Studying away is one of the hallmark experiences many Gustavus students get to enjoy during their Gustie career. Some go on two or three week-long trips for J-term, and others leave for full semesters; a special group of us went in the infamous Spring of 2020. I interviewed seven Gusties who were studying away around the world when the Coronavirus shocked the globe.
My personal experience be January in Lyon, France, where I spent my time studying French, getting to know the city and making lots of travel plans. Right before being sent home in March, I was on winter break visiting friends in Greece and Turkey. A week after I returned to my student apartment in Lyon, I was on a plane headed home to Minnesota. In this wild turn of events filled with sadness, confusion, anger, and anxiety, I knew others like me must have similar accounts of that fateful week worth sharing. Here are their stories:
Senior Carrie Bather’s birthday was right around the corner. Determined to spend her 21st birthday in Galway, the then-junior scheduled her last-minute flight home from Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day. Bather and her friends had heard about the virus spreading through Europe, but remained optimistic that they would stay.
“I don’t think I’m alone in saying I did not take it seriously. Just that ignorant stance of ‘I’m untouchable,’” Bather said.
Her program, like many others, prioritized both protecting students’ experiences as well as their health and safety.
“They wanted us to stay just as badly as we wanted to stay,” Bather said.
Within the first two weeks of March, Bather went from traveling through France and Belgium to realizing the Celtic Sea wouldn’t keep the Coronavirus from affecting Galway.
“When all the [Irish] Galway students got sent home, we were like, oh. I guess we had to stop kidding ourselves at some point,” Bather said. “Within a matter of days, they cancelled everything on St. Patrick’s Day. That hadn’t happened like ever.”
The quick turnaround made for zero time to process what was happening.
Bather was still able to take home good memories from her time in Ireland, though.
“The live music is the best I have seen in my entire life. I only have fond memories, truly.”
To the south, two Gusties– Seniors Stella Hadjiyanis and Ellie Anderson– were spending their semester in Athens, Greece with a program called College Year in Athens (CYA). Their program and student housing apartments were located in the heart of Athens, just a walk away from the Acropolis.
“It’s like its own liberal arts college for Americans in Athens,” Anderson said.
“We all lived in different apartments in the city like a ten-minute walk from the Panathenaic Stadium and our program site,” Hadjiyanis said.
Anderson was most nervous about navigating the new language and culture, but she took a Modern Greek language course and highlighted the Mediterranean food and Greek islands as her favorite parts of her experience.
Hadjiyanis mentioned being anxious about leaving her family for a long period of time, but luckily for her she chose a location in which she was able to visit Greek relatives.
Into March, CYA was confident they would have their students stay, even through a quarantine. However, things changed quickly once President Trump issued a travel ban.
“We were holding on to any hope, and they were trying to reassure us, but things escalated fast,” Anderson said.
“I heard about Trump’s travel ban at like 2 a.m., and by 7 a.m. I was on a flight home,” Hadjiyanis said.
Leaving no time to say goodbyes or get one last gyro, leaving Athens was sudden and scary.
Despite this extraordinary event, Anderson encourages others to seek out a study away experience.
“Don’t be intimidated by the process of studying abroad, because it’s so worth it to get there… all the visa stuff… it’s definitely worth it,” Anderson said.
Across the continent, Senior Ja’de Lin Till had arrived in Malaysia at the beginning of January. For most students, studying away involves immersing themselves amongst unknown people and languages. For Till, it was different.
“I think I was just excited to go to a different place but I think I was excited also about the cultural experience I was going to get–as an Asian person… that experience of studying abroad in an area where there’s a lot of people that look like you… it feels very different. I’m going from this place where not a lot of people look like me to a place where a lot do and where I understand the same language, that’s not something that happens a lot in America,” Till said.
Till had entered a new country and a new culture, but felt more at home than ever.
When she found out she would have to go home again Till said, “I was upset that I had to leave…but my friends were leaving anyways…[and] even though we had this amazing experience taken away from us, we have an experience that no one else can speak on,” Till said.
Navigating a semester away as well as a pandemic brought Till a sense of confidence.
“I think for people who are reading this or interested in [studying] abroad–I think it is a fantastic experience and everyone should do it. The sense of freedom and the sense of just like independence and like mobility that you get when you navigate this whole experience by yourself is incredible and you feel a sense of accomplishment when you go through all of this,” Till said.
All the way in South America, the newly-graduated Andraya Parenteau was spending her final semester of undergrad in Buenos Aires, Argentina. But her journey didn’t begin there.
“I chose Argentina because actually Santiago, Chile was my first choice but they had civil unrest so that program got cancelled. I had to find a new program so my study abroad experience was just like a whole hot mess right from the beginning,” Parenteau said.
Parenteau was a month away from going to Chile when she had to switch programs and go to Argentina instead.
Parenteau remembers when she first heard about the virus.
“Actually my host mom [. . .] was totally on top of it–we were watching the news every night at dinner,” Parentea said.
“I think South America was one of the last places that it spread to,” Parenteau said.
Even with her knowledge of the spread and the extra days’ warning, being sent home was still a major shock.
Like many other students studying away, Parenteau learned a lot about the unknowns of traveling.
“The main thing was no matter how much you plan, it can always go wrong. And that was like my whole experience, with originally going to Chile and having to switch a month before, and then being sent home after ten weeks… I learned a lot of flexibility,” Parenteau said.
Thinking back on her feelings about being sent home, Parenteau noted her feelings have changed.
“At this point I’ve come to terms with it but at first I was really sad…but I would say I feel lucky,” Parenteau said.
Parenteau’s final remarks were ones of gratitude.
“I’d like to say a huge thank you to Bryan Messerly and Matthew Hirman [CICE staff] – they were like my saving graces throughout this entire experience,” Parenteau said.
Hearing the experiences of my fellow Gusties from all around the world was a unifying experience. We ‘Spring 2020-ers’ will have this crazy, chaotic, and unprecedented experience in common forever. Some things were the same, and some were different, but I think we would all agree that our experiences even within our short time abroad upstage the reason for our return.
And again, a big collective ‘Thank You’ to Bryan Messerly and Matthew Hirman at CICE; their diligence, care, and hard work getting us all home safely helped us to retain only fond memories of Spring 2020.