Study abroad students heartbroken at home after being separated from host universities: Office of International Education distributes $8,000 in flight reimbursements

Before news of the coronavirus hit, junior Natalie Cooney was supposed to spend the rest of her semester learning wildlife biology in one of the most biodiverse regions on Earth. 

She went on excursions to majestic islands and beaches, passed toucans and monkeys on her way to class, and planted native tree species with local conservation groups during her stay in the middle of Costa Rica’s cloud forest. 

“I lived about 20 minutes outside the nearest town – it was truly in the jungle,” she said. 

But as the pandemic grew increasingly dire, a sense of dread began to close in on the remote campus, located over 2,000 miles away from home.

Framingham State began urging students to return to the U.S., and meetings at the Costa Rican campus to discuss the coronavirus situation ramped up to a weekly basis. Entire countries’ borders, like that of nearby Guatemala, were being shut down. And Cooney’s parents, both healthcare workers “dealing with this head-on,” saw cases of the virus balloon on a first-hand basis as friends around the world were being sent home. 

“Hearing [of] people leaving kind of put a shadow on the whole experience, because I knew we were going to be leaving,” she said. 

But after boarding a 1:30 a.m. flight home, the sense of loss really began to hit her. “Definitely even though I’m home now, I’m really missing it. I think the best word for this is grief – I’m really missing all the experiences I lost, and chances are, the people I met, I’ll never see them again.”

Cooney was one of 28 students who received a combined total of $8,000 in flight reimbursements as the Office of International Education (OIE) faced an unprecedented set of challenges.

Jane Decatur, OIE director, said, “Really, nothing can come close to this pandemic. You would have to go back to the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918-19 to find anything like this.”

The process of getting students home was filled with uncertainty, said Lorretta Holloway, vice president for enrollment and student development. “You make a plan … based on current policy and something happening, and then you have to re-do based on changes.”

“I think it went as smoothly as it possibly could,” Holloway, whom Decatur reports to, added.

The reimbursements cover up to $500 of the cost of the flight home for each student out of $8,000 in total. These reimbursements do not negatively impact financial aid. 

The University would love to be able to provide more, but does not have the resources to afford to do so, Holloway said.

Holloway said she was thankful the Financial Aid Office was able to continue to allow students to use financial aid for the cost of their study abroad experience. “It was a relief the financial aid was changed to let them continue using it – looking at how many students it would affect, [it] made sense at the time.”

Holloway added that while all students abroad did eventually return, the University could not legally force them to come back, adding another layer of complexity. 

OIE Assistant Director Jennifer Hyde played a large role in getting these communications out, alongside Decatur. 

The office initially sent out an advisory over email, then increased communications with growing urgency warning students of the risk of being stranded in a foreign country if they chose not to return. 

It didn’t help that at first, no one understood the gravity of the situation. 

Holloway said, “I don’t think a lot of people – especially younger people … [are] necessarily paying attention to the news, and if you’re in a different country, and not fluent in the language, you’re less likely to pay attention.”

Students on a winter break trip to China were sent home prior, undergoing a 14-day quarantine upon their return, but no one predicted how far the virus would eventually spread, she said. 

She added, “Some of the information had been, ‘We’re not shutting down, things will be fine’ … I think for me what really changed the scenario was when Austria stopped trains coming in from Italy.

“Countries just don’t do that arbitrarily,” she said.

Even in Italy itself, people underestimated the seriousness of the pandemic. 

Sophomore Abby Burke, who studied in Florence, said, “As far as the Italian people, we’d go to restaurants and people would be like, ‘I don’t know why they’re sending you home.’ It kind of wasn’t a big deal, and when I got to the United States, everyone was freaking out,” she said. 

She added many people didn’t wear masks, viewing the virus as an over-hyped case of the flu.

Though the Lombardi region of northern Italy was beginning to shut down, cities like Milan are some distance away from Tuscany, so it still felt far away, she said. 

Things began to intensify further south in Italy as she was getting ready to leave. “In Florence, the last week or two when it started getting big, Florence was actually a ghost town, and we were all like, ‘I’ve never seen it that dead.’ Normally near the cathedral, there’d be huge crowds of people and a lot of tourists, but there weren’t a lot of people at all.”

Nearly the entire airport, she added, was filled with other study-abroad students fleeing the country.  

Airport insanity was a common experience students had while they tried to get back home.

Psychology major Sashell Thebaud said she stayed up until four in the morning, sat through a five-hour bus ride, and had an eight-hour flight home after her original flight was cancelled. She was worried about lockdowns potentially extending to the U.K. A senior by credits, she studied at East Anglia University. 

“It’s been weird coming home,” she said. She had to take an uber from Logan Airport instead of her family bringing her home, to prevent the possibility of spreading the virus, and was quarantined to her room for two weeks. 

Senior Margaret Richardson, who studied graphic design in Belfast, Northern Ireland, said, “I actually messed everything up at the airport. I got way too early for my flight, and they shut down the airport because of what was going on.”

“When I got to Logan [Airport] … no one checked me for my temperature, [and] no one was asking if I was fine. It was kind of freaky – they were just letting everyone in,” she added.

Despite the struggles of getting home, she said, “I’m definitely relieved. I’m thinking about the alternative – being stuck in a city I’m not entirely familiar with.” 

Still, the ordeal has been a financial hit. “All the money I used to pay for study abroad was me taking out loans,” Richardson said. “I wouldn’t say it’s wasted money, but I definitely would have done it differently if I knew this was going to happen.”

The transition to online coursework through her host university has also been challenging, she said. It doesn’t help that there is a five-hour time difference between Massachusetts and Northern Ireland – meaning she now has to wake up at 5 a.m. in the morning to attend virtual classes. 

Though some students expressed disappointment regarding the quality of online education at their host universities, Decatur said she is thankful everyone was able to find options. The only foreseeable alternative, she said, would have been to find a professor at FSU to cobble together an independent study with halfway into the semester.                                      

“By the time everyone had returned, all the programs were offering the remainder of the semester remotely, so our students could finish their semester of coursework with their study-abroad program,” she said. “We had a great initial response from faculty indicating willingness to do independent studies, but we didn’t have to utilize their generosity. We certainly appreciated the faculty response to this unprecedented situation.”

Decatur said the complexity of the overall logistical process – from getting students home, to arranging coursework upon their return – was historic in magnitude. 

“The closest I’ve come on a small scale is when I directed the closure of a site in China during the SARS outbreak, with the evacuation of students back to the U.S. and [closing] a site in Kathmandu due to communist insurgent activities, both of which generated travel warnings from the U.S. Department of State to leave the countries,” she said. “Also, after 9/11, I was involved in reducing the visibility of a program site in Rome to make the site more anonymous and less a terrorist target.”

She said, “The biggest aspect of the effort to get people home has to be the extremely rapid pace of change in trying to offer guidance. Because so little was known about the virus, what was offered as official guidance during one day, would literally change overnight, causing a complete change in advising our students.  

“This caused my office a high level of stress and frustration as we tried to advise students with the best knowledge at the time to help insure their health and safety abroad. The constant shifting in official guidance caused students confusion as to what to follow and great disappointment as they began to contemplate returning home,” she said.   

Once students returned, OIE hosted weekly video sessions to “unpack” their emotions from the trip to help them adjust to coming back home much earlier than expected. 

Students interviewed thanked OIE Assistant Director Jennifer Hyde for her role in sharing resources to help them adjust during these virtual spaces. 

For instance, Cooney, the student studying in Costa Rica, said she was grateful for being given “a space to grieve together” for the loss of their study-abroad experience, and thought that “the study-abroad office did the best they possibly could with an unprecedented situation.” 

Hyde herself said, “I want to thank our students as not only did they consistently communicate with us through every step of this process, but they also remained calm and collected during a time of uncertainty. I am so proud of them. We’ve connected virtually throughout the month to reflect on their experiences and grieve their lost time abroad. 

“I want to recognize that all of our students put in countless hours of work in order to study abroad – from organizing academics [and] finances [to] travel logistics. Although they had to return early, students have shared they’re grateful for their time abroad, and have hopes to return in the future,” she said.

Hyde added she is still happy to assist students in their study-abroad journeys and will be available for virtual appointments over the summer. 

Decatur said, “I would like to thank everyone in the administration for their support throughout this time, and especially the students themselves. They all demonstrated calm throughout the uncertainties surrounding the escalating threat to remaining abroad and were prompt to respond as we needed information from them. “

She said, “The importance of studying abroad is not diminished by this pandemic, and the experiences that students will take away from such an experience will influence them for the rest of their lives. Our students who had their experience interrupted so soon have come back with positive experiences and memories, in spite of the abrupt end.”

Holloway, who thanked her fellow administrators and the staff at the OIE, said she foresees the pandemic having long-lasting impacts on the study-abroad industry for years to come. 

“I think the study-abroad industry is going to face a hit because people are going to be less willing to go far away,” she said. Parents may also be more hesitant to let their children go to a different country. This trend is something she’s “already seeing in surveys for incoming freshmen – that they’re less comfortable going far away from school.”  

Financial constraints will also limit the number of students studying abroad, she said. 

“Our students are people who work a lot to pay for school, and their families work to help them pay,” she said, adding she grew up with little money to travel herself. “I remember when I took students on the English to England trip, there were several students who said they had multiple people in their family donate to help them go – you know, $50 bucks here, $200 bucks there, that sort of thing – and if you have that scenario and there are people who are losing their jobs, they’re not going to be able to afford it.”

“I also think some of the smaller study-abroad programs are not going to be able to recover because they’re smaller and they’re not going to be able to fill their spots, or if they were reimbursing people or giving people some of their money back, they’re not going to be able to recover.” 

She added, “At least [in the] short term, there may be less options for students, too, because all of these smaller companies may not make it and it will only be the bigger companies left [with] options for students.”

She hopes that after the health crisis settles, students will still consider taking advantage of the benefits of studying abroad, and in travelling overall. Having lived in Philadelphia, Alaska, Michigan, and Kansas, she said, “You don’t necessarily know what’s special until you go away.

“I’ve never had a student come back the same person” after studying abroad, she said. “They’ve always improved their outlook on life, their faith in themselves, and the kinds of things they can do.”

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