COVID-19 causes abrupt, chaotic end to study abroad semester

A sunset over the Malecón. Courtesy of Holly Shulman.

On the northern edge of central Havana, there is a waist-high wall called the Malecón, which separates a bustling, six-lane highway from the ocean. This wall, flat and low enough to sit on, forms a quirky sort of cultural hub, home to a cast of characters ranging from motionless fishermen to dancing guitar players fond of serenading unassuming pedestrians. The evening of Monday, March 16 saw a new population join the constant rotation: 25 study abroad students mourning the end of their semester, two months early.

We sat with our backs to the traffic, facing the water and (somewhere off in the invisible distance) the Florida shoreline, to where increasingly empty airplanes would carry us far too soon. From a distance, it must have been picturesque. Up close, it wasn’t quite so ideal. Stressed  and anxious after weeks of speculation about the potential impact of the coronavirus, we were at last facing the harsh reality that the pandemic would spell our premature departure.

“I really thought we would make it to May,” someone said for the millionth time.

A Havana cityscape from the roof of my homestay. Courtesy of Holly Shulman.

Students around the world echoed the same disbelief. As the new coronavirus disease, COVID-19, spreads across the globe, study abroad programs and their university partners have been faced with the task of deciding if, when and how to extract students from their foreign destinations. By the time we sat on the Malecón that day, our peers in Europe and Asia had, for the most part, been unceremoniously shipped home days or weeks before, while universities and study abroad companies were instructing students studying in other parts of the world to start planning their trips home. My study abroad program, run by Brown University through the Consortium for Advanced Studies Abroad (CASA), had been resistant to the tide; they cited the renowned Cuban public health system and its focus on preventative medicine to explain that we were safer staying put. But as nations closed borders with little to no warning each day, CASA finally decided to send us home.

We were far from the first. Back in early February, universities and abroad companies began to cancel programs in China, South Korea, and Italy. This established a common story arc throughout the semester: All colleges and abroad programs seemed to insist that everything was fine and we would all be able to finish the semester as planned, until some logistical or political flip switched, most often related to increased travel restrictions. Suddenly, students had a matter of days to communicate with families, pack all their belongings and find a flight that wouldn’t be spontaneously canceled due to heightened restrictions or low passenger demand. In a global landscape changing by the hour, getting home ASAP is no small feat.

For most programs in Europe, the final straw was President Trump’s March 11 proclamation that suspended entry from the Schengen Area to all non-citizens (programs in Italy, including the Vassar-sponsored Bologna trip, had been canceled weeks earlier). Hannah Broholm-Vail ’21 was participating in the Vassar-Wesleyan Madrid program at the time. In the days leading up to the announcement, she said, the program’s directors had assured students that the semester would continue, despite Madrid’s city-wide suspension of all school and university classes, which had been announced March 9. With Trump’s proclamation, however, everything changed: “The minute he announced it, everyone went crazy and started booking flights and it was insane. I would click on a flight and by the time I clicked ‘buy’ it would be sold out,” Broholm-Vail recounted. Her program wasn’t officially canceled until the next morning, when a director sent all participants a bare-bones email stating that everyone was to depart Madrid and providing contact information to help book flights. According to Broholm-Vail, this last-minute decision-making was a source of frustration and confusion: “I know that they didn’t want to preemptively cancel the program, but the program was going to be canceled. It was all OK in the end, but we all had to freak out about it, and it just felt like communication was not at its best.”

In Stockholm, Sweden, Georgia Hahn ’21 also faced difficulty getting home on extremely short notice. Soon after Trump suspended travel from the EU, her program was officially canceled and students devolved into parent-calling, flight-booking mayhem. Originally, Hahn booked a flight for Monday, March 16, but she ended up changing her ticket to a Sunday morning trip: “I knew it would get harder and harder to get home.”

She was right. Even having moved her flight up a day, Hahn’s trip was rerouted due to new complications. While she was en route to a layover in Montreal, her final destination, LaGuardia Airport in New York, announced that it would no longer be accepting passengers traveling from Europe. When she landed in Canada, Hahn learned that she would be flying into Newark instead, and was forced to re-check her luggage and obtain a new boarding pass. 

While waiting to board her next flight, she was pulled aside by an agent. He took her passport and proceeded to question her, asking if she had experienced any symptoms or had any contact with the virus, as well as how she planned to get home from the airport once she landed. Hahn’s family would be picking her up in their car.

The sentiment that an extra day might mean the difference between a safe flight home and a canceled trip rang true for other students, like Tessa Kirtzman ’21, who left Buenos Aires, Argentina just in time. She had booked a flight for Thursday, March 19, which took off hours before the government announced a full lockdown of the city. Of the 70 people on Kirtzman’s program, the last nine had planned to leave on Friday; they were forced to pack their belongings and rush to the airport Thursday night, to await their flights there for over 20 hours. Any later, and they would have run the risk of detainment in Argentina as punishment for having left their houses during lockdown.

On a School for International Training (SIT) program in Santiago, Chile, Emma Kang-Rosenthal ’21 also experienced the stress of last-minute changes due to revised government policies. On Sunday, March 15, after a week of relative silence from her program’s directors regarding possible cancellation, she was finally instructed to purchase a ticket home. She chose a flight scheduled for Wednesday, March 18. On Monday, however, Chilean President Sebastian Pinera announced that the nation’s borders would close starting Wednesday. Kang-Rosenthal and her peers were forced to rebook their flights to leave before the restrictions began. The change cost Kang-Rosenthal $1,500, which SIT will reimburse in full. Still, the price of a flight alteration in the eleventh hour can be inhibiting. As Kang-Rosenthal said, “It just went from 0 to 100 so fast.”

In Cuba, my set of concerns was slightly different. As Americans, we found ourselves in a unique position in terms of border restrictions, given that the U.S. government already—to put it euphemistically—discourages citizens from traveling between the two countries. Given the United States’ historic and continuing hostility toward the island nation, I was worried that politicians would push for the cancellation of flights from Cuba earlier than they might for other countries. This was not entirely misguided.

On the same day that Trump announced his suspension of European entry, Cuba publicly reported its first cases of COVID-19. Three Italian tourists tested positive and were isolated immediately, along with everyone they had touched since entering the country (one thing about an authoritarian regime in a pandemic: the government knows where everyone is at all times, and has no trouble tracking people down). Less than a day later, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez publicly encouraged Trump to ban travel between the United States and Cuba, despite the apparently small scale of the problem in the island nation relative to other countries worldwide—for example, the United Kingdom was mysteriously left out of Trump’s original European travel suspension proclamation. 

On top of this, I was worried that the Cuban government would not be entirely forthcoming regarding the number of cases or the country’s response. There are only two newspapers in Cuba, the Granma and Juventud Rebelde, and both are state-run. All television is also public and closely monitored, and censorship is a fact of life. On top of this, I knew that foreigners were being watched closely, and anyone deemed suspicious of carrying the virus would be held in state quarantine.

Adding insult to injury, material resources are seriously lacking in Cuba, in large part due to the incredibly harmful 50-plus year trade embargo by the United States. There is nearly always a soap shortage, and hand sanitizer is practically nonexistent, let alone masks and other vital forms of personal protective equipment. If you were shocked by photos of empty American supermarket shelves as a result of COVID-19, you’ve probably never been in a Cuban store, on any normal calendar day.

Still, as I asked my Cuban friends, professors and peers about their thoughts regarding the virus, I consistently heard the same answers: We have the best preventative healthcare system in the world, viruses don’t like warm climates and the only cases we’ve seen have been brought in by tourists. There was a blind faith in the government that made me skeptical but simultaneously (as I continued to read about the United States’ slow response) envious.

Even so, my program was suspended, and I left the country on Tuesday, March 17. As of Sunday, March 22, the number of cases in Cuba has swelled to 35.

On Thursday, March 19, as the U.S. State Department raised its global travel advisory to Level 4, the Vassar Junior Year Abroad office announced via email: “Vassar is now requiring the immediate return to your home residence for all students participating in study abroad in any location.” This statement is in keeping with a COVID-19 specific policy statement dated Feb. 28, 2020, which warned that students would be instructed to return home should U.S. State Department or CDC warning levels increase. This is consistent with Vassar’s regular policy, which states that the College does not fund travel to countries designated Level 3 or 4 by the U.S. State Department, or CDC-designated Level 3 locations. 

Despite this, a small number of students are currently stuck in their abroad locations due to border closings or other logistical complications. A still smaller number have elected to stay in their study abroad destinations indefinitely, bargaining that the pandemic will be controlled before the summer or else preferring to remain abroad regardless. In the former case, Vassar has committed to providing any support possible and guaranteed continued healthcare coverage; in the latter scenario, students will lose their foreign healthcare as they are no longer participating in Vassar-sanctioned travel.

For those of us who have returned to our home countries, however, the question arises: What do we do now?

Most study abroad programs are following the model set forth by universities and transitioning to remote learning models. In my case, this is a bit more complicated, as WiFi in Cuba is not strong enough to facilitate video conferences––instead, we’ll be attempting to complete coursework via email. 

Many other programs have implemented remote learning through platforms like Zoom. For study abroad programs, however, this comes with an added challenge: Class times must be rescheduled to accommodate time differences. Hahn explained that her teachers did not seem to consult one another when rescheduling their classes, so their chosen times often conflict. She expressed frustration: “One of my teachers was like, if it conflicts I’ll record them so you can watch them back and then do a quiz or something. I don’t know, it all makes me wonder if I’m going to learn anything from here on out.”

In addition to academic uncertainties, reconciling an incomplete experience like this inevitably gives rise to emotional challenges. I was lucky to have spent seven weeks in Cuba (on top of a full semester in Madrid in the fall), but many other Latin American nations begin their spring semesters much later. Kang-Rosenthal, for example, arrived in Chile on Feb. 15 and left on March 17—for a grand total of three weeks abroad. She said of the disappointment, “I know this just sucks for everyone—seniors, study abroad people—but I’m seeing people post ‘the best 10 weeks!’ and I only had 3 weeks. But now I know I want to go back post-grad.”

Kirtzman, who had even less time on her program in Argentina, shares this desire to use grants and scholarships like Fulbright to fund her way back abroad. She arrived in Buenos Aires on March 1 and left on March 19. Those 2.5 weeks, though, were far from the typical abroad experience: “The first four days were really fun, but then all we talked about ever was coronavirus. Like, I made friends by talking about coronavirus.” 

Twelve days after the program began, the Argentine government announced that anyone who had arrived in the country from the United States after Feb. 26 would have to quarantine in their homes for 14 days. Having already been in the country for 12 days, Kirtzman refrained from leaving her host mother’s home for four more days. She described the experience as “just sad and frustrating.” By the time she and her peers were allowed to leave the house on March 14, some were already booking flights home.

On top of this, Kirtzman, an education major, is now worried about the academic strain this cancellation will put on her senior year. Her classes had not yet started when she left Argentina, and she was scheduled to be in school there until July. Now, she’ll be completing remote learning well into the summer, and the course options are limited: “They’re only offering things like ‘Literature in Argentina,’ which is really interesting, but I was supposed to take a research methods class and an education class. I’m going to have to work so much next year. Like, so much.”

Though interruptions and altered plans are universal this semester, those of us who are healthy and safe must count ourselves lucky. For now, as Kirtzman said, “It’s sad to be home, but I’m happy that I’m home during this time. I’d rather be with my family.”

Like all other abroad locations, the Malecón, with its eccentric characters and crashing waves, will still be there in a year should we choose to return.

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