‘I had about 24 hours to get out of the country’: Students studying abroad navigate the aftermath of program cancellations
In less than 24 hours, junior David Easton packed up his belongings, said goodbye to friends, traveled from Germany to Paris and got on a plane back to the United States.
He hadn’t slept in 40 hours.
On March 11, President Trump announced a European travel ban that would go into effect March 13 at midnight due to the coronavirus outbreak. On March 12, Washington University emailed students who were studying abroad, directing them to return home immediately, effectively canceling all abroad programs.
The sudden and urgent cancellation provoked a series of questions for study abroad students including how to pack and ship belongings home, how to pay for the surging airline prices, and what the rest of the semester would look like in terms of classes and credits.
Although coronavirus has been spreading across the world since late 2019, some students were still surprised by the news, especially those who were studying in countries that had not seemed severely affected by the disease at the time.
Prior to the travel ban, junior Micah Maccoby had received emails from his London study abroad program, Arcadia, that the program was planning to continue despite the outbreak. During that time, Washington University had stated that students could choose to either stay abroad or go home.
“[It was not] as bad in England where I was studying as it was in other countries like France or Spain or Italy,” Maccoby said. “Those programs were getting shut down, people were getting sent home, and I kind of assumed that our program would keep going.”
After the cancellation of multiple Italy-based programs in late February and early March, some students became wary and prepared for an announcement of their own. David Easton was studying in Germany on a Washington University program and had not expected such a rapid recall.
“[The outbreak] was first on our radar when Italy got canceled. So we were all kind of checking the numbers, checking the CDC health warnings, in the week and a half between our cancellation and their cancellation,” Easton said. “We had received word from our study abroad coordinator that we were still on unless [the categorization] went to Level 3. And I think we all kind of got…content for a little bit.”
Following President Donald Trump’s announcement, March 11, and the University’s immediate order to come home, students rushed to find last-minute flights. With the increased volume of travelers trying to make it home, difficulties arose for many of them.
“The last flight to Cincinnati from Paris, which Delta told us was the easiest way to get home, was the next morning at 6 a.m.,” Easton said. “I had about 24 hours to get out of the country… I went to class for about 10 minutes to tell my teacher, and then left. Took the train back into town, packed, briefly said goodbye to roommates… We got a little dinner as a group and then I was in the airport overnight sleeping there. In total, I had about 40 hours without sleeping from when I got that email to when I got home.”
“The airline I was on wouldn’t let me [change my flight] online, so I had to call them and wait on hold for two hours to get on a flight,” Maccoby said. “Everyone was trying to change their flights and get out of the country last minute.”
Although the University’s call for students to return home was clear and final, confusion remained for some students studying on outside programs. Arcadia notified Maccoby that despite Washington University’s stance, their program would still continue; they could not guarantee that his credits would be counted.
“I guess there wasn’t really communication between Wash. U. and the abroad program or the host university,” Maccoby said. “For about a week, I wasn’t sure if I was going to get credit for my classes.”
Though Easton was studying with a Washington University program, the situation with his credits also remained unclear. The German university system follows a summer/winter calendar rather than a fall/spring calendar, so when he returned to the U.S., he had not even enrolled in classes in Germany.
“The University of Tübingen [told us], ‘We are scrambling, we don’t have any online infrastructure, we’re really underprepared for this,’” Easton said. “[We contacted] our program advisors [to see if] we could do some classes at Wash.U. for partial credit… then three or four days ago we got an email saying [that our] spring semester is canceled.”
Students on Easton’s program received tuition refunds, but are waiting to hear whether or not they will be refunded for housing and dining. One important question that remains is what will happen to their credits that they were supposed to receive on their program.
“For some of us, I think that means we’re going to be graduating late,” Easton said. “For some of us, we have enough credits to make it work. Personally, I’m looking into summer classes either in person or remotely, trying to catch up on some of those credits.”
In terms of the University’s response, both Maccoby and Easton are understanding of the sudden and urgent nature of the cancellations and recall.
“I think Wash. U. probably handled it relatively well,” Maccoby said. “I think it would’ve been nice maybe if they’d still given us the option to stay on our abroad programs if we’d wanted to… especially considering my roommate [from London] is from Westchester and I’m from Los Angeles, so coming home, [those places] are in an even worse situation than London was… It’s not like we’re necessarily any safer at home.”
Easton acknowledged that despite the uncertainties, the University has been communicative and helpful during the transition.
“I think a lot of the people I’ve been in contact with through email—my four-year advisor, different [people] in and outside of the German department, and study abroad advisors—have been really helpful,” he said.
Looking ahead, the University will need to figure out how to best resolve these students’ remaining questions — a task that varies from case to case.
“The biggest thing on my mind right now is because this has affected everyone who was abroad in such different ways, I’m worried that some people on smaller programs like ours with a unique circumstance might fall through the cracks,” Easton said. “It hasn’t happened yet, but that’s a big concern, because it isn’t a monolithic experience.”
The Office of Overseas Programs was not available to comment directly on the process of recalling students.
“All of us who work with international programs have been working at and beyond capacity over the last weeks to oversee our [students’] safe return, assure they can earn credit from their semester, and work out financial and other details associated with their recall,” Director Amy Suelzer wrote in an email to Student Life. “There hasn’t been time for anything that isn’t part [of] this essential mission.”