Flight from COVID-19: Study abroad students return home amid canceled programs

For students studying abroad, COVID-19 means cutting travel plans short and returning home.

Fourteen Augustana students were studying in seven different countries — Spain, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Australia and Peru — and four students had traveled to Chicago and Washington, D.C. for off-campus programs, according to Erin Kane, study abroad adviser and associate director of the International Programs Office.

All of those students made the difficult decision to return home, as both Augustana and the host institutions have suspended all spring semester programs, said Kane. The last student is scheduled to arrive back in the United States on March 22.

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Emily Worden huddles with friends for a photo while on her semester abroad in Peru. Submitted.

Emily Worden, Peru

Junior Emily Worden was studying in Cusco, Peru, with the International Studies Abroad (ISA) program. She arrived in Cusco on Jan. 25 and spent the next seven weeks immersed in Peruvian culture. Worden hiked through the third largest canyon in the world, learned how to surf in Huanchaco and volunteered at the nonprofit organization Awana Kancha. 

Worden wasn’t initially concerned about COVID-19, even when the first case was discovered in Peru on March 6.

“Although some of my classmates were freaking out, I wasn’t scared at that point and still didn’t think it would affect me all that much,” Worden said.

She and others in her program began to worry once their schools in the U.S. started calling students home. 

“Everything happened so fast,” Worden said. “Everyday we grew more and more concerned.”

On March 13, Worden got an email from the IPO informing her that all study abroad programs were canceled and she would need to leave Peru by March 18. The IPO helped Worden get a flight for 8 p.m. on March 17, but the announcement on March 15 from Peruvian president Martín Vizcarra declaring a national emergency disrupted her plans and made her flight “useless.”

She had to leave the country by midnight the next day or be stuck in Peru for 15 days in police-enforced mandatory social isolation.

Worden and the IPO were able to get her flight moved to March 16, but many of her classmates “are stuck in Cusco without any options.” 

Five flights later, Worden landed in Sioux Falls; she is now in a self-quarantine with a fever of 101 degrees.

Worden is also healing a shattered heart.

“I bawled when I found out,” Worden said. “My heart broke into a million pieces. I feel like I’ve been robbed of deep conversations, inside jokes, and memories with some of the coolest people I’ve ever met. I can go back to Peru someday, but it will not be the same without the people I have come to love.”

Ruby Evans in Seville, Spain

Ruby Evans, Spain

Junior Ruby Evans had left Jan. 26 to study in Seville, Spain. Before her program ended, Evans had the opportunity to explore cities like Madrid, Toledo, Brussels and Paris. When COVID-19 started spreading in Spain, Evans and her classmates in Seville weren’t too concerned. Evans said her host mom kept telling her “It’s better that you’re in the heat.”

“The general attitude was that people were just blowing it out of proportion on the media and we didn’t have much to worry about,” Evans said.

But after President Donald Trump announced a Europe travel ban on March 12, Evans’ program was canceled.

“Waking up to that email, I just sat there and cried,” Evans said. “It felt very surreal and I still am taking time to process how it all ended so quickly.”

Right before she left, Evans said Spain was in the process of closing down bars, restaurants and smaller businesses. 

“You could tell that people were becoming scared, because some of the busiest places in Seville were bare the last couple of days before I left,” Evans said. “Now they are completely shut down and I have been told that it is a ghost town.”

After two and a half days of travel — and an almost seven hour long wait in the crowded Chicago O’Hare airport — Evans returned to the U.S. on March 15. For the next two weeks, she will be in self-quarantine.

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Layne Symington poses for a photo during his short time in Germany. His program was canceled before it began, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Submitted.

Layne Symington, Germany

On March 13, junior Layne Symington was in Potsdam, Germany, for a two-week German language immersion course before starting a full semester of classes on April 1. During his six months in Potsdam, Symington was hoping to “visit local schools to see how different styles of teaching are used.”

Before his classes had even started, Symington found out his program had been canceled. He and another Augustana student in the program, junior Sarah Bell, took advantage of the little time they had left by traveling throughout Potsdam and Berlin, seeing major landmarks like the Brandenburg Gate and the Berliner Dome. 

Although Symington said the German government had printed out massive posters, pamphlets and billboards with preventative measures, Symington said he didn’t notice many people in Germany talking about COVID-19 at the start of his trip.

“Only in the past few days have things started to pick up,” Symington said. “As of now, it’s hard to go an hour without hearing someone talk about it.”

Junior Caryn Brakke wasn’t studying abroad, but her spring break trip to visit a friend in Amsterdam was still affected by COVID-19.

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Caryn Brakke was on a spring break trip to Amsterdam when President Donald Trump announced the temporary Europe travel ban. Submitted.

Caryn Brakke, Amsterdam

At the beginning of her trip, Brakke said she saw some people wearing masks as she visited museums and toured Amsterdam. But by the end, when President Trump announced the Europe travel ban, Brakke started to get nervous. 

She called Delta Airlines to make sure her flight was still OK to leave on March 14; after a 10 hour wait, Brakke said Delta returned her call, telling her not to worry, but then canceled her flight the next afternoon, March 13.

“I didn’t hear back until Saturday morning, the day I was supposed to fly, if I was actually on a flight,” Brakke said. “I was re-booked, but it was pretty nerve racking going to sleep not knowing if I would be able to leave the next day.”

After a crowded flight to Chicago and missing her connecting flight home because of a four and half hour wait in line, Brakke ended up spending the night in Chicago before flying to Sioux Falls.

Now that she’s home, Brakke said she is taking her temperature twice a day and checking for COVID-19 symptoms. The South Dakota Department of Health has sent her surgical masks and reached out with information.

Moving forward on the homefront

For students who traveled and studied abroad, the coming weeks will be an adjustment — an adjustment to the uncertainties of COVID-19 and online classes. Study Abroad Adviser Kane said most programs have made accommodations for students to complete the remainder of the semester virtually.

“If the program isn’t able to accommodate the students with course completion, we (IPO, the registrar and faculty) are working with them on an individual basis to make sure they have full-time credits and stay on track,” Kane said.

But online classes can’t make up for lost adventures.

Worden missed out on climbing Machu Picchu; Evans won’t explore Barcelona; Symington didn’t immerse himself in the German language.

Although COVID-19 has ended these and other student’s travels, Kane said she is impressed with how they have handled the sudden change.

“This has been a frustrating experience for all involved,” Kane said. “They are disappointed, but are understanding and are working through the challenges with such positive attitudes.”

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