Ryerson permits in-person winter exchanges despite travel advisory

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By Alethea Ng

Ryerson’s in-person exchange programs are scheduled to continue despite the Canadian federal government’s ongoing travel advisory, which warns against “non-essential travel.” 

The advisory came into effect on Dec. 15, citing the “risk of the Omicron variant that causes COVID-19” as the reason for caution. 

Some universities, like the University of Toronto and Western University, have suspended their international travel programs, including their study abroad or exchange programs.

The school’s Safety Abroad web page links to the travel advisory, stating that although the university’s international travel programs are not formally suspended, they urge students, staff and faculty to adhere to the government’s advisory. 

“There were definitely risks academically and financially with the uncertainty of the situation”

Aihnoa Aysan, a third-year professional communications student who’s been aiming to do a semester abroad since she was in high school, said she welcomed the news that Ryerson would not suspend international travel. 

Aysan is currently in Belgium, where she’ll be spending the next six months on exchange at the Artevelde University of Applied Sciences. 

Aysan applied to go on exchange in the winter 2021 semester, despite knowing cancellation was a possibility. When the university called off international travel in September due to the travel advisory that was in place at the time, she said it was “devastating news.” 

When the travel advisory ended near the end of October 2021, the university reinstated their in-person winter exchange programs. But as Canada’s COVID-19 cases spiked due to the Omicron variant in December and Global Affairs Canada issued another advisory, Aysan was unsure whether the program would be cancelled again.

“There were definitely risks academically and financially with the uncertainty of the situation,” she said. “The closer it got, it was kind of like, ‘Can they even call it off at this point?’”

According to a spokesperson for the university, Ryerson International—which is responsible for international travel and exchanges—said they made the decision to continue their travel programs after “comprehensive engagement” with students who registered for a winter exchange. The Global Learning team ensured students understood the changing circumstances in these engagements. 

Ryerson International added that their Global Learning team, along with staff from each student’s faculty, will remain in contact with students participating in an exchange semester to provide resources and updates. 

A spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada, the government department that is responsible for international travel and issues travel advisories, said they cannot comment on how specific academic institutions approach international travel. 

However, they said the decision to travel abroad for academic purposes is the “sole responsibility of the individual” and they encouraged travelers to heed travel advisories and avoid non-essential travel.

“Wait until the summer and by then we should know what’s happening”

Tim Sly, an epidemiologist and professor at the Ryerson School of Occupational and Public Health, said he doesn’t recommend short-term travel at this point, given the risks of catching COVID-19 during international travel. 

“Wait until the summer and by then we should know what’s happening,” Sly said. 

International exchanges, where students will be staying in their host countries for months, are “a slightly different kettle of fish” according to Sly, with different circumstances and unforeseeable risks. 

Sly said if Ryerson’s decision is based on high COVID-19 immunity levels in host countries, then it’s “probably a good decision.”

Julia Gerstein, a third-year fashion design student who’s planning to go to Berlin on exchange this March, said she’s somewhat worried about the risks of travelling internationally during the pandemic. At this point in the pandemic however, she feels she understands how to protect herself as best she can by following safety guidelines.

Gerstein said she’s excited to finally be going on exchange despite the uncertainty and risks, no matter what her semester in Berlin looks like. 

“Even if things go badly, and for whatever reason I have to make an emergency return to Canada,” she said, “at least I’ll be able to say I tried.”

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