I left for Spain from Boston on Jan. 7, planning on returning to the United States sometime in mid-May. I was studying through Wesleyan’s Madrid program with about 30 other students. Although it seemed inconsequential at the time, I opted out of the group sponsored flight since I was leaving from Boston and not New York like the rest of the students. On the flight over, I watched “Contagion” on the in-flight entertainment. Since I had heard some murmurs of a disease coming out of China, it seemed like an interesting choice to watch. When I got to baggage claim, I met up with my friend Lucas who had the same connecting flight as me, and we talked about the movie and how relieved we were to be in Spain, which at the time seemed untouchable from a virus across the world. Further, an effective cover-up from the Chinese government and public statements by World Health Organization stated there was no evidence of human to human transmission, so there was no reason to fear that any illness would make its way globally.
Around mid-February, the virus had reached Europe, but our group as a whole still had little concern about being sent home. The outbreak had started in Italy, but the case number was still in the low hundreds. After a few days, it became clear that Italy had a serious problem on its hands, as cases and deaths exploded. We heard rumors of programs being cancelled, and then Wesleyan Bologna called back its students. At this point, the mood in Spain was relatively tame, as the number of cases was hovering around 100, although most were in the greater Madrid area. Life went on as normal, and there were just as many people in the streets as there would be on any other day. I had friends from Wesleyan planning to visit for spring break, and we went ahead with the planned vacation. They flew over March 8, as cases in Spain hovered around one thousand.
At this point, our program group chat was active every day with students speculating whether or not we would be sent home. The official word from our program directors and Wesleyan was nothing. Despite over one thousand cases in Spain, we received no correspondence from our program, so we went along with our day to day activities. On March 10, Spanish schools cancelled classes for two weeks, and finally the program reached out to us, assuring everyone that there were no plans to cancel the program. The following day, we got another email, saying that students would be allowed to go home if they wanted or they could stay in Spain and take classes remotely. The disorganization and failure of Wesleyan to properly communicate with the program directors on the ground in Spain was unbelievable. As this week played out, we watched our friends in programs at Michigan and Syracuse get called back.
Late Wednesday night on March 11, many of us were out at the club, as Wednesdays are a popular night to go out in Spain. As I got back to my apartment around 2 a.m., I saw a few frantic texts in our WhatsApp group about President Trump’s address to the nation regarding travel restrictions from Europe. The announcement said that travel from Europe was banned effective Friday, March 13 at midnight. The chat exploded in chaos, and students bought outrageously marked up tickets back to the United States for that following morning. One of my friends woke up in Barcelona to an empty apartment, as the three guys he was rooming with were gone on flights back to the United States. It wasn’t until an hour later that Trump clarified Americans would still be permitted to return, although not everyone in the Wesleyan study abroad program is American. At this point, we still hadn’t heard from the program, although, to be fair to the study abroad office, it was around 6 p.m. their time and they were likely as surprised as we were at the developing situation.
Finally, at 4:45 Thursday, we received an email from Wesleyan telling us we were required to return home. Initially, I wanted to stay in Spain, as it seemed just as risky to return home to the United States. However, the Spanish government locked down the country at the end of the week, and I woke up Friday to closed bars, restaurants, and public places. Tourist sites with thousands of people the day before were completely empty. I lived on likely the busiest metro line in the city, the one that came from the airport, and it was nearly empty on my last ride to my apartment. Overnight, Madrid closed down. Wesleyan reached out to me again Friday night and told me they were paying for student flights home, so I made the decision to accept the flight they were offering and had a flight booked back Saturday morning. My friends that were visiting me ended up actually being in the country longer than me, as they had a harder time finding flights out.
Overall, I am appreciative of the effort put in by the Study Abroad department and our program directors to get students home. They definitely didn’t sign up for their jobs expecting to be coordinating emergency departures for students amidst a pandemic. However, the administration at Wesleyan could have acted a bit sooner to save students money and panic, as I knew of many schools who pulled the trigger to bring home students sooner despite how unpopular this decision was.