Studies Abroad Cut Short: Reflections on being sent home from abroad amid COVID-19

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Rebecca Maher

I think it’s hard for people in the United States to understand how little COVID-19 was talked about in Italy before things got really bad. When we got sent home from the ISI Florence program, we had almost no warning. It happened insanely fast.

On Feb. 24, we were all focused on the start of midterm week. The only two things we were doing that day were studying for midterms and talking about our spring break plans for the following week. 


A view of deserted Piazza Maggiore in downtown Bologna, Italy, Monday, March 23, 2020. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms. For some it can cause more severe illness, especially in older adults and people with existing health problems.  Photo by Massimo Paolone/LaPresse via AP

A view of deserted Piazza Maggiore in downtown Bologna, Italy, Monday, March 23, 2020. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms. For some it can cause more severe illness, especially in older adults and people with existing health problems. Photo by Massimo Paolone/LaPresse via AP

On Feb. 25, we heard there was a case of the coronavirus in Florence. None of us were concerned about catching it and all of us felt safe. Northern Italy was hundreds of miles away, and we were a class of healthy people in their early 20s. For the most part, we joked about how easy it was to get to class now that the tourists were fleeing. 

On Feb. 26, we all felt a little nervous. A couple schools withdrew their students from Italy that day, but we all thought they jumped the gun. We were convinced America was in hysterics over nothing. Even so, my roommates and I went out for a big Italian dinner together, just in case.

Things started falling apart on Feb. 27. Unfortunately, this was also the first day of spring break. While some students in my program, including my direct roommate, were being pulled out of Florence left and right by their nervous parents, the rest of us were busy getting ready to leave for our trips and trying to imagine what life in Florence would be like with half our school gone. When I left Italy for Portugal that day, I had no idea it would be my last time in Florence. It wasn’t even a possibility in my mind.

During the day of Feb. 28, my friends and I went hiking in Portugal. To be honest, it was one of the best days during my time abroad. We even bought a Corona that night, as a joke. Around 10 p.m. in Portugal time, we heard Italy had become a Level 3. Our school had warned us the day before that if Italy reached a Level 3 travel advisory, our program may either be subjected to a short break or could be cancelled altogether. In order to cope, we decided to get as drunk as possible on wine and hit the bars. And so, wasted at 2 in the morning on the streets of Lisbon, we got the email from UConn sending us home.


A view of deserted Piazza Maggiore in downtown Bologna, Italy, Monday, March 23, 2020. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms. For some it can cause more severe illness, especially in older adults and people with existing health problems.  Photo by Massimo Paolone/LaPresse via AP

A view of deserted Piazza Maggiore in downtown Bologna, Italy, Monday, March 23, 2020. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms. For some it can cause more severe illness, especially in older adults and people with existing health problems. Photo by Massimo Paolone/LaPresse via AP

In the span of four days, COVID-19 seemingly came out of nowhere and tore apart our dream semester abroad. We had almost no warning. No idea that our time in Florence was going to be cut short. Now I spend my days learning Italian and the history of Florence in my childhood home, knowing none of what I’m learning is applicable to my life anymore. In general, I’ve tried not to dwell on it. If I think about what I would be doing there right now, or all the travel plans I had booked that I can never go on, or all the friends I made that I probably won’t get to see again, I’ll just get sad.

At the same time, I was luckier than many of those abroad with me. I got to travel around the United Kingdom for two weeks visiting friends before heading back home. Those extra weeks helped me come to terms with being sent home and allowed me to explore more of the world I had gone abroad to see.

Gino Giansanti

If you were to tell me two months ago that my study abroad experience would include spending spring break in suburban Connecticut trapped in my house with my parents for two weeks, I would have laughed in your face. And why wouldn’t I? I was going to spend four months in Italy, what was there to worry about?

I had a certain expectation of what my life was going to be like living in Italy. We all have those friends who go abroad and post nonstop from all their adventures. Why should I expect anything less than good food and captions written in Italian to make me sound cultured?

News surrounding COVID-19 was few and far between for the majority of my time abroad. It was not until the weekend of Feb. 21 when students in my program began to think about things more seriously.


A police car patrols Rome's Colosseum at dusk, Monday, March 23, 2020. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms. For some it can cause more severe illness, especially in older adults and people with existing health problems.  Photo by Alessandra Tarantino/AP

A police car patrols Rome’s Colosseum at dusk, Monday, March 23, 2020. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms. For some it can cause more severe illness, especially in older adults and people with existing health problems. Photo by Alessandra Tarantino/AP

It was Carnevale that weekend, an exciting time of masks, parades and parties. What better time to spend the weekend in Venice, the heart of all Italian Carnevale festivities? My friends and I enjoyed as much as we could, drinking wine, wearing masks and spending way too much money on a cliche gondola ride. On the trip back home to Perugia (the city I was living in, halfway between Rome and Florence), our school sent out emails informing students that COVID-19 cases in Venice had risen from a handful to over 100 in the course of 48 hours. Not exactly the most comforting thing to read in the midst of a six-hour bus ride.

Upon our return, classes were canceled on Monday, Feb. 24 — initially just for students who had traveled to Milan and Venice for the weekend, but later for everyone. At this point, I still thought the Umbra Institute was just being cautious. After all, what did a bunch of healthy 20-somethings have to worry about when the virus only seemed to affect those in their 80s?

The week carried on as usual, classes resumed and life in Perugia carried on exactly as it had before. Friends and family were texting and calling me, asking if I was okay and why I wasn’t wearing a mask when I went to the grocery store. Needless to say, Americans at the time were worrying much more than Italians. 


Passengers walk in an almost empty Termini main train station, in Rome, Monday, March 23, 2020. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms. For some it can cause more severe illness, especially in older adults and people with existing health problems.  Photo by Andrew Medichini/AP

Passengers walk in an almost empty Termini main train station, in Rome, Monday, March 23, 2020. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms. For some it can cause more severe illness, especially in older adults and people with existing health problems. Photo by Andrew Medichini/AP

The next weekend, I decided to take a last-minute trip to Florence, a place I wanted to make sure I visited if my program was to be canceled. Since my service was spotty, I did not receive any information from either UConn or the Umbra Institute until I was touring the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, where I saw UConn’s wonderful announcement.

The email was incredibly brief, saying that Italy was now a Level 3 risk nation, we needed to fly back to the United States as soon as possible and we were to let UConn know as soon as we booked our flight so they could have it on record. Not exactly the warmest way to break such devastating news, if you ask me. I broke down crying in the middle of the museum, so I’m sure many of the people around me thought I was very moved by all the artwork on display.

Once back in Perugia, I spent my last days scrambling to take pictures, buy souvenirs and say goodbye to everyone I had formed such close bonds with in such a short amount of time. In what felt like an instant, it was all over. My semester abroad, my dream travel experience was all gone and there was nothing I could do about it.

Now sitting at home, devastated does not begin to describe how I am feeling. I know I will be back in Italy again, but until that day I can’t help but feel cheated out of what so many refer to as one of the greatest times of their lives. With that being said, I will forever cherish the time I did spend as it has shown me life is short and we should use every second to see all the world has to offer … after we get out of quarantine of course.

Lucie Turkel


A sign that reads in spanish: "Thank you #IstayAtHome" hangs on the facade of the Madrid city hall, Spain, on Sunday March 22, 2020. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms. For some it can cause a more serious illness.  Photo by Bernat Armangue/AP

A sign that reads in spanish: “Thank you #IstayAtHome” hangs on the facade of the Madrid city hall, Spain, on Sunday March 22, 2020. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms. For some it can cause a more serious illness. Photo by Bernat Armangue/AP

It’s not easy to pack up your entire life into a large suitcase and carry-on and move to a foreign country to live with a family you’ve never met and who speaks a language that’s not your native tongue, all while making new friends and planning weekend trips and exploring everything your new home has to offer. It’s even harder when you have to pack up that suitcase and say goodbye to your loving and generous host family, new tight-knit circle of friends and the city you were just beginning to fall in love with a mere two months later.

On the one hand it’s nearly comical: How many other people can say their study abroad experience got cut short because of a worldwide pandemic? But on the other hand, it’s nearly tragic: Future trips had to be cancelled, tapas restaurants will never be patronized and friends and family can’t come visit.

Granada, Spain (where I was studying as part of the UConn in Granada program) was one of the last places in Western Europe untouched by the coronavirus. My friends and I watched as people studying in Italy were sent home, but Spain seemed to be holding out; that was, until we returned from a weekend trip to Barcelona to find the number of cases in Madrid had spiked. Students from Madrid were sent home at the beginning of that week, and my friends and I made the decision to live as though it were our last week in Granada. We went out to tapas; we visited the Alhambra, which we weren’t supposed to see until April; we went to the miradors to watch the sunset. Things seemed okay until Donald Trump gave his speech on Wed., March 11 at 9 p.m. (2 a.m. Spain time).

Nearly everyone on my program was out that night at the most popular club in Granada. For one moment after hearing the aftermath of Trump’s speech, there was a sense of jubilation: Were we going to be trapped in Spain for 30 days? It was a dream come true! But this false sense of excitement quickly gave way to disappointment and quite quickly after that panic. It was very easy to spot the Americans in the club that night: They were all on their phones, crying to parents and desperately trying to book flights back to the U.S. before travel became more difficult.


People walk past closed shops and restaurants near the La Sagrada Familia basilica, center, in Barcelona, Spain, March 18, 2020.  Photo by Felipe Dana/AP

People walk past closed shops and restaurants near the La Sagrada Familia basilica, center, in Barcelona, Spain, March 18, 2020. Photo by Felipe Dana/AP

What really made these high levels of anxiety and confusion continue was UConn’s utter lack of communication on the matter. We were all certain we would be waking up to an email from the university announcing all study abroad programs were canceled, but when the time came, we didn’t get a single email. It was even more unsettling that when a friend and I asked our program coordinator in Granada if we should wait to hear from UConn to decide what to do, she responded with, “I don’t think you’re going to be hearing from them.” UConn hadn’t even been in contact with the program coordinators at the University of Granada. As the day went on, we continued to have zero information provided to us.

Eventually, everybody realized we were on our own in this and began booking flights home. It wasn’t until Thursday at 9:30 p.m. our time, almost 24 hours after Trump gave his speech, that we got an email from UConn officially canceling all study abroad programs for the term. My flight was at 6:30 a.m. Friday morning in order to get out before the travel ban officially began.

Regardless of the fact UConn completely dropped the ball, it was a stressful time for everyone. On that Thursday, I did everything for the last time. My friends and I watched the sunset from one of Granada’s famous lookout points. I ate dinner with my host family and watched the Spanish news. I slept in my bed in the room that really came to feel like my own, one last time before getting up and calling a taxi in Spanish to take me to the airport.


A woman applauds in support of the medical staff working on the COVID-19 virus outbreak in Bustarviejo, outskirts of Madrid, Spain, Monday, March 23, 2020. More than 1.5 billion around the world have been told to stay in their homes. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms. For some it can cause a more serious illness.  Photo by Bernat Armangue/AP

A woman applauds in support of the medical staff working on the COVID-19 virus outbreak in Bustarviejo, outskirts of Madrid, Spain, Monday, March 23, 2020. More than 1.5 billion around the world have been told to stay in their homes. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms. For some it can cause a more serious illness. Photo by Bernat Armangue/AP

Everybody says study abroad is the best time of your life. While I certainly did end up having some of the best experiences of my life on my ill-fated program, what people often don’t mention is how hard studying abroad can be. Having to adjust to a completely new lifestyle, from the language to the eating schedule to the manner of teaching, can take time. I think what was most disappointing for me about having my time cut short was I was just beginning to feel like I could really call Granada home. I no longer needed a map to navigate the twisting, cobblestone streets; I no longer felt like an intruder in someone else’s house, but rather a part of the family; I no longer was jostling to find my place in our 20-person program but had created a tight group of friends that I saw every day. While my experience was cut heartbreakingly short, Granada will always have a piece of my heart and I am determined to get back there at some point in my life. Te quiero para siempre, Granada. 


Rebecca Maher is a senior staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at rebecca.l.maher@uconn.edu.

Gino Giansanti is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at gino.giansanti_jr@uconn.edu.

Lucie Turkel is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at lucie.turkel@uconn.edu.

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