Coronavirus Outbreak Disrupts Study Abroad

In addition to the tangible on-campus effect of coronavirus on international students, the outbreak has also impacted students studying abroad. Students studying in countries that have experienced extensive outbreaks have been faced with making quick decisions on whether to return home and what path to take from there.

Lily Goldman ’21 was six weeks into the Temple University Rome study abroad program when patient numbers ballooned overnight in Italy. As the Venice Carnival she planned to attend closed early amidst the outbreak, she carefully monitored the increase in cases and stayed tuned to communication from her abroad program and from Swarthmore. In the days leading up to the official announcement, Goldman waited for confirmation of the program’s fate and what alternate plans might look like. A decision eventually came on Friday Feb. 28, when the Center for Disease Control raised Italy to a level three travel threat. Italian study abroad programs of all kinds were widely cancelled. Goldman was given a week to leave Rome, a process that was greatly expedited by her abroad program hiring a luggage shipping agency for its students, and by Swarthmore fully paying for airline tickets back home. 

Though Goldman hoped to return to campus for the remainder of the semester, after talking with Dean of Students Jim Terhune and Associate Dean of Academic Success Elizabeth Derickson, she realized that this would not be an option due to limited space in on-campus housing. Without a place to stay on campus or nearby, Goldman returned home to California. At home she is remotely continuing her academic work from her program, which will enable her to complete all of the credits she would have earned had her program not been cancelled. Among a flurry of unexpected changes in her plan, the lack of interruption to her academic schedule was a welcome constant. 

The period of time that lasted from the start of outbreak and until the program’s cancellation was anxious and disordered. Goldman wishes Swarthmore had reached out to her directly and earlier on during the outbreak so they could have worked on a plan sooner, and not in the last few days before she had to leave the country. 

“Since I’m not enrolled at Swarthmore, it feels like I’m not a Swarthmore student and I’m kind of forgotten here,” she said. “I went abroad, but Swarthmore is my home.”

Though cobbling a plan together in just a few days was a stressful experience for her, Goldman appreciates all of the support that the Off-Campus Study office provided to her and other study-abroad students. This support came in many forms, including buying abroad students airplane tickets home, an emergency expense that a lot of other schools did not afford to their students.

Catherine Mohr ’21 experienced a similar last-minute change in her study abroad plans. While completing an internship in Tokyo, Mohr found out that the start of her program in Seoul would be delayed by two weeks while the university hosting her program developed a plan of action for international students amidst the virus outbreak. She soon found out that since she would be traveling from Japan to Korea, she would be placed in a two week quarantine of students from all over the world. Recognizing that it would not be an ideal situation, Mohr’s study abroad program (Council on International Educational Exchange) did not want her to enter the quarantine and instead suggested a few alternative programs. Ultimately, however, Catherine Mohr’s programs were all eventually cancelled, so she had to return to the United States.

“I reached out to the study abroad office immediately, and they were super helpful,” she said.

The Off-Campus Study Office booked her a flight home, and ensured that everything would work out smoothly. Since her program had not begun yet, she did not have the option of completing her credits remotely like students on other programs. As she lives within commuting distance, she was able to figure out an arrangement with Swarthmore in which she would fulfill some credits on campus through directed readings and other classes, while living at home and commuting daily. Mohr has spent the last few days meeting with deans and various other administrators to put together her plan that will ensure that she will not need to graduate late.

Mohr feels immensely grateful that, despite the circumstances, she is still able to continue her academic program.

“This would not be possible at a bigger school, or even one with less caring professors and deans,” she said. “I know that because I’m seeing other people in the exact same situation who are having a much more difficult time. I’ve been very grateful to Swarthmore — the fact they’ve been able to pull this off for me has been really wonderful.”

In her time back on campus, Mohr has also emphasized that even in her unideal circumstances, she has benefited from privileges that others have not been as fortunate to have. She reflected upon this in a Facebook post.

“I appreciate the concern I’ve received, but please redirect those caring thoughts towards those who are being deeply affected by the impacts of the Coronavirus,” she wrote. “In the long term, this will have very little impact on my life. Some people don’t have that luxury. This outbreak has not divided my communities, has not prompted racist remarks towards me, has not caused the death (or infection) of me or any family members, has not forced me to evacuate my home, or any of the other truly tragic impacts we are seeing today. Even as other study abroad programs are cancelled, other students may not be fortunate enough to have somewhere to go or ability to receive credits (logistically, financially, etc) as I have,” she wrote.

While students abroad wrestle with changing plans, the staff at the Off-Campus Study Office have been working to address logistical problems faced by students currently abroad, and concerns of students who are planning on studying abroad in the coming semesters.

The office has been maintaining constant communication with students abroad and their programs, sending regular updates and monitoring the developing situation. 

“Communication has been excellent — everybody is taking this very seriously,” said Director of the Off-Campus Study Office Patricia Martin.

The office has been working in tandem with abroad programs and with travel agencies, coordinating flights back to campus and ensuring that students will be able to earn credit remotely for the remainder of the semester. 

“We have to stay on top of what’s happening in every country where we have students,” said Martin. “We have to communicate with programs, universities, students, families, and people within our institution. Policies and procedures may have to be made on a changing basis. We need to figure out what faculty can do to support students,” she said.

Martin and the Off-Campus Study office have been an important part of the larger fabric of campus groups and institutions that are working together to address the outbreak and its effect on the community. Martin has been involved with the coronavirus preparation committee that meets several times a week, and is a part of the travel-risk management meeting group that consists of faculty, staff, and administrators working together to ensure that student travel is as safe as possible.

Despite the outbreak, the study abroad office is continuing to plan abroad opportunities for next year. Martin is still meeting with students hoping to study abroad in countries such as Korea that are currently inaccessible, keeping in mind that all plans are tentative and may change depending on circumstances, and that there isn’t much information yet and it is difficult to predict what the future will hold.

“On one level, it’s regular procedures,” said Martin. “On another level, Swarthmore itself needs a backup plan if students can’t travel to other locations. For people who’ve applied now to go in the Fall, we have to figure out at what point those final decisions can be made and whether they should go or not. And I don’t think we’re there yet. But I think it is important to know that all of senior admin is focused on this.”

Martin is also keenly aware of the possibility that the outbreak will affect Swarthmore even more immediately than it currently does, and that the campus itself will need to take decisive action.

“There are much broader planning considerations that Swarthmore needs to take if everybody stays here or if Swarthmore has to teach remotely. You can’t think of this as just an international problem. It’s a very rapidly evolving situation. Countries are learning from countries that have had big outbreaks about trying to prevent spread. But having said that I think it’s important for people to realize that the U.S. is also one of the countries that has to develop its own procedures and responses. Everyone in the world is in this together,” Martin said.

In a similar unifying note, Mohr ended her Facebook post in an appeal against fear and xenophobia.

“Please try to use this time to promote compassion, just as many have shown me, and not fear-driven hatred. Sending lots of love to those affected by the virus and hope I may have the opportunity to visit Seoul sometime in the near future.”

Photo courtesy of Princeton Huang of The Phoenix

Editor’s Note: This article was updated on 9:17 pm, March 8th to correct two errors. Catherine Mohr was forced to come back to the United States, because all of her programs were canceled. Martin Warner was also not involved in her transition back as this article previously stated.

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