Photo provided by Bobby Watson
This article is a part of the Trinitonian’s coverage of Trinity University’s response to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). Click here to read the rest of our coverage.
When junior Arianna Siddiqui began her semester abroad in January, COVID-19 seemed more like an important topic than an immediate threat. She couldn’t have guessed that by March, she’d be back home in Houston with a long swab stuck up her nose to test for the novel coronavirus.
Siddiqui was enrolled in a program through the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) which allows students to divide their semester into three sections called blocks. Students can spend the semester taking classes at up to three different CIEE campuses around the world. Siddiqui chose to spend her first block in Copenhagen, Denmark, and her second two blocks in London.
The first part of her semester went off without a hitch. She arrived in Denmark on Jan. 6 and took classes there until mid-February, when she took a week-long break to visit Ireland. In late February, she began her stint in London.
By this time, confirmed COVID-19 cases in Italy had surpassed 150. The Italian government had declared a state of emergency and suspended all flights to and from China. Cases in the United Kingdom had barely reached the double digits but would increase to over 60,000 in a month’s time.
“In London, I think the first time we were seriously worried about [COVID-19] was when it came to Italy,” Siddiqui said.
Siddiqui herself had no plans to visit Rome, but others in her program were set to spend part of their dual semesters there. Students started to worry.
Their fears were realized when, on Feb. 29, CIEE informed all Rome-bound students that the Rome campus was shutting down.
“Everyone was really shocked and actually scared,” Siddiqui said.
In early March, Siddiqui was still in London, but it was beginning to feel less safe. Masks started popping up on the Tube. Normally bustling trains became eerily quiet. Siddiqui had plans to visit Paris and had to cancel them.
“My parents were like, ‘No, you are not leaving the country.’ So that thought became really real. This was actually affecting Europe,” Siddiqui said.
On March 1, the CDC issued a recommendation that all study abroad programs “consider” sending students home to the U.S. In response to the recommendation, CIEE emailed students with what Siddiqui considered an underreaction: The program suspended programs in China, South Korea and Italy but left the London campus open.
“After careful consideration, and in the absence of any specific change in conditions in the other 35+ countries in which CIEE operates, we will continue to offer our programs as planned,” CIEE’s email reads in part. “Student health and safety remain our highest priority.”
Siddiqui had a choice to make: Stay in London or go home despite her program’s persistence. She decided she would fly to Texas on March 27, at the end of the second block, and take the third block of classes online.
Then, on March 12, President Donald Trump issued a European travel ban. Though the ban did not apply to Americans visiting Europe, this was not immediately clear. Trinity’s Center for International Engagement responded by giving students two options: Return home as soon as possible or sign a waiver and stay in their host country at their own risk.
According to assistant director for Study Abroad, Andre Martinez, the Center for International Engagement is working on reimbursing every student for flight costs.
“We told them, ‘Don’t worry about the cost,'” Martinez said. “We’re collecting the flight receipts and then we’re going to work with all students to reimburse them for their airfare.”
Siddiqui packed her bags and booked the next flight back to the U.S. When she got back to her home in Houston, Siddiqui expected the chaos to be over, but she started getting sick with a cough and a fever — common symptoms of COVID-19.
She was tested at a coronavirus testing center, where she was told the results would take two weeks to get to her. But soon, her symptoms worsened, so her mom drove her to the ER.
“They took me to the corona wing, which is basically like a quarantine space in the hospital, and they were like, ‘Oh yeah, [two weeks] is way too long. Your symptoms are getting worse. We have a test that will tell you in 24 to 48 hours.’ Which really confused me as to why there was a discrepancy,” Siddiqui said.
After all that, Siddiqui received her results and tested negative for COVID-19. Her symptoms have since dissipated, and she now believes she had the flu.
Not all students enrolled in study abroad programs had such a close experience with COVID-19. However, many semesters abroad were turned upside down by the pandemic.
Junior Bobby Watson had a whole year of studying abroad planned. He spent the fall semester in a CIEE program in St. Petersburg, Russia, where he made friends and took classes to improve his language skills. For the spring, he was set to take classes at the Universidad Torcuato Di Tella and the Universidad del Salvador in Buenos Aires, Argentina, through the Institute For Study Abroad (IFSA).
“Before I even went to college, I knew I wanted to study abroad,” Watson said. “At some point in my second year [at Trinity], I decided I wanted to minor in Russian as well as Spanish. I really like studying languages.”
After his semester in Russia, Watson came back to the U.S. for winter break.
The Argentina program started later than most — not until early March. Still, the beginning of Watson’s semester went as planned. He attended orientation and traveled to Iguazu Falls as a bonding trip with the approximately 70 people on the program. But as soon as they got back to Buenos Aires, they were all immediately put in quarantine — not because of their short trip, but because they had recently arrived from the U.S.
“So, most of us weren’t able to go to classes for that first week,” Watson said.
On Tuesday, March 17, the students were supposed to be out of their 14-day quarantine and starting classes. That never happened. On March 15, President Fernandez of Argentina announced that Argentina would close its borders for 15 days to non-residents in order to combat the spread of coronavirus. People could leave the country, but they couldn’t come in.
The IFSA program chose to close two days after.
“Everyone [was] just scrambling to get a flight back home, and also figure out credits, because none of us even started classes,” Watson said.
Watson flew home on March 18, having spent most of his time in Argentina quarantined. He is now living at home in Wimberley, Texas, taking online classes provided by IFSA.
“My abroad program claims that they will offer at least 12 credits online,” Watson said. “I might also opt to try and take some online classes through some other university to see if I can get credit that way.”
Senior Jerod Bork was on a study away program this semester at Boston University Los Angeles. Bork had two internships through the same program in Summer 2018. Post-graduation, he planned to stay in LA to pursue a career in filmmaking.
“I had done the program a little while ago and I wanted to come back out to LA because it’s such a great transition period because while you’re out there, you’re working in the industry, you’re surrounded by people who want to be doing the same things as you,” Bork said.
Bork took classes through the university while also interning for Aureate Films, a small production and animation company. He lived in an apartment that was rented by the Boston University Los Angeles, but he was already talking to his roommate about getting a different apartment after the semester ended.
“I knew I wasn’t going to come back just because I was advised to. But it wasn’t until when I learned I was going to be losing that housing … when everything flipped on its head,” Bork said.
On March 16, Bork got an email from Boston University, saying that he had to move out. His initial thought was that he would just accelerate his original plan — just move to a new apartment with his roommate earlier.
“However, since the [filmmaking] industry sort of grinded to a halt, there’s no way we would be able to get jobs,” Bork said. “I kind of realized I was going to have to wait this thing out in a place where I wouldn’t have to pay rent.”
Bork is now back in Texas, splitting time between living with his dad in Austin and his girlfriend in San Antonio. He still takes online classes through Boston University Los Angeles and does remote work for his internship.
“We’re all just waiting for this to blow over,” Bork said. “For me specifically, it’s just kind of keeping in touch with people in LA, so that as soon as things start picking up again … I can get back out there.”
According to Martinez, 53 of the 54 Trinity students studying abroad this semester are back safely at home. The final student has not yet returned to their home country of Honduras, as the country’s borders were closed until March 29.
In addition to asking students abroad to return home, the Center for International Engagement has also canceled study abroad trips scheduled for this upcoming summer. The only summer study abroad trip that is not yet canceled is the Costa Rica Ecology program.
“The only reason [this is not cancelled] is, we don’t have any financial obligation with the Monte Verde Institute in Costa Rica,” Martinez said. “We know — almost everybody knows — that this [program] is not going to happen.”
On April 13, the Center for International Engagement will announce their final decision on the Costa Rica program.
More information about study abroad and the novel coronavirus can be found on Trinity University’s COVID-19 website.
| Class of 2020 | Major: English | Minor: Creative Writing