With the first post-pandemic Study Service Term (SST) unit going strong in Ecuador, Goshen College plans for a full return to international study this year, with a new twist.

This spring and summer, traditional SST units will return to Indonesia and Senegal as well as Ecuador. Students will also participate in shorter, immersive experiences in Guatemala, India, London, Arizona and northern Indiana as part of a new alternative SST option. 

The group in Ecuador right now has six participants, but Jan Shetler, director of global engagement, said that, as concern around COVID-19 goes down, rosters for upcoming units have grown.

The unit going to Ecuador this spring has 16 participants, and the one over the summer is full at 23, with some students on a waiting list.  

“People are signing up,” Shetler said. “So that’s a good indication.”  

The success of the current Ecuador unit has no doubt helped to foster confidence, Shetler said. “In terms of COVID-19, we haven’t had any positive cases [in Ecuador] and function as normal.” 

Students in the group have been able to live with host families, take field trips and engage in other traditional SST activities. 

“There’s nothing that they’re like, ‘We can’t do that,’” Shetler said. “If they take precautions, they’re able to do what they want.”  

In fact, Ebtihal Abdelaziz, a senior math and physics double major who is currently in Ecuador said she doesn’t think COVID-19 has had much of an impact on her experience in the country. 

Ebithal rides a horse in Ecuador

“Most things are open and people [are] encouraged to wear masks a lot,” she said. But, she added, “I think COVID-19 has impacted the country a lot. Many businesses closed, unfortunately.”

Abdelaziz is currently fulfilling her service assignment in Salinas de Guaranda, which she described as “a cute town that has a big cooperative that makes meat, chocolate, salt, cheese and so many other things.” 

Her current job at the cooperative is to analyze their meat sales for the past years.  

“We have been really learning so much through this trip,” Abdelaziz said, “going to cool places, and meeting sweet people … I’m looking forward to all the cool things I will get to do for work or with friends here in Salinas.”

Shetler’s goal is for all students at Goshen to have an experience like Abdelaziz. 

That’s why the college is developing a new SST Alt program meant to “make it so everyone has some kind of immersive experience,” she said.  

Forty-three percent of the class that graduated in 2020 (before the pandemic took its toll on international travel) participated in international SST; the rest took SST Alt classes.  

On Oct. 28, the faculty voted to pass a proposal to revamp the SST Alt program. Instead of taking four courses chosen at random, students who chose not to participate in a full-semester unit will now take part in a four-part series of courses that follow a certain theme — for example, sustainability issues.  

Two of the classes will take place on campus, with the other two being immersive experiences, including May Term and summer courses both inside and outside of the US.  

The new program will have the “same learning goals, same outcomes that we have on SST,” Shetler said.  

On Wednesday, students shared in convocation about their experience on the Southwest Indigenous Perspectives Study Service Term this summer. In this pilot program, students lived and learned among the Hopi and Navajo nations in the southwestern United States. Their time was split between two three-week immersive experiences and two more traditional classes, all focused around the theme of Native American issues.    

As of this week, “we have the go-ahead now to really start putting together these threads of courses,” Shetler said, “and really start doing SST in a new way.”  

For Ben Zimmerman, a senior sustainability management major, international experiences were one of the main reasons he chose to come to GC.  

“This is my third year here and so far both of my international May Terms have been cancelled due to COVID-19,” he said. “Having these experiences cancelled was extremely disappointing, but I also understand and realize that many people were affected in way worse ways due to the pandemic.”  

Zimmerman is on the list for the Indonesia SST unit this spring, and looks forward to finally getting to take advantage of Goshen’s international opportunities. Still, he is nervous that the trip won’t happen as planned.  

At the moment, Indonesia is not offering the type of visas to Americans that the students will need to study and serve in the country.  

While Indonesia is now at a level 1 for Covid cases according to the CDC, the country saw a large spike in the summer, and it is only beginning to re-open its borders.  

In fact, both Indonesia and Senegal, where students will travel this spring and summer, are listed in the lowest category for COVID-19, while the US is at a level four.

Shetler has hope that Indonesia will open up to Americans soon. 

“There’s a lot of unknowns,” she said, “but we’re preparing the students as if they’re going to go there right away.”  

If they aren’t able to get visas in time, plan B is for the students to spend some time in an Indonesian community within the US before traveling to the country later in the semester.  

COVID-19 concerns aside, there is a lot Zimmerman looks forward to next spring. 

“Indonesia is a beautiful country with a rich and interesting history,” he said. “I am also very excited to try all the different foods and go surfing, as Indonesia is known for good surfing.”