Study Abroad

“It straight-up sucked”: students reflect on COVID-19 ending the study abroad program

By Joe States

Alice McLoughlin in front of the Trevi Fountain, Rome

When Alice McLoughlin woke up on the morning of Feb. 29, she checked her phone to see she had received an email from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s study abroad program.

The Italy study abroad program had been canceled, and students were to return to the U.S. as soon as possible.

“It straight-up sucked,” laughed Alice in our interview. “[Study abroad] was the one thing that I really, really wanted to do in college. I’d been looking forward to study abroad for like ten years and that was kinda my only chance.”

UW-Madison’s International Academic Program has over 200 programs in 68 countries, with approximately 1,200 students enrolled in the spring semester according to John Lucas, UW-Madison’s Assistant Vice Chancellor of University Communications.

 When the programs were canceled in response to the growing COVID-19 pandemic, hundreds of stories like Alice’s played out through late February and early March across the world.

Alice, a sophomore at UW-Madison majoring in political science and psychology, was studying in Rome for the spring semester. Though she’d heard about the spread of COVID-19 back in early February, Alice said she had been told that she wouldn’t have to return to the U.S.

“There was like a whole week where my program, CIEE, they were like, ‘you can stay, we’re not going to cancel,’” Alice recalled.

But the situation quickly changed.

“One day, there was no cases in Italy, and then it was like there was a thousand, and then it kept doubling overnight,” Alice said. “I really didn’t think it was going to affect my life that much until all of a sudden I woke up and I had to go home.”

The Monday after receiving the email, Alice was on a plane back to the US.

“It was kinda just really sad because it was this big life dream of mine,” Alice said. “I understand why it got canceled, it kinda had to be done because it was starting to turn into a dangerous situation, but it was really disappointing.”

Karissa Niederkorn, a fellow UW-Madison sophomore majoring in community non-profit leadership, was studying in Ireland when President Trump announced the European travel ban on March 11. Echoing Alice’s experiences less than two weeks prior, Karissa said the situation changed suddenly.

“It all happened so fast. It went from not a problem at all … to book a flight home as soon as possible,” Karissa said. 

She’d been planning a trip to Belgium that week, and was actually headed to the airport when she got the news.

“Instead, I booked my flight home and started packing, and I was home two days later. It was kinda hectic,” Karissa said. 

Karissa Niederkorn visiting the Kylemore Abbey, Ireland

But other students weren’t quite so lucky.

“A few of my roommates went to London a few hours before the travel ban was announced, so they had to stay there for a few days,” Karissa said. “The airports got really crazy, so people were waiting like six hours to get through customs.”

Karissa’s reflection on the situation matched Alice’s closely.

“It kinda sucks, just cause you plan out study abroad, and it’s kinda like your one chance to go around Europe,” Karissa said. “And so then to have a 48-hour notice and be on a plane back home kinda sucks.”

Now, both are back in the U.S., under quarantine and coping with all the difficulties that come with it. Alice is in New York, and although she isn’t in a virus hotspot, she’s been stuck indoors for most of the last few months.

“My mom’s a nurse, so she works at a hospital, so she sees Coronavirus patients everyday, so I can’t leave the house,” Alice said. “I haven’t seen anybody except my parents in six weeks.”

She said she’s been doing paint-by-numbers to fill the time.

“I’m going insane,” she joked.

Karissa has also been stuck indoors with her family, but isn’t home quite yet.

“My mom has breast cancer, so she’s going through radiation treatment, so I’m staying at my grandparent’s for a while, just until she’s completely safe,” Karissa said.

Karissa is looking forward to when quarantine ends and she can finally see her friends and go outside again.

“My friends and I are all going to hang out, and we were thinking of going camping,” she said.

Alice, after spending so much time with her family in New York, said she would like to “see someone besides my parents or get a burrito from Chipotle. Or visit Wisconsin.”

With the Covid-19 pandemic constantly changing, the future of the study abroad program remains in the air. Although all summer programs have been canceled, UW Study Abroad has held off a decision for the 2020 fall semester.

“Due to the dynamic and varied circumstances with COVID-19, we will continue to review each individual location in assessing risks,” UW Study Abroad said in a statement to students.

Despite how the program was cut short, Karissa talked fondly about one especially fun day back in Ireland.

“It was raining a lot every day. So there was one day where it was really nice outside, and we just went and sat outside at the water and just hung out,” Karissa recalled. “And everyone from the university was there. No one went to class that day cause it was so nice. 

After thinking for a moment, Karissa continued.

“And that was the same week that I flew home,” she said. “Which is crazy to think about, because it seemed like such a normal day.”

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