Students Studying Abroad Return to U.S. Due to COVID-19 Outbreak and Travel Restrictions

On March 12, President Donald Trump announced travel restrictions from 26 Schengen-area European countries to the U.S. as an attempt to combat the further spread of COVID-19 to, and within, the U.S. American citizens were exempt from the travel restriction. The travel restrictions have affected students studying at Swarthmore in various ways, including forcing students studying abroad to return to the U.S. prematurely.

Pat Martin, director of off-campus study, said that previous travel restrictions to China and South Korea had prepared the college for further travel restrictions.

“The first students who were affected because they had planned to study in China or South Korea were helped to determine alternate programs or ways to complete their studies this semester. Consequently, we developed our plans and procedures to support students who were affected by the spread of COVID-19 … Swarthmore has been lucky in that we didn’t have any students in countries that closed their borders so quickly that many students from institutions throughout the U.S. were temporarily stuck. Some of the countries where this happened were Morocco, Peru and Ecuador,” she wrote.

The Off-Campus Study Office has also created an FAQ to answer questions about study abroad and the college’s response to COVID-19 outbreaks in other countries.

Martin also said that students have expressed appreciation for the Off-Campus Study Office’s actions.

“Many students and parents have expressed their appreciation for our support of them throughout the situations they have faced. I think they felt supported by Swarthmore and that we were here for them,” she wrote.

Students have voiced varying opinions regarding the adequacy of Swarthmore’s support and communications to students studying in countries with travel restrictions.

James Sutton ’21, who was studying at Mansfield College in Oxford University, said that the college has not adequately communicated with students studying abroad about the COVID-19 outbreak. [Editor’s note: Sutton is a writer for The Phoenix but had no involvement in the writing or editing of this piece]

“I think the college has done a very poor job of being on top of messaging and communication. My parents and I have received contradictory and fractured information, and information from the school seems very rushed and poorly explained. In contrast, the Oxford University working committee for coronavirus has sent detailed, explanatory emails at a steady pace, making sure everyone is receiving the same information,” he wrote in an email to The Phoenix.

On the other hand, Josephine Thrasher ’21, who was studying in Switzerland at the University of Geneva through Smith College, said that the college responded effectively to the travel restrictions on Europe.

“I was actually pleasantly surprised at the amount of information Swarthmore was able to send out. Pat Martin was sending us updated emails every few hours, starting as soon as Trump issued the travel ban, which was greatly appreciated since nobody really knew what was going on, especially since this all transpired in the middle of the night for us. I was on a program through Smith College, and their study abroad office didn’t send them an email until after my plane had already touched down in New Jersey, so Swarthmore had a pretty quick reaction time,” she wrote.

Thrasher also said that the outbreak did not significantly affect her time in Geneva.

“To be quite honest, COVID-19 really didn’t affect my life up until the point I was required to fly home. There weren’t any food (or toilet paper) shortages in Geneva, and apart from some folks wearing masks on public transportation, I didn’t really think about the virus that much … When Smith College cancelled their program in Florence, Italy, we started to get worried, especially since their situation escalated from ‘no worries’ to ‘pack your bags’ in the span of about a week.”

She added that the process of leaving the country was both sudden and hectic.

“When my parents called me at 3 a.m., [they] told me they were emailing me a ticket for a 9:15 a.m. flight, and I had three hours to pack up my dorm room and get in a cab to the airport, I was in a state of complete shock. We thought that it would take days for Switzerland to reach level 3, not minutes … I went to bed on Wednesday night worried about getting my readings done before class the next afternoon, and in less than 24 hours I was back home in Pennsylvania. For folks who waited until after Friday to fly home, most of them missed their connecting flights in the US because customs/health screening lines were so long,” she wrote.

Skylar Thoma ’21, who was abroad in South Africa on a program by SIT (School for International Training) World Learning, also said that the outbreak’s impact on his program evolved rapidly and erratically. Thoma applied to the program directly while on a leave of absence from Swarthmore.

“South Africa got its first case quite late compared to other countries, and the country had been very good about containing the outbreak as best they could, so it only came up for us if we checked the American news. I think the turning point was in early March. Before then, there were a few people on my program who just wouldn’t stop talking about the coronavirus-related news, and the rest of us just wanted them to shut up. But then we started hearing about universities closing back home and large gatherings being cancelled. Not long after that, about half our program (seven people out of fifteen) got emails from their schools requesting they come home. That’s when things really started to set in for us. And when the South African President declared a national disaster and canceled our visas, SIT decided to cancel the program. We had a week to frantically book our flights and say hasty goodbyes to everyone,” he wrote.

Like Thrasher, Thoma was not expecting to return home prematurely.

“Going home wasn’t a possibility in my mind until it happened. Because I was on leave, Swarthmore technically didn’t have any jurisdiction over whether I had to go home. I convinced myself that things wouldn’t get much worse in South Africa, and while some of my peers would get called back, I would be able to stay. But then things did get worse, and I was forced to confront reality,” he wrote.

Thrasher and Thoma said that their respective programs have moved online.

“My program is moving online for the rest of the semester. We had actually reached a good halfway point: everyone was about to start on their capstone projects, which took the form of a research paper, an internship, or a journalism-focused internship in Cape Town (I was doing the last one) … I’m not sure what the process will look like, considering we can’t conduct on-the-ground research for our projects on the other side of the country. At this point, I see it as a credit recovery strategy, and I don’t expect to get much out of it,” wrote Thoma.

Martin commented on how students whose study abroad programs were cut short will receive credits.

“Just like Swarthmore, all the programs and universities have quickly determined how to deliver their coursework remotely so that students will not lose credit for their semester. The College has extended the CR/NC policy for students who studied abroad,” she wrote.

According to the Off-Campus Study Office’s FAQ, it is still unclear how the COVID-19 outbreak will affect students who plan to study abroad in the Fall.

“We hope that students will be able to pursue their fall plans. However, because of the uncertainty around COVID-19, it is unlikely that decisions about participation in off-campus study will be made until the end of the spring semester. Students will be notified about how these decisions might affect their registration for courses and applying for on-campus housing should that become necessary,” it says.

This story is developing and The Phoenix plans on further covering topics related to the effect COVID-19 on the Swarthmore community. For more of The Phoenix’s coverage on the COVID-19 outbreak, click here.

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