“Live in the moment and enjoy the experience”
A recent graduate shares what she learned from studying abroad during the pandemic
May 2021 was a whirlwind for Emma Mulhern. On May 15, the Carlson School of Management senior got off a plane from Toledo, Spain, after studying there for five months. Two days later, she graduated. “I’m readjusting to everything again,” she says.
And not just the time difference. The changing rules around COVID-19 also have proved challenging. When she left Spain, for instance, masks were required indoors and outdoors. By the time she got home, Minnesota had just lifted its mask mandate.
Mulhern, who double majored in international business and supply chain and operations management, was one of the first 28 students from the University of Minnesota to study abroad since the spring of 2020, when the U’s Learning Abroad Center suspended all programs.
The U of M was one of a handful of U.S. colleges and universities to resume study abroad programs this spring, sending students to Spain, France, and Denmark. Learning Abroad Center officials say plans for summer and fall will depend on countries’ COVID status and travel restrictions.
Four years in the making
Mulhern had been aiming to study abroad since her first year at the U of M, when she learned about the Katherine Sullivan Scholarship, which would allow her to spend her final year in another country. But the pandemic changed her plans.
Although she was unable to go overseas during the fall 2020 semester, she was notified in December that she could spend the spring semester at the Fundación Ortega-Marañón, a study center in Toledo, Spain. “I’m interested in working in international supply chain management,” she says. “Getting to know the language, the culture, getting to interact with people gives that broad perspective and understanding of the world.”
Mulhern says the eight students in her program lived together in a dorm, rather than with host families. Classes were taught in person, masked and socially distanced. At first, restaurants, museums, and other public gathering spots were closed, then began to open on a limited basis. “You couldn’t go off campus to do extracurricular activities like join a sports club or take a dance class,” she says. Traveling outside the province of Toledo was prohibited, too, although Mulhern eventually got to Madrid as part of her studies.
In addition to her studies, Mulhern interned at a local school, where she worked with middle school students taking bilingual classes. And she and the other students were matched with local residents with whom they practiced their language skills. “We got to know those Spaniards and their friends and got out into the community that way,” she says.
Rolling with change
In addition to becoming more proficient in Spanish and studying Spanish work culture, she says the biggest lesson she learned was about resilience. “I realized I don’t need to know what’s going to happen tomorrow, and that it’s going to be OK. I learned that I need to adapt and keep moving forward,” she says.
Mulhern says having the Katherine Sullivan Scholarship, the James L. and Eileen Murphy Global Study Abroad Scholarship, and other support “allowed me to live in the moment and enjoy the experience and know that things are taken care of,” she says.
Mulhern’s traveling days aren’t over. In April, she received a Fulbright Award, which she’ll use to spend the next two years in Finland, where she spent a year as an exchange student in high school. She plans to earn a master’s in supply chain management from Lappeenranta-Lahti University of Technology. “I loved Finland and wanted to go back,” she says. “This gives me the opportunity to do that.”
Kim Kiser is editor of Legacy magazine.