Pandemic gives IE community opportunity to demonstrate to students adaptability and flexibility, says Mercer’s Rebekah Anaya

Rebekah Anaya came to Mercer University in August 2019 as the study abroad and Peace Corps Prep coordinator. For the first six months, she says, “I was getting my feet wet,” but then she went on to send a record number of students (75) on faculty-led, spring break study abroad programs. She also implemented Coffee & Culture, which brought international and domestic students together to learn from one another.

Then COVID-19 hit.

“It’s been an interesting couple of years,” says Rebekah, who was promoted to associate director of Mercer University study abroad in June 2021. “Before the pandemic, I was really enjoying it. Things were going well. We had just opened a new scholarship for students to study abroad. I was really excited about it. I had all these programs set up.”

Mercer University study abroad students in Spain.

When the pandemic hit in spring 2020, Rebekah and her Mercer study abroad colleagues figured everything would be back to normal by summer. They had a record number of students signed up for summer faculty-led study abroad programs, too. But when the virus raged on, summer programs were canceled.

“It was heartbreaking to have to cancel the programs—and it continued to be heartbreaking to get students excited about going abroad only to cancel again,” Rebekah says.

With no end in sight to the pandemic, Rebekah knew it was time to get creative to keep students interested in Mercer study abroad. She continued Coffee & Culture but made it a virtual event. She helped faculty members who wanted to create virtual study abroad opportunities. She also started a virtual world tour on Mercer’s social media platforms to keep students, who were now back home, engaged.

“I love making things happen, but not all the ideas are my own,” she says. “I love to get ideas from others and run with them.”

For the virtual world tour on social media, Rebekah chose a different part of the world each week for six weeks and then, each day, focused on a different country within that area. She posted photos, fun facts and trivia, and 3-D virtual tours from YouTube. She also asked students to share photos if they had been to that particular country.

When a faculty member wanted to expand Mercer’s long-running Philosophy and Art in Greece program to include community members and Mercer alumni, Rebekah helped make that happen by creating the Lifelong Learner Program. For a small fee, non-students can virtually study abroad in Greece and receive the same materials Mercer students do. They can even turn in assignments if they want to, she adds.

“We had 17 lifelong learners join that one program,” Rebekah says. “I think it was so successful because it was that first summer of COVID when no one could really travel anywhere yet, but everyone was still eager to explore the world.”

A group shot of the Global Leader Scholarship recipients from Mercer University.

Having alumni and other community members involved in the program has been beneficial to Mercer undergraduate students, she believes.

“It gives the students a different perspective when there’s someone else in the program who is not in the same phase of life that they are in, who comes to it with different experiences,” she says. “It’s also a good way for them to network. A lot of them are going to be looking for jobs later on and it’s a good way for them to make connections. It’s also a great way for them to stay involved with the university.”

During her short tenure, Rebekah was able to get increased scholarships for Mercer University study abroad, but unfortunately there aren’t scholarships available for the Lifelong Learner Program. With the hope for in-person study abroad opportunities this summer, several graduating seniors who didn’t get the chance to study abroad will participate as alumni. Even though there aren’t scholarships, they’re grateful for the opportunity to still have a chance to study abroad, Rebekah says.

Rebekah, who has traveled, worked, and studied in 26 countries on six continents, wants all students at Mercer to participate in study abroad—not just those who can pay out of pocket. That’s why she’s worked to get more scholarships available.

Rebekah visiting the historical city of Nizwa, Oman.

All of her experiences contribute to the passion for global experiences she brings to Mercer, where she is seeing a record number of students planning to study abroad this spring. Mercer also had a record number of applicants—double the number of spots available, Rebekah notes.

“All of the marketing and recruiting efforts that we did didn’t go to waste,” she says. “The students who were supposed to study abroad last year are eager to study abroad this year and the students we recruited this year were excited to study abroad. Between the two, our numbers have just skyrocketed.”

While there weren’t cuts to Mercer study abroad, staff did move on, making it challenging for Rebekah to handle the workload. But she persevered and is even looking to get a faculty-led consortium with AIFS off the ground where Mercer University freshmen and sophomores could spend their spring semester in London.

Rebekah participated in the NAFSA Academy last year and is taking advantage of any free virtual professional development opportunities she can get her hands on. That’s where she’s gotten many of her ideas, she says.

“It was really helpful to just listen to what other people were doing and figure out how I could take some of those ideas and implement them or edit them to fit our university.”

As for her own advice to her colleagues in the international education community? “Don’t give up. Reach out for help if you need it. Talk to others to see what they’re doing,” she says.

“We preach all the time that study abroad is a great way to learn to be adaptable and flexible, so it’s a great way to demonstrate that in our own jobs.”

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Via TRM believes global experiences will change our world. That’s why we created traveler relationship management and travel risk management software, which helps universities and study abroad program providers to empower global experiences. With this blog, we’re looking to feature people who, like Rebekah, share Via’s “why.” If that’s you or one of your colleagues, tell us more. We might just feature you here!

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