As the COVID-19 pandemic has taken over the globe, its impact has been far reaching, displacing not only those who live on campus, but also the 120 Wesleyan students studying abroad this semester. On March 12, one day after the University decided to suspend classes, the Office of Study Abroad followed suit and suspended all programs abroad, creating severe hardship for every single student studying abroad.
Some study abroad programs had already been suspended prior to this announcement. The Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) China program was suspended before the semester began, the International Studies Abroad (ISA) program in South Korea was suspended on February 25, and the Eastern College Consortium (ECCO) in Bologna, Italy, was suspended on February 28. As both Wesleyan and pre-approved programs, such as the Danish Institute for Study Abroad (DIS), School for International Training (SIT), and CIEE, made the decision to shutter their doors, students scrambled to find flights home on short notice in the midst of chaos, struggling to get back to the United States before borders were closed. Many students were left to fend for themselves, receiving little guidance from their sponsored programs.
Among one of the first programs to close was ECCO, which is located in Bologna, Italy, and brings together students from Wesleyan University, Vassar College, and Wellesley College to study at the University of Bologna. The decision to close came after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) raised the travel advisory in Italy to a Level 3, which mandates that people avoid non-essential travel to the country. The students found out that their program had been suspended, a joint decision made by all three schools involved, through an email that was sent to them overnight.
“It was late at night for [the students], so they might’ve not been seeing their email, we sent a message through our online system,” Associate Director of Study Abroad Emily Gorlewski said. “We then sent an email to their emergency contact, and we got nervous about that, because the parents might know before the students knew…. I wrote in that email to the parents, ‘Hey, your student might not be aware of this, as he or she may be sleeping.’ The timing of it was awkward.”
The next morning, students on the Bologna program met with their program director, Marco Aresu, who gave them their itineraries for a flight to John F. Kennedy Airport (JFK) in New York that same weekend.
“I was shocked,” Molly Scotti ’22, a student studying abroad in Bologna through ECCO, wrote in an email to The Argus. “I didn’t think it would actually get that far. We left within a little over 24 hours of getting the news. Even at the airport it didn’t feel real.”
Like many other campuses across the world, the students on the Bologna program were told that they would complete their semester through remote learning methods.
“The classes are still in Italian and my professors have been very understanding, but obviously it’s still not the same.” Scotti said.
About a week later, on March 11, President Trump announced a travel ban on all non-essential travel from Europe, that went into effect March 13 at midnight. Although it was later clarified that this only pertained to non U.S. citizens, it sent many students studying abroad in Europe into a panic.
“It was like 2 in the morning in Spain, and immediately it felt like an insane wave of panic came over everyone in my program and a lot of my friends back in the US,” Sam Lao ’22, who was studying abroad on the Vassar-Wesleyan Madrid Program, wrote in an email to The Argus. “I was getting calls from my parents, and my phone was blowing up with people wondering what I was going to do.”
Other students abroad cited similar experiences as Lao.
“We didn’t have a lot of time to prepare to go home: just two days between hearing the news and leaving, and we still had class on one of those days, so between packing and getting in our last experiences in Paris it was sort of a mad dash,” Tracy Cooper ’21, who was studying in Paris through the Vassar-Wesleyan Paris Program, wrote in an email to The Argus.
Rachel Pomeranz ’21, who was on the Vassar-Wesleyan Madrid Program, echoed Cooper’s sentiments.
“I woke up on Thursday morning to messages and emails saying that the program was canceled and we needed to figure out our flights home,” Pomeranz wrote in an email to The Argus. “I got a flight for the next day, leaving the day before the ban started. I spent the day saying very sad and hurried goodbyes to my host family and friends.”
In order to get home before the travel ban went into effect, many students bought last-minute plane tickets, which came at a high cost—both emotionally and financially.
“I had a few friends who had bought $1,000 tickets for 8 a.m., 9 a.m. the next day, that Friday,” Jack Leger ‘21, who was also on the Vassar-Wesleyan Madrid Program, said. “I’ve heard people paying up to $3k.”
While some programs reimbursed students for a portion, if not the full cost of their last-minute travel plans, some students had to wait until flights became more affordable.
“We were asked to leave Denmark before 03/19 and as soon as possible,” Jack Wang ’21, who was studying in Copenhagen at DIS, wrote in an email to The Argus. “It was very difficult to get a feasible ticket because flight options were extremely limited and expensive due to travel restrictions imposed by many countries. I had to wait a few days for my flight and seeing new travel restrictions and flight cancellations frequently was not pleasant at all.”
For some, getting on a flight back home was just half the battle. Many encountered obstacles at the airport and on planes.
“I got a flight and it went through Paris, and that was less than ideal,” Serena Chow ’21, who was studying in St. Andrews, Scotland, through IFSA-Butler, said. “I went from Edinburgh to Paris, and it was so tense, so many people were wearing masks. I was always [afraid] to put on a mask because I had heard so many accounts of when Asian people had decided to wear a face mask, they just became an immediate target for a lot of verbal assaults and physical attacks. When I was at my terminal in Paris I definitely saw people taking videos of me a couple times, because I was the only Asian person at my terminal wearing a mask. That was a little uncomfortable…. It was weird, and I didn’t understand it because so many people were already wearing masks in the airport, but there was still that very blatant sign of xenophobia that was still going on.”
Wang also had quite an uncomfortable time at the airport and on the plane.
“My flight from Copenhagen to Singapore was half empty, and the flight attendants never took their masks off,” Wang wrote. “All passengers had to have their temperature and contact information taken before boarding my next flight to Shanghai. Some people never drank or ate because they never took their masks off. After we landed, I had to wait on the plane for over 3 hours before getting off because people who came from high risk countries were being thoroughly inspected by medical officials first. “
Once their planes had landed safely, there was still extra screening, mandated by the local government.
“I had to wait another 2 hours to be documented since Denmark just got listed as a high risk country.” Wang recalled. “I was allowed to self-quarantine for 14 days, but many people were sent to designated hotels for even stricter quarantine.”
Lizzie Edwards ’21, a student studying in Amman, Jordan, with SIT Jordan, had a different experience at the airport.
“At the Amman airport, it took me three hours to get through security,” Edwards wrote in an email to The Argus. “The airport was full of study abroad students and tourists…. We were very nervous the entire time getting to Dubai because in the Amman airport, people from other study abroad programs told us that other countries in the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia, were shutting down their airports with no notice. In Dubai, we underwent thermal testing and many levels of security checks. When I landed in JFK, I was surprised that customs did not ask me or anyone else questions about where we had been or whether we were experiencing symptoms. I handed customs health forms we filled out in Dubai, but the customs officials didn’t even look at them. I find this extremely worrying because many people on my flight seemed sick—you couldn’t go a minute without someone coughing.”
As programs started getting cancelled and students began making their way home, some students studying abroad in South Africa and Jordan began to wonder if the shutdown of all programs was all but inevitable.
“At some point in February when Europe programs started to get canceled, I knew it was only a matter of time before it came to South Africa,” Tyler Lederer-Plaskett ’21, who was studying at the University of Cape Town through CIEE, wrote in an email to The Argus. “People on my program would say I was overreacting when I sent them links about how quickly the virus was spreading, but I had a general idea of what was going to take place in the coming weeks.”
Edwards, on the other hand, was caught more off guard. She was not expecting that the pandemic would affect her program.
“I honestly wasn’t not expecting that Wesleyan would require all students to come home,” Edwards wrote. “I expected that all Europe programs would be closed, but in Jordan at that time, there was only one case. When I got the email, we were actually trapped in a smaller city because of a storm. I didn’t book a flight right away because I had so many unanswered concerns. Less than two days after receiving the Wesleyan email, however, my SIT program was told that Jordan was closing all flights in and out of the country in less than 48 hours and we had to leave immediately.”
Students that opted to stay abroad were asked to waive Wesleyan’s responsibility over them. Reyna Schedler ‘21, who petitioned to study abroad in Ushuaia, Argentina through SIT, was one of these students.
“I did not wish to leave my continuing program like Wesleyan Study Abroad was requiring and wanted to know what my other options were,” Schedler wrote in an email to The Argus. “With the offering of the waiver they were threatening that I would not get credit for the semester if I signed it and that they would not help me at all if I did decide to later leave and needed an institution to speak for me during travel. Later, after contesting these requirements, they did end up agreeing to grant me credit even if my program was cancelled and moved online and I was forced to come home.”
But Argentina soon changed their restrictions, which forced Schedler to reevaluate.
“By March 14th, Argentina declared that by March 17th all direct commercial flights between Argentina and the US would be suspended for 30 days and the embassy was still encouraging US citizens with plans to depart the country to do so as soon as possible,” Schedler wrote. “The government was also enacting the common 14 day quarantine period for travellers arriving the country from places with sustained transmission”
Luckily, her program helped her to secure a flight back to the states.
“SIT was incredibly helpful in changing travel plans and did all the work to cancel my original tickets and buy me a new itinerary,” Schedler wrote. “They promised to reimburse any costs associated with rebooking tickets and there was a team working around the clock to get all our students home to the US.”
Most universities outside of the United States hosting study-abroad programs have made arrangements for students to still receive credit for their time spent abroad. Students expressed some concern around how this would work. Cate Spirgel ’22, who was also on the Vassar-Wesleyan Madrid Program, is especially interested in how the different time zones will play out. As a Virginia native, she would be required to get up quite early for what is a 9 a.m. class in Spain.
“I’m a bit worried about how this is going to play-out,” Spirgel, wrote in an email to The Argus. “It looks as though I’m going to have to shotgun Red Bull and Espresso shots in order to make my 3:00 AM Zoom for my 9:00 AM class, 6-hour time difference.”
Students are also worried about how classes taken at local universities will award credit.
“I was taking two courses at Wesleyan’s satellite campus in Paris and two courses at Université Paris-Diderot,” Alek Yoder ’22, who was on the Vassar-Wesleyan Paris Program, wrote in an email to The Argus. “The Wes-based courses are just being taught on Zoom for us like everyone else, once a week for two hours, but the French University classes are a different story… . One of my professors at Diderot already agreed to sign off on making sure that my friend and I get a credit and a grade, but the other hasn’t answered any communication from us or the program, which means that I’ll have to withdraw.”
Some students had yet to even start their classes, like Bodhi Small ’22, who was gearing up to start his spring semester in Hamburg, Germany, through a program run by Smith College.
“I have no idea what the plan is for the program, but I’m considering trying to withdraw and spending an extra semester at Wesleyan instead of trying to make something out of this semester,” Small wrote in an email to the Argus. “Taking classes that I haven’t yet selected in a timezone that is 6 hours off seems hellish. And I don’t think that Hamburg Universität has even closed yet, or if there’s plans for online classes.”
Most programs organized credits, but some students had to scramble on their own to figure out how they would be continuing the semester online.
“[IFSA-Butler] said students are responsible for figuring out online classes and things like that, so we had to get in touch with professors,” Chow said. “IFSA provided no support to us. They said we can’t really support you and can’t guarantee that you’ll get college credit unless you each individually get stuff from the professors. We were really at a loss…. Luckily, professors were really understanding, and they’d given us extensions. So I’m working on some papers that they’ve given me extensions, on and St. Andrews will be transitioning to online classes.”
Although many students were understanding of the situation, they still felt both frustration and annoyance in the ways that certain issues were handled.
“The urgency of Wesleyan recalling their students might have been well-founded but lacked thought and support on how this would directly impact its students and families,” Lederer-Plaskett wrote. “Flights from South Africa back to New York ranged anywhere from $1000 to $5000. They should have done a better job handling this.”
According to Gorlewski, students who paid for their return flight can apply for emergency funding for reimbursement. She noted, however, that whether they recieve it, how much, and how is decided by Student Affairs.
Chow echoed Lederer-Plaskett’s sentiments, but explained that her program, IFSA-Butler, also did a poor job of supporting their students, failing to keep them informed about how the rapid spread of the disease had spurred growing hostility and sinophobia across Europe.
“There were so many reports of hate crimes against Asians, not just in the U.S., but throughout Europe,” Chow said. “It was happening in Edinburgh and towns really close to St. Andrews, and I’m sure students had faced stuff at St. Andrews as well. I reached out to IFSA and was like just saying that, you know, in addition to providing information about the health crisis, you also need to equip students with actual support and solidarity because they’re facing this, and they hadn’t mentioned it at all previously. They said that they were going to work on it, and they supported us, and we had not received anything about it. In my experience, it was a lot of empty words on the part of the study abroad program.”
According to Chow, neither IFSA-Butler nor Wesleyan’s Study Abroad Office reached out to students about these hate crimes related to the coronavirus.
“I was really disappointed by lack of support from IFSA as well as Wesleyan’s study abroad to not reach out to particularly Asian students who are just disproportionately impacted by the virus and just the hysteria that it has created from the misinformation,” Chow said. “That was incredibly alienating, and it’s not a secret, so many news organizations have reported on it, and so many people have taken to social media to share their experiences, but we did not receive any kind of message of support or solidarity, and that was very upsetting.”
Students also expressed general sadness at having to leave a place they had grown to love. For many, they had just begun to adjust to the culture, and being sent home posed even greater challenges.
“I think I would’ve had a better time adjusting with more time,” Lao wrote. “I was able to get comfortable right before we left, and then by the end of it I didn’t really have much motivation to push myself because I knew we were leaving soon, which was sad. I’m really grateful to have had the time I had, though. It was really amazing to live a city life for a while in a completely new place.”
Schedler reported similar feelings at having her time abroad cut short.
“A lot of us had to suddenly say bye to family, friends, and a place that we had deeply bonded with,” Schedler explained. “We had gotten used to a different culture and a different way of life, one that many of us were falling in love with. There is always the struggle of culture shock upon return, but in this situation it was forced upon us suddenly and without warning and so re-integration and adaptation into life at home is coming with added and unexpected challenges.”
Schedler lives in Ellensburg, Wash., and was concerned about coming back to her home state, as it had an extremely high number of cases, as compared to Argentina.
“All in all, forcing me to come home through major domestic and international airports to one of the worst states in the U.S. from a place that was much more safe and secure I dont think was the best decision, but I understand that everyone was working with the information they were given,” Schedler wrote. “I don’t think Wesleyan was helpful at all in this process and was definitely more concerned with questions of liability and covering their asses. But I do appreciate the work that SIT did to get all their students through travel and how closely and thoughtfully they monitored the situation on a case-by-case basis.”
Other students felt as though it was out of the control of Wesleyan, and that the University and the program did the best that they could.
“I don’t blame Wesleyan or my program for anything that happened,” Scotti wrote. “The situation right now is new for everyone, and they are dealing with it in the best way they can. My program director, Marco Aresu, has done everything in his power to make the transition easier for us, and has provided tons of support for everyone.”
As for the future of study abroad—it remains uncertain. According to Gorlewski, it is quite unlikely that summer abroad programs will be taking place as planned. However, nothing has been decided. Gorlewski also gave recommendations for the 200 students that have already applied to study abroad in Fall 2020.
“We don’t know what’s going to be happening, but do participate in pre-registration,” Gorlewski advised. “You won’t be able to participate in housing selection, but Res-Life will be holding some class-appropriate housing so students whose programs are cancelled or decide not to study abroad should have class appropriate housing should they decide not to go.”
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