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Bhutan: Learning from abridged experiences studying abroad

August 19, 2020
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LSA senior Kayleigh Crabb in Paro, Bhutan. Image credit: Personal ArchiveWhen the United States implemented on March 11 a 30-day travel ban from most European countries amid the untimely arrival of the novel coronavirus, many University of Michigan students spending their semesters abroad had their time cut short.

U-M followed up quickly with its March 12 announcement of the suspension of all study abroad programs effective immediately, asking about 700 students to return to the U.S. by March 20.

Kayleigh Crabb, an LSA senior and international studies major, was in Paro, Bhutan, and was forced to return home from her program due to the pandemic. During the seven weeks she was there, Crabb learned about environmental conservation by interviewing local residents, as well as conducting hands-on fieldwork such as camera trapping, aquatic macroinvertebrate sampling and tree coring.

“I was able to visit monasteries and interview people in different parts of the country about their environmental beliefs and activities, which helped me learn how spiritual beliefs are often key in conservation in Bhutan,” she said. “These experiences in Bhutan helped me to widen my perspective and learn more about environmental conservation.”

Crabb’s program faced an abrupt halt and experienced major changes even before the U.S. announced travel restrictions due to the pandemic. During her stay, the virus had already reached Bhutan.

On March 6, Crabb learned that an American had been diagnosed with coronavirus in the country. Her center promptly entered a two-week quarantine, and precautions to contain the virus began quickly. People began wearing masks, the normally open border with India had shut, school operations had suspended for at least two weeks, and flights into the country halted.

“We were only able to leave the center to go for walks, with few exceptions,” Crabb said. “Our coursework was expedited, and each day typically consisted of four or even five classes. While we were in quarantine at our center, the country of Bhutan quarantined itself from the rest of the world.”

Toward the end of her stay in Bhutan, Crabb recalled almost no tourists being left in the area. Struggling to find a flight home due to irregular flight patterns amid the spread of the virus, a staff member helped her find a very empty flight to Singapore just days before she was due to return home on March 20.

While grappling with the frustration of the uncertain semester that lay ahead, Crabb said she was able to learn a lot in the little time she spent in Bhutan. Being abroad during the initial outbreak of a global pandemic, thousands of miles from home, allowed her to witness how other countries handled the pandemic in its early stages, providing a learning opportunity few others were able to experience.

“Although my time in Bhutan was cut short, it was a valuable learning opportunity not only from the classwork completed and people I met but also in crisis response,” Crabb said. “It was also a reminder of how quickly plans can change, and how important it is to have an open mind and remain flexible even in the most unpredictable circumstances.”

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