Students abroad in non-European countries decide whether to return home

Arrington Luck

As students studying abroad in Europe have faced course cancellations and advisories to return home by both their programs and the College, students studying outside of Europe are also grappling with how to maintain safety and health as cases of COVID-19 increase across the globe.  

Earlier this month, President Donald Trump announced a restriction on travel from Europe in response to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, with most of Europe being designated as “Level 3, Avoid Nonessential Travel” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). On Friday, this status was applied globally, with the CDC recommending that nonessential travel outside of the U.S. be avoided entirely. 

“We strongly recommended and advised that all students studying in CDC level 3 countries consider returning home,” wrote International Education and Study Away Director Christina Stoiciu in an email to the Record. “Our concern from the very beginning was student health and safety as well as academic continuity.” 

Ultimately, Stoiciu emphasized that students had to make their own decisions about whether to remain abroad or return to their home countries. 

“Because these study abroad programs are operated by third-party providers, and students are participating as part of an academic leave from the College, they have the right to decide to remain,” she said. 

While study away programs outside of Europe varied in their responses, both with regard to academics and their physical operations, most opted for an online alternative to in-person coursework. 

Maddie Hurwitz ’21, who studied in New Zealand at the Victoria University of Arcadia University, was expected to leave New Zealand by the end of the week as her program decided to transfer coursework online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“My program remained optimistic that they would be able to get us through six more weeks of our classes (through the end of our mid-semester break) and then send us home to finish the semester online, because New Zealand’s outbreak seemed several weeks behind that of Europe,” Hurwitz wrote in an email to the Record.  “However, only about a week later, Air New Zealand (the main airline flying between the U.S. and New Zealand) announced that it was going to cut international flights by 85 [percent] and basically stop flying to the U.S. except for in very select instances.”  

The following day, Hurwitz received word that the program was canceled and students were expected to leave the country. 

To Hurwitz, the ending of her program was bittersweet. “I am happy that I do get to continue my classes online, so it feels like I still get at least some of the study abroad experience, but I grieve the opportunities I missed,” she wrote. 

In the case of Wyndom Chace ’21, who studied in southern Chile with the School for Field Studies, the suspension of her program significantly altered the makeup of the academic work. 

“Many lectures and labs occurred during our group trips,” Chace said. “These ranged from visiting the temperate rainforests of northern Chilean Patagonia to the glaciers in Argentine Patagonia. Had the semester continued as planned, we would have each carried out a field research project for the final month of the semester.” 

Ultimately, Chace described the experience as a positive one. 

“I am very grateful for the field experiences I did have in Patagonia, and I am hoping to draw upon those as the coursework continues online,” she said. 

Dante Hirata-Epstein ’20, however, characterized his experience as jarring. Studying abroad with the School for International Training (SIT) in Nepal, Hirata-Epstein experienced conflicting messaging surrounding the program’s response to COVID-19’s spread. 

Initially, the program was expected to include a week spent at a university in Bhutan; however, the trip was eventually canceled due to concerns over the pandemic.  

“Our program staff told us that, despite having filled out mountains of paperwork to get in, the excursion was canceled and we were going to another part of Nepal instead,” Hirata-Epstein told the Record. “We were generally satisfied with our new excursion plan, but about a week before we were supposed to leave, I woke up to an email saying that all SIT programs were canceled and we had a week to return to our home countries. This was a bit of a shock to both students and program staff, and everyone began to buy flights back.” 

Looking back, Hirata-Epstein said he was happy for the experience but noted that it also contributed to an increasingly stressful situation.  

“I’m glad I didn’t have to go back to campus at any point during this fiasco, but I’m also a little distressed that I couldn’t help my friends on campus with packing and dealing with the stress,” he said. “I also hoped that I could find a job for after graduation while abroad, which was going well enough, but basically everywhere I’ve heard back from has frozen or canceled their hiring process, and as of now my post-grad plan is to stay in quarantine unless things change.” 

Unlike Hurwitz, Chace and Hirata-Epstein, Niku Darafshi ’21 has chosen to stay in her country of study, New Zealand. 

“Being only March and knowing the dramatic measures that the government is taking, I believe that this country will safely and quickly move beyond this pandemic and I will be able to continue studying in this incredible country,” she said. “Obviously, my abroad experience will not be the same as what it has been for the past two months, but I will still be able to hike, explore and spend time with my friends in a safe way.” 

Darafshi was studying abroad at the University of Canterbury with Frontiers Abroad Program, which split academics between fieldwork and classroom time. Following the outbreak of COVID-19, the program offered students the option of taking their classes online. The University of Canterbury also immediately went on break, as New Zealand’s prime minister put the country on lockdown. 

“This is not what I was hoping for with my experience abroad, but I have found that I get to become very close with the other people I am going into lockdown with, and we get to really relax and enjoy the local aspect of the place we live in,” Darafshi said.  

She continued, “I am confident that I may never [have] an opportunity to be in this country with these people studying geosciences ever again. I know NZ is handling the pandemic much better than the U.S. and my safety here is much better than back home…. I am excited [and] a little scared, but know that I have the support of my family, Williams and my community here in NZ through these wild times.”