SST in a pandemic year: Challenges and opportunities

by Jan Bender Shetler

DUE TO THE PANDEMIC, we have not sent students abroad at all in 2020-2021. Students were disappointed but not surprised. Some kept hoping for the best and went through three cancellations. Meanwhile, we worked hard to help our seniors finish their SST requirements in creative ways.

In 2021-22, Lord willing, we’ll be going to Ecuador, Indonesia and Senegal. A small group will leave for Ecuador in the fall, followed by full cohorts in the spring and summer. We were sorry to cancel the fall 2021 China SST unit near the end of this school year due to China’s continuing ban on international student visas. We are constantly monitoring conditions and communicating with our partners in our host countries.

The pandemic year has been one of disappointments but also of opportunities to try new things. It enabled us to experiment with domestic SST units, virtual study abroad and an array of short-term SST courses in the U.S. It also motivated students to try these alternatives.


We developed two semester-long domestic SST units. Dreams and Journeys: Immigrants and Refugees based in Goshen was not able to run, but our Native American SST with six weeks on Navajo and Hopi reservations is currently in process.  Fortunately, before COVID-19 hit, we were already developing shorter term courses that offered hands-on intercultural community-engaged learning in order to serve students who were not able to go abroad or stay abroad a full semester. Our creative faculty rose to the challenge when we cancelled courses that would have traveled abroad in May term 2021.

Jerrell Ross Richer (economics) rethought his course on Hiking the Inca Trail: Ecotourism in Peru and launched Indigenous Economies instead. Students were based on campus but made regional camping trips each week to speak with Miami and Potawatomi leaders.

Philipp Gollner’s (history) class visiting transnational communities regionally was not able to visit Chicago as planned but took in communities closer to Goshen, including the Amish in Shipshewana and the Irish in South Bend.

Kendra Yoder’s (sociology) Environmental Disaster and Response course went to Marianna, Florida. They volunteered on a construction site with Mennonite Disaster Service in a community that is still rebuilding after Hurricane Michael, learning about disaster response from community partners. We were pleased that this course attracted commuter students who had not had the opportunity to live with a group of peers and travel outside their region. Nearly all reported that learning construction skills boosted their self-confidence.“The first day on the work site was one I will never forget,” Rosabel Evangelista Rios wrote on the group’s blog. “Just in the span of eight hours, I learned…how to sand down the floors…put up siding and…paint so no paint marks would be visible.”


Virtual study abroad became an important strategy for many universities during this year of COVID-19. We were able to partner with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) for a year-long Global Health Virtual Practicum taught by MCC Global Health Coordinator Paul Shetler Fast. The students connected with MCC partnersaround the world to assist in their work of assessing and monitoring health projects. The MCC students in the class came from many countries, providing another level of cross-cultural encounters. This will become an annual spring course in the coming year and an opportunity for real-world learning without travel.


We have made some progress in addressing the issue of the declining numbers of students opting for the SST semester abroad. Since the 2018-19 SST Anniversary Year, we have proposed major curriculum changes that will allow all our students to achieve the same learning goals for SST in different formats, in the US as well as abroad.

We are concerned that our students of color, Latinx, financially stressed and first generation college students have not taken advantage of SST semesters abroad at the same level as their white, middle class counterparts. Using our own data and attending a number of workshops on the topic, we were able to write and were awarded two federal grants this year to work toward equity and inclusion in study abroad.


This year, we started the Global Citizen Ambassadors program and had seven amazing students from three continents who gave us advice, sat at information tables, talked to students, created videos and supported the program.

In 2021-22, we plan to hire several ambassadors who can serve as peer mentors for underrepresented students. By next year, we hope to have some solid data on our achievements in increasing the diversity of students going abroad.

We couldn’t have done all of this without your support, good wishes and donations. Goshen College remains committed to providing a global education for all students to ensure that they will be ready for careers that put a premium on cultural competence, adaptability, global perspectives and civic responsibility.


Dr. Jan Bender Shetler directs Goshen College’s Global Engagement Office. Previously, she taught world history at Goshen College. 

Jan has led SST units in Ethiopia, Tanzania and Senegal and conducted extensive oral history research in the Mara region of Tanzania. She recently received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to preserve this research in a Mara Cultural Heritage Digital Library so that Tanzanians and others worldwide can access it.