We Were On Study Abroad When Coronavirus Hit, & Here's Why We Chose To Stay

by Lilli Petersen
Originally Published: 
Photos from Getty

Within the span of weeks, the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, which causes the respiratory illness COVID-19, has gone from a localized concern to a worldwide pandemic. Since January 2020, the virus has spread across the globe, with over 460,000 cases confirmed worldwide as of March 26, per the World Health Organization (WHO). In many areas hit by the virus, borders are closed, and citizens have been ordered to return home or stay in their host countries indefinitely. But for students studying abroad, the coronavirus pandemic has an extra layer of complexity, as they have to weigh the risks of whether to return home or hold out until the end of their time abroad.

In large swaths of the world, authorities have put tight restrictions on residents' movement in attempts to slow the spread of the virus. In Italy, authorities put the entire country on lockdown on March 9 following a spike in cases that overwhelmed the country's health care system. In France, residents were ordered to stay in their homes on March 16. While there is no national lockdown order in the United States as of publishing, residents in some states and urban areas have been told to stay in their homes and to practice social distancing. As of March 27, there are over 85,000 confirmed cases in the United States.

On March 19, U.S. authorities instructed Americans abroad to either return home or plan to stay where they are indefinitely. While many people rushed home, others decided it was safer not to travel, or that staying put was worth the risk. Here, four students on study abroad in Italy, France, and Japan explain to Elite Daily why they chose to stay in their host country, and what they want others to know about their decision.

The following interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Emma, 21
Courtesy of Emma Reitz

Emma Reitz, 21, is from Westminster, Massachusetts, and is studying in Paris, France. She is due to return home in June 2020. As of March 26, France had over 24,900 confirmed cases of the coronavirus.

I heard very little about the coronavirus until late February. Honestly, no one was concerned. I had friends studying in Asia, and I heard bits and pieces, but I never imagined it would get so serious. In late February, I traveled with friends through northern Italy. If I had any inkling the coronavirus was about to explode in the very region I was traveling to, I wouldn't have gone. But I had no idea! We were in Parma, and my friend got an email that her classes would be canceled that week. We laughed and joked about our bad luck. But a few days later, she was told she would have to go home, and the situation immediately became more serious.

On March 14, France ordered all non-essential businesses to close. Sunday evening, we started to hear rumors that President Emmanuel Macron would shut Paris down and quarantine us all. I woke up to messages urging me to pack up and leave from family and friends, so I spent the day packing and panicking about leaving. But after chaos and arguing with my family, I decided it was safer to stay.

I keep finding myself sticking my head out the window looking into the apartments around us, searching for any sign of life.

Paris is a ghost town! There's no traffic, no people. My friend and I are spending a lot of time on the roof of our building — it's finally spring in Paris and it's so hard to be inside. We are reading, chatting, cooking, watching movies, and painting her apartment. I keep finding myself sticking my head out the window looking into the apartments around us, searching for any sign of life. Yesterday, three floors below us, I caught a glimpse of a woman's hands arranging the flowers on her windowsill.

I have logical reasons for staying, too, but in all honesty, I feel like Paris is and always will be home, even though I’m not a citizen. Logically, I have a safe place to stay with a friend and the resources to be here, and if I flew home, I’d put myself and everyone I come into contact with at risk. Also, I think the United States will be in the same position as France soon, so I'd rather begin the confinement process here and be done with it sooner. Anyway, why would I leave a country with cheap health care and good wine?

Everyone has asked me to come home. My university has urged me, my parents have begged, my friends have expressed serious concern. I am not planning on returning, though. I will be here until it is safe to leave. All students studying abroad have different situations, and I've made the best choice for me. In these chaotic times, it’s best to rely on yourself and your own judgement.

Aurélie, 21

Aurélie Pasini, 21, is from Aix-en-Provence, France, and is studying in Fukuoka, Japan. She is due to return home in May 2020. As of March 26, Japan had almost 1,300 confirmed cases of the coronavirus.

In the beginning, the coronavirus was seen as a joke, and we made fun of it as if we would never be touched by it. But once it arrived in Japan and in Fukuoka, things escalated quickly. The authorities were telling us to wash our hands and to wear masks. It seemed surreal, out of a movie. I was more in disbelief than scared.

My school has been closed since Feb. 27, and we have online classes until the end of the semester. But a lot of people seem to be taking this like a vacation — I've never seen so many people out in the city since the coronavirus. All the schools are closed and the weather is really nice, and everyone is out in town or at the park. I went to the club two weeks ago and it was packed.

My friends told me to stay, as the situation in France is really bad.

I’m staying in Japan because I want to graduate, and if I come home I won’t have the credits for my second semester. Also, I really like living in Fukuoka. I’ve made amazing friends here and I want to spend more time with them before our study abroad experience ends. Unfortunately, because of the coronavirus, a lot of students — mostly Americans — are being sent home. It’s sad because I might not be able to see my friends ever again.

My home university and my family wanted me to come home, but respected my choice to stay. My friends told me to stay, as the situation in France is really bad. I have friends here who are trying to contact the consulate of their country in Fukuoka to see if they can go home, and they’ll probably have to do a self-quarantine once they arrive back home. They’re all worried their flight will be canceled at the last minute. Our big concern is that we won't be able to go back because the French or Japanese government will cancel flights. We're afraid of being stuck in Japan.

Evelyn, 20
Courtesy of Evelyn McCammon

Evelyn McCammon, 20, is from Boston, Massachusetts, and was studying in Strasbourg, France. She was due to return home in May 2020. Shortly after this conversation, her school required her to return to the United States in order to maintain her student status. As of March 26, France had over 24,900 confirmed cases of the coronavirus.

I initially heard about the outbreak in China in January, but it seemed far-removed at the time. Once the virus spread to the U.S., I saw it pop up in a lot of American news, but I wasn't hearing much about it in the French media until it arrived here. But over the past three weeks, things have been moving a lot more rapidly. On March 3, my home university recommended all students studying abroad in continental Europe return home to the United States.

It’s lonely and scary to be here. Maybe it would have been easier to go back home.

My school sent me probably a dozen emails about the risks of staying in France. The email said if we chose to stay put, we would have to sign a waiver releasing the school of all liability, which made me feel as if I was being abandoned by choosing to stay. My family has been worried, of course, but supportive nonetheless. A lot of friends have asked me if I’m sure I’m making the right choice, but I don't plan on returning to the U.S. until I complete my year in France.

The main reason I chose to stay is that I couldn't give up my internship working with migrants and marginalized communities. It's a dream come true, and I couldn't let that go. I also know the virus is all over the world at this point, so I would be exposed to it no matter where I am. I chose to stay put because I think traveling all the way home would expose me even more to the virus than I already am and potentially put others in my home community and family at risk. I just hope people realize what a tough decision it is to stay in a study abroad program in a situation like this. I know I’m lucky to have the choice to stay, but at the same time, it hasn't been easy. It’s lonely and scary to be here. Maybe it would have been easier to go back home, but I think in the end, it will be more rewarding to have stayed.

Val, 19

Val, 19, is from Miami Beach, Florida, and is currently studying in Milan, Italy. She is scheduled to come home in May 2020. As of March 26, Italy had over 74,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus.

I live in an Italian dormitory in the outskirts of Milan, and the majority of students here are Italian-born. Only about 20% of students are international. In mid-February, the number of coronavirus cases in Europe started to rise quickly, and so did the increase in fear and anxiety. Almost every day, international students were getting emails from the U.S. consulate and embassies in Italy and Europe about the situation. In the last two weeks of February, almost all the international students went back home because of concerns from their home universities, study abroad programs, and parents. Many of the Italian students left for their hometowns, too. As of March 24, there are about 30 students left at the dormitory, and I’m one out of only two international students left.

I’m fortunate, because I am half Milanese and have my aunts, uncles, and cousins who live in central Milan, who are there for me if I need them. I also already speak Italian and have paid for the full semester of accommodations and food at the dormitory. I feel safer and more comfortable staying as opposed to rushing home and risking exposure on my 12-hour trip back home to the states. To me, it isn't worth the risk of exposing my family and those living in my home community. Almost everybody in my life asked me to come back home, and only my mother, sister, grandmother, and Italian family agree with me that staying put and remaining quarantined in the dorms is the best option. I really miss home, but I feel very happy and safe here at the dorms.

There’s no right or wrong decision during these uncertain times.

In Milan, the streets are quiet. It seems like most people are obeying the lockdown and quarantine rules. People only leave the house to get groceries, and you can wait in line at the store for an hour. I’ve kept myself busy, I practice yoga and meditation with my Italian friends, and try to maintain casual conversations as much as possible. I try to read only the most important news updates, because consuming too much news only increases anxiety and panic. The community still here at the dorms and the emotional support I get from my American and Italian families helps me stay calm. Of course, I feel anxiety and stress on occasion, but I’ve been doing good at handling the different waves of emotions.

I think it’s important to remain as compassionate as possible towards one another during these days. Very soon, America will also be in a bad situation, like Italy is now. We must remain compassionate about why someone chooses to stay or chooses to leave. There’s no right or wrong decision during these uncertain times.

If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support. You can find all Elite Daily's coverage of coronavirus here.

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