The coastline of Sorrento, Italy.

Study abroad — from home

When the pandemic suspended international travel — and student Erin McCoy’s study abroad trip to Italy — VCU’s Global Education Office helped her identify a virtual opportunity instead.

The coastline of Sorrento, Italy. (Courtesy of Stephanie Tignor)
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Erin McCoy, a senior at Virginia Commonwealth University, was looking forward to studying in Italy when her study abroad program was put on pause because of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time, she had just applied for a scholarship through the U.S. Department of State’s Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program, which provides study abroad funding for college students who receive federal Pell Grants.

“They notified me that I did receive the scholarship in July 2020, but I didn’t know if I was going to get to use it because everything was delayed,” said McCoy, a health, physical education and exercise science major in the College of Humanities and Sciences. “The latest I could use it was winter 2021, and that wasn’t going to work with my senior [year] schedule.”

With the help of VCU’s Global Education Office, McCoy ultimately was able to complete the internship virtually through Sant’Anna Institute in the coastal town of Sorrento, Italy. The Global Education Office has been working with Sant’Anna’s summer program for five years. 

“We usually send a couple of faculty members to Sant’Anna so students can take a class and also have an internship,” said Stephanie Tignor, director of Education Abroad in the Global Education Office. “It’s a small, unique program. It gives VCU students the opportunity to study in a different environment from what they have here.”

In McCoy’s virtual five-week summer internship, she worked with Sant’Anna to develop an outreach plan for the Association for the Integration of Women, an Italian organization that supports migrant women in Modena, Italy.

“The president of the organization is American and an alum of Sant’Anna. It was cool to work with her because the students studying abroad have to deal with language barriers,” McCoy said.

woman wearing a mask at a culinary class
The Association for the Integration of Women helps refugee women by training them to be chefs and cooks. (Courtesy of the Association for the Integration of Women)

The Association for the Integration of Women helps refugee women by training them to be chefs and cooks. During McCoy’s internship, she worked on trying to find places that would employ the women. 

“I did a lot of research and made some things for social media,” she said. “I also made a three-page informational flyer to send to future employers.”

McCoy participated in weekly meetings with the head teacher from Sant’Anna and also with the supervisor of the association.

“We would do a lot of independent work. We would meet virtually at the end of the week for any big projects,” said McCoy, noting the association is starting a restaurant and using some of the graphics that she created. 

The virtual internship gives students the opportunity to grow an international network and engage with people in another country, Tignor said.

“When the pandemic hit, a lot of institutions had to be innovative and change course to be able to offer students something else,” Tignor said. “Virtual internships are an exciting newer type of global learning experience available to VCU students that was not available before the pandemic.” 

Virtual internships were a “positive development of the pandemic and it’s something that will outlast the pandemic,” Tignor said. “They’re here to stay.” 

McCoy’s internship helped her figure out the kind of health care provider she wants to be in the future.

“It was a great experience,” said McCoy, who wants to use her degree to help people in disadvantaged communities around the world. “It has motivated me to find something I could do and also travel abroad. If anything, it has really inspired me.”

Erin McCoy received the Gilman-McCain award — a scholarship within the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program named after the late Sen. John S. McCain and awarded to child dependents of active duty service members to study or intern abroad. McCoy and other applicants work with Education Abroad staff in VCU’s Global Education Office to apply for the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship. Contact the Global Education Office at

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story stated that the Sant’Anna Institute helps refugee women by training them to be chefs and cooks. The Association for the Integration of Women is the organization that provides the training. The story has been updated.