COVID-19, climate change, and the uncertain future of SST

Every semester since 1968, Goshen College students have traveled across the globe to participate in the Study Service Term program in 25 different countries. The SST program, with over 8,000 alumni, is a key part of Goshen College’s identity. 

Although the program has evolved over its lifetime, certain tenets of the experience have remained the same. Students travel to a low-income country for a semester, spend half the time in one location studying the language and culture, and spend the rest of the time in another location doing service while usually living with low-income host families. 

This year however, SST is looking a little different, with all 2020 units either cut short or canceled due to the spread of COVID-19, a respiratory virus that originated in Wuhan, China. The spring 2020 Tanzania unit left 17 days early, removed suddenly from their service placements to traverse across the globe before all international borders closed. The Ecuador unit, only the second in GC history, also evacuated the country on March 22 after heavy lobbying done by congressional representatives succeeded in getting a chartered flight back to the United States. 

Not only were the spring SST units terminated early, but all international May Term courses and summer SST units were canceled as well, due to CDC recommendations to restrict all non-essential travel. The courses canceled include May Term trips to Nepal, Ecuador, Spain and SST units in Ecuador and Senegal. The fall SST units in China and Ecuador were also canceled. 

The drastic decrease in worldwide travel has had a positive impact on air pollution. Researchers at Columbia University in New York found that carbon monoxide emissions decreased by over 50 percent in just one week, according to a New York Times article published on March 22. 

When confronted with the positive impact canceling travel plans has on carbon emissions, the environmental impact of SST is highlighted. Goshen College’s international flights canceled by the COVID-19 pandemic add up to approximately 19,400 air miles, which equates to roughly 1,033,415 pounds of CO2 emissions, for just one semester. These numbers grow exponentially for every year of SST and international trips. 

Jan Shetler, director of international education, acknowledges the environmental impact of SST.

“Going forward we should seriously evaluate what travel is still necessary,” she said. “The international education department is looking at this issue for SST travel.” 

Due to connections made by economics professor Jerrel Richer with the Cofan people of Ecuador, some work is already being done to make up for the emissions released by travel, said Shetler. 

“We already give a portion of our Ecuador budget to the Cofan Survival Fund as a carbon onset because of their protection of a large portion of forest in the Amazon basin, but we want to quantify this and figure out how to make sure that our travel does not adversely affect the environment,” she said.

Carbon onsets could be a solution to this issue, according to senior history major Jace Longenecker. Longenecker’s speech, “Anabaptist History and Climate Change” given at the C.Henry Smith Oratorical Contest explained that carbon onsets are “based on a higher estimate for the cost of carbon than traditional offsets.” 

Longenecker explained that similar to the partnership Goshen College has with the Cofan people in Ecuador, carbon onsets “allow us to direct funds right into the hands of organizations we trust to use the money well.” 

Shetler is also a supporter of carbon onsets, and wants to increase them; however, she pointed out that the college is in a tight spot financially, especially after COVID-19. 

“If we contribute money for carbon onsetting we have to cut budgets in other places,” she said. “The effects of COVID-19 have left Goshen College with significant financial challenges.  So we have to think about creative ways to find that money for carbon offsetting,”

COVID-19 is also highlighting how easily plans can be ruined by natural forces outside of human control, a small preview of what our future with climate change might bring. Natural disasters, contagious diseases, and violent conflicts over resources will become more frequent, and the sudden cancelation of SST units might become the new norm. 

“In the context of SST, the countries who host our students are likely to be among those most severely impacted by the climate crisis in the coming decades,” said Longenecker, reflecting once again on the importance of carbon onsets. 

The bottom line is that while carbon on-sets may make our international programs more expensive, they are the best way to account for the true cost of those programs on the earth’s ecosystems,” said Longenecker. “By not onsetting our carbon emissions we are profiting from a market flaw that forces people in vulnerable communities to shoulder the burden of our programs.” 

As local and global contexts change, those in the international education department are weathering the storm, hoping to adapt the program into something that is more accessible to low-income students and more environmentally friendly. Shetler still feels that the outcomes of SST impact the world in a greater way than any negative financial or environmental impacts, especially in a world full of xenophobia and fear. 

“While we can learn a lot about other people, cultures and places in books, we cannot replace the learning that comes from entering into the space of a very different worldview and having our assumptions challenged on a daily basis. SST, in all of the new forms that it will take, remains our best foundation for that work as we adjust to new global realities.”

Although the future of SST will surely be different in the wake of climate change, Shetler has no doubt that the program will remain central to the identity of Goshen College. 

“Now more than ever the lessons of SST are critical to our development as human beings who can bridge differences.”

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Written by Greta Klassen, Copy Desk Chief

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