When International Exchange Programs Went Remote

PROVO, Utah – Mar 05, 2021 – Like the rest of the world, the spread of the COVID-19 virus was a shock to many BYU students. With the help of faculty and staff from the Global Business Center (GBC) who facilitate study abroad experiences through the BYU Marriott School of Business, students studying abroad received help in returning to the United States. Three students who were participating in international exchange programs shared what it was like to face uncertainty and adapt to online learning during the global pandemic.


Marketing senior Mauren Fitzsimmons, from Highlands Ranch, Colorado, was participating in a direct-enrollment program at Bocconi University in Milan, Italy. Direct enrollment programs allow students to study at pre-approved foreign universities for a semester while immersing themselves in the international experience. While Fitzsimmons was living and studying in Italy, COVID-19 infection rates worsened. “The virus’ spread was accelerating, so my university ended up going fully remote,” she says.

On 14 March 2020, Fitzsimmons returned to the United States. “I was lucky to be able to leave as quickly as I did, because the airports were crowded the following week,” she says.

However, because Fitzsimmons returned home in the middle of her semester at Bocconi University, she had to learn to adapt to an international learning environment online. Her experience with the time changes alone was a helpful learning experience, she recalls. 

While she continued her studies online at Bocconi University from home, she also had the opportunity to learn about Italy’s tourism. “The pandemic affected the tourism sector in Italy in a major way, so it was interesting to be able to hear the experiences of members of the tourism industry and help them deal with issues in real time,” says Fitzsimmons. Despite having to learn online, she says “learning from the tourism sector during the pandemic was an interesting and relevant educational experience.”

Throughout her experiences of buying a last-minute plane ticket, flying home, and adapting to online international learning, Fitzsimmons says she appreciates the help she received from staff at both BYU and Bocconi University. “They helped me when I was trying to decide between staying and returning to the United States,” she says. “When I returned, the GBC faculty and staff helped me transition my credits and make things work. I’m so thankful for them.”


More than nine thousand miles away from Milan, another BYU student was participating in an international study program in South America. Sam Snell, a senior from Pocatello, Idaho, who is double-majoring in Spanish and Portuguese, was participating in a direct-enrollment program at Fundação Getúlio Vargas’ (FGV) School of Business Administration in São Paulo.

Before he was instructed to return to the United States, Snell received an email from his father with instructions about what to do in case of a pandemic. After reading his father’s advice, Snell stocked up on food and toilet paper. Upon returning to his apartment in Brazil with the food storage items, he was scolded by his roommates, who thought he was crazy for buying so much. “They were actually kind of mad,” he recalls. “They said, ‘Why didn’t you consult us about this?’ I said, ‘Because I don’t want to be stuck without toilet paper.’”

After emailing the GBC with an early inquiry about how to respond to the spreading virus, Snell received instructions from Jonathon Wood, managing director at the GBC, to return to the United States as soon as possible. On the day he had originally planned to relax on a nearby beach, Snell was on a plane headed back to the United States.

Snell, his teachers, and his classmates found a way to continue classes while about six thousand miles apart. “My professors were good about having the material online,” he says. “FGV is a high-quality school that BYU has fantastic connections with.”


Unlike Fitzsimmons and Snell, McKay Woodwell and his wife decided to remain abroad and finish his program. Woodwell, a junior from Bountiful, Utah, studying global supply chain was participating in the direct-enrollment program at the University of Alcalá in Alcalá de Henares, in Madrid.

For Woodwell, school was canceled at the beginning of March 2020. But instead of returning home, he and his wife decided to stay in Spain, partially because the cost of airline tickets was so high and also because the COVID-19 case numbers in the United States were about the same as Europe’s. Because the Woodwells lived outside the city where the case count was relatively low, they felt safer. And they weren’t the only students who decided to stay. “There were other students with us who were good friends,” says McKay. “We were each other’s support network.”

Though Woodwell and his wife eventually returned to the United States in May 2020, they appreciated the time they had in Madrid to learn more about Spanish culture.

“Because I had never been to Spain before, I learned a lot about the culture—especially about the business class,” says Woodwell. “If I ever worked in Spain as part of my future career, I would now know some of the key cultural differences between Spain and the United States, for instance, how much the Spanish value interpersonal connections.”

Despite the challenges they faced, Fitzsimmons, Snell, and the Woodwells were able to adapt and make the most of their international learning experiences. Though the global pandemic cut travel plans short, all three students said they enjoyed the short time they spent abroad. 

Snell says that he hopes more people will take advantage of the international study opportunities BYU’s GBC offers after the pandemic is over. “I think more people would be interested in international study opportunities if they knew more about them,” says Snell. “International exchange programs are good experiences to add to your résumé because students are immersed in foreign cultures at schools around the world.”

Mauren Fitzsimmons and three girls in her program pose for a photo in locker room during a San Siro Stadium tour.
While studying in Italy, Mauren Fitzsimmons (left) had the opportunity to tour the San Siro Stadium with other students in her international study program. Photo courtesy of Mauren Fitzsimmons.
Sam Snell holding a cat while standing next to his two roommates
While Sam Snell (left) lived in Brazil, he stayed with roommates who became good friends. Photo courtesy of Sam Snell.
McKay Woodwell and his wife Sydney Woodwell hold food that they bought while in Spain
McKay Woodwell and his wife Sydney enjoyed trying new foods while living in Spain. Photo courtesy of McKay Woodwell.

Media Contact: Chad Little (801) 422-1512
Writer: Rebecca Nissen