Name: Sarita Rai
Occupation: Director, Study Abroad Center at University of Hawai’i at Mānoa
Location: Hawai’i, US
While many US institutions of higher education cancelled in-person international programming for students and faculty in spring and summer of 2020, and again in 2021, students, faculty, and international partners at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa participated in the decision-making process on how, where, and when they chose to participate.
Sarita Rai is the director of the Study Abroad Center at UHM. Encouraging overseas academic experiences is a fundamental objective of the institution, according to its vision statement and Strategic Plan.
Moreover, one of the founding principles of the department of study abroad is to provide opportunities that broaden perspectives, develop aptitudes, and support students’ ability to make decisions as conscientious citizens of a global society.
“I had to jump through hoops,” said Rai, as she recalled the herculean efforts she underwent to allow students to have a voice in the decision on whether or not to remain or travel abroad for exchange programs during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Indeed, allowing students to participate in study abroad programs during an unprecedented global pandemic took much advocacy, manoeuvring, and attention to risk management on Rai’s part. “We had everybody abroad at that time, from Florence, to Japan, to China. And then the pandemic hit. We had countless discussions about how we were going to deal with this pandemic,” she shared.
In those staff meetings, the founding principles weighed heavily on Rai’s mind. “I looked at the entire situation, and said, ‘We have to give students the choice. We can’t bring them home.’ We’re trying to empower them do their own decision-making. It’s the students’ choice to remain or come home.”
Once the UHM team decided to allow students to remain on program at the onset of the pandemic, new procedures were quickly developed and implemented. Rai noted that one of the most essential components of this decision was clear communication. “We have to have very clear-cut communication with [students],” she said. “No ambiguities.”
She stated, “We informed students that if you’re on a study abroad program, you need to either remain, or come home. And if you do come home, we will make sure you can do online international instruction from here, so you get your course credits and complete your spring semester. Or you can remain wherever you are and complete your classes.”
Long before March of 2020, staff in the study abroad center at UHM had already begun enrolling students on summer 2020 programs abroad. Rai shared her concern that if international programming was suspended, it may become extremely difficult to resurrect it post-pandemic. “If we don’t keep the programs happening, they may not come back. Or it’ll take a long time. So, cutting, or completely shutting down programming, was not a good idea to begin with.”
But in order for this to work, all stakeholders needed to be informed. “I had to let the world know. My PR people and university PR people had to know exactly what we were doing, how we were doing it, and how many students were [in person] or online. And there was additional reporting on top of that, specific to Covid-19,” Rai recalled.
As well, there was frequent communication between Rai and UHM’s international partners. “I had to ensure students were safe, that [partner HEIs] had Covid protocols, and that they were taking care of [UHM students and faculty].”
Rai argued that the new pandemic-era procedures and programs were successful, largely in part to the strength of the pre-existing partnerships abroad. “Every one of them is a long-standing partner, so they know the University of Hawai’i Mãnoa Study Abroad Center and myself.”
“It really worked out because of the trust we had built over the years”
Another component Rai believes was a vital piece of the puzzle was the resident faculty directors who accompany each study abroad program. “The faculty members were there for the students. It really worked out because of the trust we had built over the years the relationships with [the RFDs.]”
A keystone to successful study abroad programs is risk management. However, Rai makes a clear distinction regarding this central element. “Risk management is about planning. There’s a big difference between risk management and risk averse. I think we’ve seen that that makes a big difference in decision-making with what institutions decided to do during the pandemic.”
She continued, “You really pay attention to risk management very carefully. Risk management doesn’t come from the top, it has to come from the bottom.” To support this bottom-up philosophy, all UHM students who study abroad receive a 12-hour training in risk management before departure.
Rai considers in-country relationships critical in international programming. “The relationships you develop over time are very valuable. For example, when borders closed in specific countries, we made the decision to not do some programming. It was conscientiously and collaboratively decided. Collaboration is key. Partners must be central in the decision-making.”
During the 2020/21 academic year, UHM sent 111 students abroad, enrolled 31 students in international online classes, and sent seven instructional and research faculty to teach and/or conduct research overseas.
Rai realises that, while she was not the only university to continue programming during the pandemic, many study abroad departments across the US severely limited or restricted students and faculty from participating in university-sanctioned international programs.
“If you shut down your international programs or study abroad programs, what does that message say?”
“Not everyone managed this risk. But what happens is, every single time something happens, if you shut down your international programs or study abroad programs, what does that message say?” Rai asked. She then asserted, “The message is that [international programming] is extraneous. It’s not central to the university programming. If globalisation is always at the center as a key priority for organisations, it will remain a core component and can never be perceived a merely an ‘add-on’.”
Through expertise, courage, determination, collaboration, and student, faculty, and partner agency, while simultaneously managing risk, the wheels of the UHM study abroad department kept turning during the pandemic. This has served to strengthen existing relationships and sends a message that international programming at UHM is, indeed, a core component, living up to the mission, vision, and founding principles of the UHM community.