Shadia Amir is learning new lessons of flexibility and resilience as she continues her studies in Thailand
A month into winter quarter, most Western Washington University students were staring at a Zoom screen from home. Shadia Amir was exploring temples in Thailand.
Last March, Western’s Education Abroad department canceled all in-person study abroad programs because of the pandemic. Now, nearly a year later, it’s offering limited programs in Vietnam and Thailand.
Amir, a second-year philosophy major, is Western’s first student to participate in one of the offered programs.
“In many ways, she’s kind of a pioneer to navigate a lot of this,” said Hannah Nevitt, education abroad program coordinator.
Amir began working with Nevitt last winter. Amir said, as a philosophy major, she wanted to learn about Buddhism abroad and programs in Chiang Mai, Thailand fit with that goal.
Amir initially planned to go to Thailand in fall quarter 2020, but restrictions on study abroad were not lifted until August. Then, the education abroad office had to assess which countries were safe to travel to.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classify countries’ COVID-19 risks using a four-level system. These levels include level one, practice usual precautions; level two, practice enhanced precautions; level three, avoid nonessential travel; and level four, avoid all travel.
But in the case of travel advisories, “can” does not necessarily mean “should.” Dr. Christopher Sanford, a travel medicine specialist with UW Medicine, said even traveling to level one countries increases the risk of contracting COVID-19.
Ryan Larsen, director of the Education Abroad department, said making the decision to bring study abroad back required careful monitoring of the state department and CDC travel advisories. Any country past a level two was a no-go.
“We also had one other variable that we had to consider,” Larsen said. “Which countries would let us in?”
Thailand, one of the few countries at a CDC level two or lower, met state department travel advisories and allowed travel from the United States, Larsen said.
“We wanted to make sure we did everything right,” Larsen said. “What kind of proof of the test did they want — not just the type of test, but was [Amir] going to give proof in the medium that they wanted? Did it need to be on paper with a stamp? Could it be electronic?”
Sanford said discrepancies in protocol can make preparation for international travel during the pandemic challenging. Not only do countries have different protocols for testing and quarantine, but sources like the CDC, the World Health Organization, the U.S. Department of State and national embassies do not always agree.
“It’s a really complex time, and it’s shifting on a near-daily basis,” Sanford said.
Amir said her experience preparing to leave the country was different from what it normally would have been.
“In a regular world, you’d just have to get your visa, pack your stuff, say bye to your family, and then you could go,” Amir said. “But this time, you had to have a lot of documents.”
Those documents included a “fit to fly” form, proof of insurance and proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of her first flight. On the planes she took, Amir said she disinfected her seats, wore a mask and sometimes had an entire row of seats to herself.
Upon arriving in Thailand, Amir stayed at an Alternative State Quarantine hotel for 14 days where she received twice-daily temperature checks, a weekly COVID-19 test and meals delivered to her room.
“Because I had already spent two weeks in isolation at home, I couldn’t have gotten more stir-crazy,” Amir said. Starting online classes and checking in with friends and family also helped, she said.
Now, Amir is studying at Chiang Mai University through the University Studies Abroad Consortium.
Alyssa Nota, University Studies Abroad Consortium CEO, said the organization initially suspended programs in response to the pandemic. Now, as programs get back on track, the University Studies Abroad Consortium’s health and safety team monitors the situation daily and maintains increased communication with students, families and the university’s resident director.
“Health and safety is always a number one priority,” Nota said.
Amir said after a small surge in COVID-19 cases, Chiang Mai University temporarily switched to online classes. However, Nota said strict rules on campus for masks, temperature checks and hand sanitizing have helped the university stay mostly fully-functioning.
“Our mission is to help students improve their global skills and to really be immersed very fully in the community,” Nota said. “That’s why we’re on a host university campus. [Students] can interact with local students and local professors, and they’re very heavily involved with the community.”
Amir said she’s already embarked on some cultural learning. In her first week out of quarantine, she and her group went on a temple walk through the historical district in Chiang Mai. Normally, the temples would be packed with tourists, but because of the pandemic, her group ran into just a few other people, Amir said.
Visiting historical museums, going to shops, getting ice cream and wading through stalls of vendors at a student night market are just some of the other activities she’s enjoyed so far, Amir said.
“Life is moving on because they’ve been able to control it so well,” Amir said. “You can go outside, go to the grocery store, go to a restaurant, sit inside at the restaurant, you can go to markets. Everything’s open.”
We don’t know for certain all of the factors that have contributed to Thailand’s relatively low COVID-19 rates, Sanford said. However, we do know some.
Sanford said early on, the country had clear communication, an effective lockdown and it hospitalized anyone with COVID-19.
Additionally, handshakes are less common in Thai culture, leading to less spreading through touch, Sanford said. There has also been significantly less resistance to mask-wearing, especially since the practice is somewhat routine in urban centers like Bangkok.
Amir is still having to take precautions. She said that every storefront has a temperature checker and a QR code that people are required to scan to track their location on an app called “Thai Chana.” People also wear masks in public, except when eating.
These precautions have helped keep many doors open for Amir, though there are some experiences she just will not have.
“I wish I would have known before just how much you would have to be flexible and have to have literally no expectations for anything,” Amir said, recalling countless delays and canceled flights.
Amir said everything is changing on a daily basis. Studying abroad during a pandemic is not for everyone.
“It’s not for the faint-hearted,” she said. “You have to be committed and have a no-strings-attached type of relationship … You have to really live in the moment and accept whatever it is that comes with the experience.”
Larsen said Amir’s single experience is just the beginning of students studying abroad again.
“You’ve got to start somewhere when you rebuild,” Larsen said. “So we’re starting with one, and as each country becomes safer and safer ... we’ll build back up and we’ll get our students from Western traveling again, exploring again and learning abroad again.”