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Home Abroad Program Supports International Students Stranded by the Pandemic

Home abroad group
Home abroad group
Business management major Zhonglei Sun — shown here among a group of students at Soochow University in China — was one of more than 600 Stony Brook students who participated in the Home Abroad program.

When the COVID-19 pandemic prevented Stony Brook University’s 4,600 international students from returning to campus to continue their studies, the team in the Office of Global Affairs sprang into action. Working with other offices and academic units across the university, they created a program, implemented at universities in other countries and territories, to allow international students to seamlessly transfer classes into their SBU major.

Students who chose to participate in the program could enroll at universities in their home country while still earning Stony Brook credit and paying only standard tuition rates.

Three semesters later, the program, SBU Home Abroad, is still offering overseas students a way to continue to progress toward their Stony Brook degrees.

“We never thought this program would still be in existence, but the pandemic keeps shifting,” said Lindsi Walker, interim vice provost for global affairs. “It’s been a unique program in terms of the wide variety of units and partnerships that have been involved to make it a success, but I think it speaks to the good in all of us that we really came together to help these students.”

Walker and her team in International Academic Programs (IAP) conceived of the program that became Home Abroad shortly before the pandemic hit the United States. About 20 Stony Brook students were stuck in Wuhan, China, and could not leave to start the Spring 2020 semester. Because of the Chinese New Year, some of Stony Brook’s Chinese students come to campus a week or so after their peers.

After Stony Brook switched to entirely remote learning in March, 2020 — like colleges and universities across the United States — many more international students sought options that would enable them to continue working toward their degrees without having to join classes offered in Eastern Time from wherever they were around the world.

The IAP team started making phone calls, looking for partner universities that would be willing to accept those students, and whose programs were similar to Stony Brook’s.

“We were very strategic to find partner institutions that were comparable to Stony Brook, that were in places that could be beneficial to our students and where the academics aligned in ways that could be useful for our students,” Walker said.

To ensure the overseas programs aligned with those at Stony Brook, staff from Global Affairs and the relevant university college or school compared — class by class — the international major with the one at Stony Brook. Programs that diverged too widely were not approved for inclusion in Home Abroad.

Since the start of the program in the Spring 2020 semester, more than 600 students have participated in Home Abroad, and the program has been replicated by other universities around the country.

Predictably, the program saw the highest enrollments during the Fall 2020 semester, when all of Stony Brook’s classes were still online. That semester, more than 330 students, across undergraduate programs, participated in the program from China, South Korea and Taiwan. It was also available in Italy and Germany, and has since expanded into Japan.

“As an international Seawolf, when I had to return to my home country due to the pandemic, I thought I would study online like international students in other schools, but the 12-hour time difference meant that I had to study all night in China,” said Zhonglei Sun, a business management major. “Home Abroad helped me a lot. I didn’t need to come to the campus during the pandemic or suffer from the difficulties brought by the big time difference. The two-semester exchange in the partner school solidified my academic foundation and helped cultivate my independent academic thinking ability.”

After five academic terms — including Summer 2021 — the program is still available, but winding down. Walker and her team are proud of the program and what it was able to offer to Stony Brook students, but they say they are hopeful that all international students will be able to return to campus soon. Fewer than 70 students are in the Home Abroad program this fall.

“We’ve implemented a procedure where students have to get approval to continue in the program beyond two semesters. The more advanced you get in your academic career, the more important it is to ensure continuity for degree progress,” Walker said. “Numbers have gone down over time as well, and that’s a good thing because it shows that students are getting visas and feel safe coming here. Because really, this is where they belong and we want them here.”

— Lori Kie

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