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Students respond to abrupt recalls from study abroad trips

Dawn-Hunter Strobel

Lifestyles editor

In the midst of the global shutdowns happening due to COVID-19, Willamette students studying abroad this semester were recalled to the United States and summer programs were canceled. This process looked different for each program, depending on where in the world it took place and what level of support it had, but all who were interviewed shared the sentiment that the changes happened exponentially as the crisis became more and more widespread. However, students in different programs had varying experiences with being recalled. 

The decision to cancel programs was one that was university-wide, according to Kris Lou, director of the Office of International Affairs (OIE). People present in meetings concerning the cancellation of study abroad programs included representatives from the Office of Academic Affairs, Bishop Wellness Center, the university legal counsel and the dean’s office. These meetings addressed issues as they arose, starting with figuring out how to help a degree-seeking student stuck in China at the beginning of the semester, then students in Japan, Italy and onwards as the situation evolved.

Lou said in an interview: “The thing that is really important to understand in all of this is that the series of events that occurred was always an evolving situation. You can see that in the series of decisions the CDC and the state department were making throughout time, travel warnings that were issued over time. All these things evolved over time. And each time these things ramped up… we had to then adjust.”

Bee Heumann (‘21) was studying abroad in Rome, Italy and was one of the first two people to be recalled. 

“Being one of the first students to be called back, I didn’t realize what a big deal this was yet,” Heumann said. “When I got the email from Willamette telling me I had to come home, I just didn’t understand, so it seemed like a huge overreaction from Willamette’s part.” But as time went on, she checked regularly on the progress of the virus and changed her mind. She reported that one day there were five confirmed cases in Italy and two days later, there were 400. 

Students studying in other places reported similar feelings. Katy Payne (‘21) was studying abroad in Galway, Ireland and said that “it was just on the backburner the entire time,” but once things changed, “it was exponential.” 

Jordan Hitchcock (‘21), who was also studying in Galway, similarly said: “Leading up to it, it was hypothetical, going home. Like, ‘This is probably not gonna happen.’ Everyone was chill the day before [things changed].”

On Tuesday, March 10, Karen Arabas, a Willamette professor on-site with the Galway program, sent the participants information about what would happen if they did get recalled. 

Payne said: “To myself I was like, ‘That seems like a little bit of overkill, but okay, I guess it’s good to have this kind of stream of thought.’”

Two days later, on March 12, the program was canceled and on March 15, Payne and Hitchcock flew back to the United States.

Cassidy Brennan (‘21) was studying in Granada, Spain and said that she was initially given 10 days to leave, but once a national state of alarm was issued, they were urged to leave within 48 hours for fear of getting stuck in the country. “Everyone was sort of like, ‘It’s not even deadly, it’s like the flu, it’s fine, it’s fine, it’s fine’ in Spain. And then all of a sudden, in one week, it was just not fine, not fine at all.” At the time of Brennan’s departure, Spain had the third highest number of cases and Brennan said people were calling it “the new Italy.” 

Having to obtain such quick flights home left some people in difficult situations. Hitchcock returned to Salem instead of Hawaii, where her family is, because returning to Hawaii was three times as expensive as returning to Oregon. Brennan also reported nearly not being able to afford to leave the country. “I couldn’t pay for three international flights, so I had to plead with [the airline] to waive all my change fees. But that was after being on the phone for six hours, being transferred to their supervisor and their supervisor’s supervisor,” she said. 

Once students did obtain flights home, many reported harrowing experiences in the airports they went through. Hitchcock said she was at the airport for almost nine hours waiting in line for screenings, where they asked where each person had been in the last two weeks and if they had a fever. If someone had been in any other country than the one they were flying out of, they had to go in a separate line for more comprehensive screenings. 

Payne reported that her initial flight was delayed five hours due to how long it took for everyone to get through these screenings as well as customs. At the last minute, Payne had to book an entirely different flight for the next leg of her journey, because the first flight was delayed to the point that she missed her connection. 

Upon arriving in the U.S., Brennan reported that everyone had to fill out questionnaires before landing, then go through a CDC screening where their temperatures were taken and they were examined. Only upon completion of that could they then move on to go through customs. These delays made return journeys substantially longer, and in Payne’s case, the total journey was 40 hours long. 

No one reported getting compensated or reimbursed for their last-minute emergency flights. Lou noted that “students are wondering rightfully about refunds” and reported that Willamette announced a general refund policy last week. Lou will soon be meeting with people in the Office of Financial Affairs about how people who were studying abroad might fit into that policy. 

Whether or not a student will be partially reimbursed for their study abroad program varies by program. Heumann reported receiving some refund for her housing in Italy, and Brennan reported a partial refund for her program itself, but those who studied in Galway said they haven’t received any money back and do not foresee getting anything in the future. 

Lou said, “Everybody really wants to do everything they can in terms of doing right by people as best we can.” 

Everyone who was studying abroad is able to finish their classes online, though this is easier for some students than others. For those abroad in Galway, they only had one week of classes left by the time they were recalled, so it hasn’t been as much of a struggle to switch to an online system. But Heumann was studying art history in Rome and most of her classes were on-site, looking at art in person, which is no longer possible. Brennan said that only one of her classes is doing live lectures, but that it takes place at 5 a.m. where she is now, so waking up for that has been a struggle. 

Among all participants interviewed, there is a distinct sense of loss. Heumann said: “I have been working toward this study abroad experience since I was about 12. I knew what I wanted to do, I knew I wanted to study art, I knew I wanted to study art in Europe. So this experience of being able to walk around and just be living among the art was just magical. I miss everything about it.”

Brennan reported having a very difficult time parting with her host mom from Spain. “It was really hard because she was my best friend in Granada,” Brennan said. “I would come home every day and we would sit for an hour before lunch just talking. She cried so hard when she found out the program was canceled. It was really hard.”

Despite all of this, everyone said they had a wonderful experience in the time they did spend abroad and were overall very glad for the experiences they were able to have, even if it was for less time than they had anticipated. Those interviewed expressed gratitude for their program directors. Payne called Arabas a “dynamite lady” and Brennan said, “Our program directors in Granada have been phenomenal.” Lou echoed this, saying his biggest takeaway from the experience has been the incredible dedication of those involved. He said, “The idea of a community has never been more true than now.”

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