The rapid global spread of COVID-19 has demonstrated that no matter how successful America is at fighting this pandemic here at home, we will never stop this threat unless we’re also fighting it around the world. In this series of issue briefs, the USGLC takes an in-depth look at the global response and COVID-19’s impacts on vulnerable populations, global development and diplomacy, and the future of U.S. global leadership. Read more from our series here.

At the outset of the pandemic, overseas travel was discouraged, study abroad programs abruptly ended, Peace Corps volunteers were evacuated, and cultural exchanges stopped for thousands of Americans and international students in the United States. COVID-19’s impact on exchange programs continues to disrupt the American economy, higher education, and public diplomacy efforts, though many programs are making progress toward a return to operations.

The decline of international students due to the COVID-19 pandemic has had dramatic economic consequences. As a global leader in higher education, the United States has historically accepted more than one million international students into its colleges and universities annually. This inbound exchange annually accounted for about $45 billion in economic activity before the pandemic.

As the U.S. navigates the pandemic and its variants, higher education institutions are already experiencing a strong recovery in international exchange programs. In November 2021, the Institute of International Education (IIE) released the following survey findings on the future of international educational exchange:

  • Higher education institutions reported a 68% increase in the number of new international students enrolling for the first time at a U.S. institution, a surge from the 46% decline reported in Fall 2020.
  • Institutions are also optimistic about the return of study abroad programs, with 50% of institutions anticipating an increase in study abroad numbers in the 2021-2022 academic year.

Local study abroad partners have already made adjustments for COVID-19 including arrival quarantines, socially distanced and hybrid classrooms, mandatory mask wearing and readily-available hand sanitizer, and some universities and programs have implemented vaccine requirements.

The Peace Corps is beginning its return to host countries. In March 2022, Peace Corps CEO Carol Spahn announced that the Agency is inviting volunteers to serve in 24 countries that have met rigorous health, security, and safety standards.

The Agency is adapting programs to meet the needs of a post-pandemic world. Volunteers will engage in literacy work to help local schools recover following COVID-19 shutdowns and disruptions to the education system.

The COVID-19 pandemic was the first time in the Peace Corps’ history in which all volunteers were called back from their service. In a letter to all 7,330 American Peace Corps volunteers on March 15th, 2020, the Peace Corps announced a temporary suspension of all Peace Corps operations globally, and that volunteers would be evacuated from all 61 operational countries back to the United States as quickly as possible.

  • Emergency evacuations in the Peace Corps are not common — generally reserved only for situations where there are serious, credible threats to volunteers in a host country, like civil war, kidnappings, and anti-American violence, among others.
  • Evacuated volunteers have the option to apply for the Peace Corps again and potentially return to their previous communities.
  • While all Peace Corps programs were put on hold, the agency continued to accept applications for assignments starting in early 2022.

While a return to pre-pandemic levels of international exchange programs will not be immediate, U.S. higher education institutions, the Department of State, the Peace Corps, and other institutions and programs are beginning safe returns to in-person programming at home and abroad.

Last updated March 2022

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