Frantic flights and canceled plans: Students abroad face chaos and disappointment as they return home

Frantic flights and canceled plans: Students abroad face chaos and disappointment as they return home

Students who were studying abroad had to return to the United States immediately, many having to cancel their plans to travel to other cities during their time abroad. Photo illustration by Annika Gordon.

Sophomore marketing major Isabel Cornejo woke up on March 12 to dozens of text messages from her study abroad program and multiple missed calls from her mother at her host family’s house in Granada, Spain. 

“This person is now returning to the U.S.” 

“Your parents can’t visit anymore.” 

“Call me back!” 

Isabel Cornejo was studying abroad in Granada, Spain. Photo courtesy of Isabel Cornejo.

She was baffled by the number of notifications. 

Cornejo had gone to bed early the night before and had missed the news of President Trump’s announcement of suspension of travel from Europe. That day, dozens of people were absent from her classes as students returned to the U.S. When her program called a meeting for that evening, she knew it wasn’t a good sign but remained hopeful that it wouldn’t get canceled. Instead, the program directors informed the 25 students that they had to return to the U.S. 

Nearly one hundred UP students found themselves in similar situations, scrambling to book flights to the U.S, after UP Studies Abroad strongly recommended they return amid the COVID-19 pandemic. All students except three who are sheltering in place with family abroad have returned to the U.S., according to Director of Studies Abroad Kallan Picha. Studies Abroad has also canceled summer study abroad programs and will offer students the opportunity to take virtual courses during the summer. 

Students studying abroad were forced to pack their bags and return back to the United States. Photo illustration by Paula Ortiz Cazaubon.

Studies Abroad issued recommendations for students to return to permanent addresses at different dates for different programs, depending on partner programs’ decisions, situations in different countries, and ability to guarantee online instruction, Picha explained. 

UP’s Rome program was the first UP program to be strongly encouraged to return, Picha said. Junior biology major Shannon Leffler was studying in Rome with other students from U.S. universities through John Cabot University, UP’s partner school. She had plans to visit the Amalfi Coast, Malta, Switzerland, Hungary and Austria throughout April and May. She expected the email on Feb. 29 from UP recommending students return, but also said there was a lot of uncertainty as students from various schools received different information. 

Rome, Italy, 2019.
by Molly Lowney / The Beacon
Shannon Leffler was studying abroad in Rome, Italy. Photo courtesy of Shannon Leffler.

The lack of seriousness with which the situation was treated by some Italians also contributed to some people’s surprise about canceling the program, Leffler said. 

“In my religion class, another student raised their hand and asked our professor if the outbreak got worse, if they’d send us back to America, and he kind of laughed at it and was like, ‘No, they’ve never done that in my time teaching here,’” Leffler said. 

Sophomore biology major Lauryn Harland was on the same program and said that many people in Italy seemed to not recognize the severity of the situation early on. 

Lauryn Harland was studying abroad in Rome, Italy. Photo courtesy of Lauren Harland.

“No one was freaking out, and everyone was saying it was no big deal, which made all of the students feel like it was no big deal either,” Harland said. “I used to go to this Italian restaurant, and one of the owners said it was absolutely idiotic what was happening.” 

Leffler and Harland returned to the U.S. the following week, and Studies Abroad has compensated them for their flights. Rome has been the only program for which students have been compensated for flights, Picha said. Some students on other programs expressed frustration that they had to suddenly move up return flights they’d had for May and pay hundreds of dollars in some cases. 

Corniglia, Italy, 2017.
by Annika Gordon / The Beacon

Italy experienced a coronavirus outbreak earlier than other countries and Studies Abroad determined that students needed to return to the U.S. as fast as possible, so it compensated their flights, Picha said. A few weeks later, factors globally had changed and other countries were in similar situations, but Studies Abroad lacked the funds to cover flights for all students, as it does not operate on a profit-making basis, Picha said. 

“We were every single hour evaluating when to make that recommendation for each program, based on the housing situation, the border crossing situation, the international flight situation, how much control we had over that cancelation versus partners being involved,” Picha said. “It was the craziest week of my 10-year career for sure.” 

Studies Abroad is working with all of its partner programs to see what money can be returned to students, if any, for housing, meal stipends, and excursions, Picha said. At this point, Studies Abroad anticipates some refunds for students on the London, Salzburg and Fremantle programs. 

Tübingen, Germany, 2019.
by Annika Gordon / The Beacon

Sophomore civil engineering major Hallie Turk, studying in Salzburg, Austria, was not compensated for her flight after Salzburgers were strongly recommended to return to the U.S. on March 19. Turk returned to her hometown of Silverdale, Washington, on March 20, which means that she missed out on her own trip to Norway that she had planned. 

Hallie Turk was studying abroad in Salzburg, Austria. Photo courtesy of Hallie Turk.

“I was pretty upset. It’s hard to feel like you’re robbed of the last part of your study abroad experience. But I also understood, because the health and safety factor is so huge,” Turk said. “I was mentally prepared for it, but I think some of us were surprised. Others were not expecting it to become that bad.”

She described an eerie-looking scene as airports were practically empty, with most shops and restaurants closed. When she arrived at Washington Dulles International Airport, officials were at the gate waiting to ask passengers if they had symptoms of COVID-19, had been in contact with a confirmed positive case, or had traveled to affected countries, Turk said. 

Salzburg, Austria, 2019.
by Molly Lowney / The Beacon

Mary Clyde, a sophomore Spanish and psychology major, saw similarly empty airports, as she was one of the last people to leave from the Granada program. Initially, program coordinators told students to leave Spain by March 23, but later moved the recommended departure deadline to March 16, as Spain issued a state of emergency on March 13.

Clyde’s March 16 flight had been cancelled, but she scheduled another for March 20 from Barcelona to Switzerland. There were only about 20 people on the flight, she said. Her mom called her, panicked, as soon as she landed in Switzerland, asking, “You made it out?” Clyde’s uncle in Barcelona told her that he’d seen many flights listed as canceled on display screens and passengers turning back after she boarded. 

Mary Clyde was studying abroad in Granada, Spain. Photo courtesy of Mary Clyde.

When she arrived in Chicago, officials took her temperature and asked if she was experiencing symptoms of COVID-19. She was not. But a few days after returning to the U.S., Clyde started experiencing chest pain, coughing and headaches and also learned that she had been in contact with someone in Spain who tested positive for COVID-19. Her coronavirus test came back negative, but she urges people to take precautions so that they don’t have to get tested. 

Granada, Spain, 2017.
by Annika Gordon / The Beacon

“I’m telling people — take care of yourselves. You do not want to have this stick up your brain for 30 seconds. It hurt for two days straight afterward,” Clyde said of her COVID-19 testing experience.

Clyde’s self-quarantine in her room ended a few days ago, as other students on study abroad have also emerged from their recommended two-week quarantines upon returning to the U.S. 

Junior communication studies major Natalie Olsen’s quarantine recently ended on April 5 after returning from Galway, Ireland. She had been planning to travel to Holland, Portugal and Morocco throughout the rest of spring semester instead of watching Netflix’s “The Circle” and learning TikTok dances at home in San José. 

Galway, Ireland, 2019.
by Molly Lowney / The Beacon
Natalie Olsen was studying abroad in Galway, Ireland. Photo courtesy of Natalie Olsen.

“It’s going to sound very cheesy, but (I’ve learned) to appreciate the moment you’re in because you genuinely don’t know when it’s going to happen again. That last week that we were walking around Galway, I felt like I was experiencing everything for the first time (because I’d spent every weekend away from Galway),” Olsen said. “It’s so interesting because — this is going to sound conceited — but my program friends and I were talking about how no one else will ever understand how it feels.” 

Olsen also described a lot of uncertainty and mixed messages leading up to the cancelation of the program by UP’s partner, Willamette University. On March 11, UP said the program would continue. The next day, UP strongly recommended students to come home, and by the end of the day, Willamette had cancelled the program. Olsen understood the rapid changes and confusion because it was an unprecedented situation, but frantically leaving and seeing St. Patrick’s Day parades canceled was not how she expected her study abroad experience to end. 

Copenhagen, Denmark, 2019.
by Molly Lowney / The Beacon

Other people also had different send-offs from their programs than they had anticipated. Harland stayed up until 4 a.m. with her friends the day before her flight, took one last walk to Rome’s Trevi Fountain and drank her favorite Italian beer, Peroni, on the roof of her apartment building. Meanwhile, instead of the farewell dinner the program had planned, the Granada program went out for tapas the day after it was cancelled. 

“It was so sad because I loved Terra (a tapas bar). We used to all go after our classes on certain days,” Cornejo said. “One of our friends, she started crying at random moments because she was just so upset. Then at the end, we took a picture together and more people started crying.” 

As they’ve left Europe, the students have also had to adjust to online classes, which comes with unique challenges in their cases, as some of their assignments require visiting cultural sites. For example, Leffler’s art history class met at different Roman monuments each week, and the final paper is based on a walk around Rome. Instead, the professor uploads photos and videos to make up for the inability to tour sites in-person. 

Neuschwanstein, Germany, 2019.

The students are also navigating some “reverse culture shock” that has been complicated due to their unexpected return to the U.S. 

“It’s harder to adjust to reverse culture shock when you’ve been forced out,” Turk said. “We’ve had a really hard time emotionally being back, especially the year-long students. But even the semester students, we were only there for two-and-a-half months, and that’s a little over half the time that we were supposed to be there. That’s a pretty significant portion of that experience that we lost. And that’s not anyone’s fault, but it’s just been hard for all of us adjusting back and dealing with those feelings.” 

Clare, Ireland, 2019.
by Molly Lowney / The Beacon

Picha remarked that she has been amazed by students’ attitudes and resilience throughout the cancelation of their programs. 

“We’ve been really impressed with our students and with their families. They have been very understanding, very communicative, very thoghtful in their messaging,” Picha said. “There are a lot of decisions that we’ve had to make, and I really appreciate the understanding and the grace that everyone has been granting us, because we’ve had to make a lot of decisions that have also made us sad.” 

Studies Abroad has also created a series of videos for students on re-entry, transitioning to virtual learning and creating community in digital spaces. The page will be updated with more videos and resources. 

Sevilla, Spain, 2017.
by Annika Gordon / The Beacon

The students have also had time to reflect on their experience studying abroad, a key college moment for many, during a historic event. 

“I think we get really consumed in ourselves and we don’t realize the bigger picture, so I think realizing that things are much bigger than ourselves has become very clear,” Leffler said. “Yes, I wanted to stay and study abroad, and no, I didn’t want to spend 14 days alone when I came back. And seeing people being forced to stay home makes me realize that it’s not all about you.” 

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that Hallie Turk missed out on her program's spring tour but this is not the case. Turk only missed out on a personal trip to Norway.

Dora Totoian is a reporter and the Opinion editor for The Beacon. She can be reached