The number of CU students studying abroad is back to pre-pandemic levels

On campus at the University of Colorado Boulder. Sept. 8, 2021.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
On campus at the University of Colorado Boulder. Sept. 8, 2021.

Sylvie Burnet-Jones remembers March 2020. CU Boulder had the largest number of students ever, more than 900, studying in countries around the world. But in a matter of days, the pandemic sent her and her staff scrambling to call them all back home.

“Our staff worked night and day with providers on site and in the U.S., first to support students to come back to the U.S. safely, then to make sure they would be able to complete their semester credits,” said Burnet-Jones, the director of Education Abroad at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Today, she is celebrating that the number of CU students studying around the world is back to pre-pandemic levels.

“This coming spring we’re going to have the highest number of students studying abroad ever,” Burnet-Jones said.

Thousands of students are studying abroad again, and learning valuable skills

The demand has bounced back to make CU’s study abroad program one of the largest in the country, ranking 15th.

CU is also ranked 10th nationally for institutions awarding credit for study abroad for 2021-22, up from 16th from the previous year, according to the new Open Doors Report, which surveys international exchange activity in the U.S. 

CU ranks fifth nationally for sending students abroad on semester-length programs, up from eighth in 2020-21.

After the pandemic, in the spring of 2021, just 73 students opted to study abroad. By that summer, interest had doubled.

About 4,500 Colorado students studied abroad in 2021-22, with almost 2,000 coming from CU Boulder. Statewide, that represents a 944 percent increase over the previous year.

Personal growth and development have always been central reasons why students go abroad. But increasingly, career development is another reason, Burnet-Jones said.

“Students who study abroad have to function in another system, they have to be resilient, they have to be quick on their feet, they have to adjust to different cultures, different ways of doing things, different ways of teaching.”

She said skills developed abroad translate into skills that employers recognize, such as working on diverse teams, adaptability and self-confidence.

Where are CU students going?

Interestingly, where students are going now is similar to study abroad destinations 20 or 25 years ago – western Europe. CU had been making great progress in encouraging students to try other countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia. But after the pandemic shut the world down, European academic institutions were the first to reopen.

“In 2021 into 2022, you could only go into western Europe,” she said. “Asia was completely shut down, Africa, Latin America as well. So (western Europe) was where everyone wanted to go and still wants to go.”

In 2021-22, Spain and Italy attracted the most students, followed by France, the U.K., and Germany.

CU is launching initiatives to bring attention to programs in other parts of the world.

“We have to rebuild that interest in those locations that are not so obvious but have amazing opportunities.”

Education Abroad is also working on initiatives to develop new scholarships and a focus on sustainable travel.

Increasing access to underrepresented students

CU has a strong tradition of studying abroad, but the focus now is on increasing access to underrepresented students, first-generation students, older students, veterans and others.

“We really want to reach students who don’t think about studying abroad because nobody has studied abroad in their lives,” she said. “(We want to) have this experience available to as many students as possible, even students who don’t think it’s for them because they think it’s out of reach.”

Pre-departure, the program advises students, gives guidance and health and safety oversight, helps with earning credits and provides scholarships. The Global Opportunity (GO) scholarship provides a variety of scholarships including $5,000 for studying abroad for a semester or $3,000 for a summer abroad, along with other support and mentorships.

International student numbers in Colorado also up

The Open Doors report also tallies the number of students from other countries who studied on Colorado’s campuses last year. The number of international students studying in Colorado was up 6 percent last year, with nearly 10,000 students contributing about $360 million to the state’s economy.

CU Boulder leads the pack with nearly 3,500 students, followed by Colorado State University, the University of Colorado Denver, and the Colorado School of Mines. CU’s number has steadily risen since 2021.

Nearly a third of international students studying in Colorado come from India, followed by China, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and South Korea.

China used to send the most students but the country, but just recently began participating again in international study and exchange since the pandemic.

This year’s Open Doors report coincides with International Education Week, designed to prepare Americans for a global environment.