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Students reflect on study abroad programs cut short due to threat of COVID-19

| Friday, March 20, 2020

For many students, a semester abroad is characterized by months of growth and adventure, but those who studied abroad this semester had their experiences cut short as COVID-19 spread internationally.

Due to the fast-paced nature of the virus, many students’ semester abroad came to a halt seemingly overnight.

“There had been speculation that we would be leaving Rome the entire week of Feb. 23,” Emma Berges, a Saint Mary’s sophomore who studied in Rome, Italy, said. “This is when most schools in Florence started pulling their students studying abroad. We got the news around 4 a.m. our time, Saturday the 29. Saint Mary’s had sent out an email saying they were reviewing the decision on whether or not we would be staying in Rome, and we were told we would have an answer by Friday night.”

Students were in Rome for six weeks before receiving the dreadful phone call to return home, Rebecca Cesario, a junior, said. 

For many of us, it was a 48-hour turnover,” she said. “Let’s just say many things were donated to the homeless.”

In the fast-paced evacuation, Berges said she believes communication was incredibly vague when they were told to depart Rome. She said Saint Mary’s failed to provide a specific date by which the students needed to return home until most of the students had already left.

“I was actually on a trip in Zurich, Switzerland when I found out the news that we would be returning home,” Berges said. ”I tried to change my flight back to Rome for Saturday, but everything cost over $400. I returned back to Rome Sunday morning and then left for home the following Monday, not even 24 hours later.” 

Because Berges was away for the weekend, she did not even get to say goodbye to most of her friends.

”Getting flights booked back home was incredibly chaotic and made it extremely hard to fit in all of my ‘lasts‘ and goodbyes,” Berges said.

The Rome program set a precedent for the rest of Saint Mary’s students abroad, Hannah Finely, a sophomore who studied in Seville, Spain said.

”[Our departure] was all sort of an unraveling event that really started when the Rome program students got sent home,” Finely said.

Finely, who already had plans to travel to Amsterdam two days after they were asked to return home decided to keep her flight arrangements. 

I left early Friday morning and arrived in Amsterdam only to find that it was being shut down as well,” she said. “All museums, bars, public centers closed… Because there really was not anything for me to do, I switched my flight to Saturday and was able to get home with few issues.” 

As students returned to their homes, they were asked to self-quarantine for 14 days. Berges said she thought the lack of explicit instruction from Saint Mary’s on this was frustrating.

“On one end, you had people, like myself, who spent a full 14 days in complete isolation, and then on the other end, people did not quarantine themselves at all,” she said. “We were given very little instruction by the school, which I think caused a great deal of confusion. … Knowing the severity of the situation is only spiking, I wish Saint Mary’s had provided more information on the protocol and did a better job with communicating with their students who had been instantly taken away from their study abroad environment and sent home for two weeks of self-isolation.”

With the transition back to their homes came the question of continuing classes online. Students who studied in Rome resumed their courses through John Cabot University online March 16. Additionally, students were given the option to take their courses as pass/fail. 

“It is unfortunate that none of our classes can be live because of the time difference and having students spread out globally since it is an international school,” Berges said. 

Meanwhile, Finely awaits information for her continuation courses from her host institution. The program assured students they can guarantee most, if not all, of their credits for the semester, she said.

”I’m hoping I will still be able to graduate on time, but the truth is that there are still so many things up in the air and so many questions left unanswered,” she said.

As Berges adjusts to her new normal and reflects on her time in Rome, she’s happy the students were sent home when they were, she said. 

If it had been any later, we could have been stuck there for months, seeing as the nationwide lockdown occurred only days after I departed,” Berges said. “This is not what I had expected my study abroad experience to turn out like, but there’s nothing I can do about it besides reflect on and appreciate the time I got to spend there.”

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About Mia Marroquin

Mia Marroquin is a rising senior Communication Studies major at Saint Mary’s. Currently serving as Saint Mary’s News Editor, she hails from Holland, Michigan and is an 80’s movie fanatic. Follow Mia on Twitter @_miamarroquin

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