be out of the country if there were problems like that because I didn’t want to get stuck there.”

“It makes sense that they’re going to keep the program as long as they’re able to,” he said. “It just didn’t really make sense for me to go.”

But the vaccine did not just keep students away from Austria.

Sister Mary Catherine Kasuboski, TOR, who was assigned to the Austria campus for the 2021-22 academic year, left Austria after the fall semester because she disagreed with the mandate.

“I had been thinking and praying about it a lot,” she said. “It became really clear to me that I didn’t want to take the vaccine after all. (My superior) gave the option to come back here and work on main campus for the semester. I’m very grateful for that.”

Kasuboski said she is at peace with her decision. “I believe I did the best I could in terms of discernment,” she said.

Kasuboski said she does not criticize those who have taken the vaccine, but she believes she has a right to stand up against forced vaccination.

“There’s more than one way of standing up for what you believe is right,” she said.

Kasuboski said there was chaos in Austria when she was there, with Austrians protesting the government’s right to mandate a vaccine.

Kasuboski said the vaccine mandate in Austria could potentially be destructive for the program.

“There’s hope, but it’s hard to say how much,” she said. “And it’s hard to say how much time it will take for all that to get worked out. … We really need to pray that the vaccine mandate goes away so that that’s not an obstacle for the students to be able to go there and to be able to travel freely.”

Seventy-five students chose to go through with the spring semester in Austria, however.

Despite growing discouragement as she watched other students drop out, junior Catherine Burton decided to go through with the program this semester.

She said that looking back years from now, “I probably would have more likely ended up regretting not going to Austria than going. … I didn’t really worry too much about restrictions since I figured there probably would still be restrictions no matter which semester I chose to go.”

Burton said that, despite limitations to the experience, she anticipates having an impactful semester.

“I am learning that during this experience, we should have more of a mindset that we’re ‘pilgrims’ and not ‘consumers,’” Burton said. “Studying abroad here shouldn’t be about trying to do as much as you possibly can, but rather about living in the present moment and listening to God’s call.”

The university worked hard to prepare the students before departure, Boland said.

“We want students to feel fully prepared going into a semester, especially now in COVID times,” she said. “We almost overcommunicate what’s happening.”

Boland said the students in Austria entered the semester excited and open to whatever might come. Those students saw and were encouraged by how the fall program, which was the first full study abroad semester since fall 2019, was successful. Boland said many of the current Austria students are used to the constant changes on main campus and know things are subject to change due to COVID-19.

“In a study abroad semester, that’s probably the best way you can enter in,” she said.

Boland said although there were uncertainties while planning the semester, there was never actual fear that the program would shut down again.

“Ever since it reopened, there’s no indication that anything like that would happen again, now that we’ve kind of learned to live with the way the world is now,” she said.

Junior Clare McGahan said she is grateful to finally be in Austria after her plans to go in spring 2021 fell through because of COVID-19.

“I think it’s a great privilege to have the opportunity to study abroad, and with all the difficulty surrounding travel now, I am even more thankful to be here,” she said.

The study abroad program is big reason many students choose Franciscan, including McGahan.

“I have always wanted to travel to Europe, and I think all the special opportunities included within the program make it a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” McGahan said.

Brian Kissinger, director of student life and outreach at the Austria campus, said it was hard to predict what the semester would look like.

“We were committed to do everything in our power to bring students here and to facilitate a transformative semester,” he said.

Kissinger said the uncertainties of being abroad — whether homesickness, upset travel plans or fluctuating COVID-19 regulations — are what transform students to grow in resilience.

“Students consistently overcome the obstacles and discover that they can accomplish what previously seemed impossible,” he said.

Despite fears that travel might be limited or shut down altogether in Europe, Franciscan students have been able to travel already in the first few weeks of their time abroad.

“They get all the trips too,” Boland said. “It’s just a matter of maneuvering them to fit the best travel situation based on different requirements for different countries.”

Kissinger said some countries are pulling back restrictions and opening up more to tourism. Students traveled to Rome already, arriving on Feb. 5, and Italy has seen a significant decline in COVID-19 cases, he said.

“We’re hopeful that this will be the case throughout Europe as the semester progresses,” Kissinger said. “Students are able to travel, and a country with strict entry regulations today may very well be relaxed by March.”

The program organizers remain positive about the program even in the face of the difficulties they have experienced in the past two years.

“In one sense, the uncertainties surrounding COVID are new to the program,” Kissinger said. “At the same time, our inability to predict the future is business as usual. Every semester is full of surprises, detours, failed plans and beautiful moments born from frustrating scenarios. The key is keeping our eyes open and remaining convinced of the Lord’s ability to bring good even from weekends full of train delays and FFP2 masks.”

The Franciscan Austrian Program will once again offer a summer session May 15-June 3, with an additional week of travel to Rome and Assisi.

“We’re moving forward with our pre-departure (meetings) for the fall,” Boland said. “And we’re going to keep on planning for the future semesters and just hope that the travel requirements will change soon and open back up for everyone.”


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