Students studying abroad this spring have had their lives thrown into disarray because of COVID-19. These unlucky undergrads were forced to return home as universities shut down their international programs for the foreseeable future. While some have returned home without issue, some are trapped in their abroad country due to travel restrictions and new regulations. All wonder when this pandemic will end. 

“Genuinely when I left my mom said something; she was like ‘pay attention to the coronavirus and everything it’s the crazy illness people are catching and you’re going to be over there in Europe.’ And I was like yeah whatever mom you worry about everything.” said Valerie Rewa as she reflected on her experience abroad in Sevilla, Spain this spring. 

She, like so many other American study-abroad students, was having the time of her life absorbing the culture of a faraway land and traveling to places like Lisbon, Madrid, and the Canary Islands. Later in the semester, she had also planned to visit Morocco, the Sahara Desert, and Italy.  

Studying abroad has gained increased popularity among college students in recent years. The prospect of going to a different part of the world gives these young adults the chance to explore the world semi-cheaply and a chance to see other cultures before graduation. 

With so many benefits, it is easy to see how COVID-19’s obstruction of studying abroad has had a huge impact on students.

Just over 2,537 kilometers North East of Sevilla Nathan Ensign was also trying to make the most out of his abroad experience in Prague, Czech Republic. Not only did he have a full course load in a Czech university, but he also was working as an intern for DDC Financial as well.  The infamy of the virus grew along with the number of victims it put in the hospital.  

“My roommate and I found the Johns Hopkins ‘tracker thing’ with the numbers of each country. We would check it every day.” The coeds watched with growing concern as the number of cases in countries like Italy and their temporary home in Spain rapidly grew day by day. “It would go from ‘Oh!’ there’s 300 cases in Spain to ‘Oh my God!’ there’s 6,000 cases in Italy.”

They began to grasp what study abroad students worldwide were realizing: their plans were about to take an unwelcome turn.
“It was a constant battle of I get to go home and see friends and a sense of security, but I do not want to leave,” Rewa recalled. She was especially attuned to her own safety due to her prescribed medication causing immune system suppression as a side effect. Though many students wished to stay, they had seen the news of the lives this virus was claiming.  

With the situation in so many countries getting worse and worse, she quickly cancelled flights and Airbnb rentals to her would-be travel destinations.  

Debby Hudson, Unsplash

Ensign too had his time cut short due to COVID-19; however, it was his school that requested his return to the states. Ensign’s school made an offer: if their abroad students turned in their travel itinerary in that week, they would reimburse their students’ tickets for up to $1,000. 

“I’m not really sure under what authority other than being a student under them, but they said they were requesting all study abroad students to come back,” Ensign stated. 

It may not have lessened the disappointment of leaving the Czech Republic early, but it made the decision to do so easier to make.  Ensign personally pays for his own schooling. He knew since beginning college he wanted to go abroad. In preparation for this, he took out extra loan money in order to cover those expenses and the fees for a visa. Students like Ensign know they probably will not have the means to be able to feasibly go again during their academic careers.

During the academic year of 2017 and 2018, 341,751 American students studied abroad for academic credit, a 2.7% increase from the previous academic year stated USA Study Abroad. On a smaller scale, North Carolina State University stated that the number of study abroad students in 2018-19 increased by 6.25% from 2017-18, and almost 24% from 2016-17. Now they have an average of 22% of undergraduates studying abroad. 

Studying abroad does not only give students lifelong memories of travel and fun. The University of California, Merced found that 97% of students that studied abroad found employment within 12 months of graduation, when 49% of college graduates found employment in the same period. Employers are looking for those who have experienced what is out in the world, outside of our country’s borders.  

The students are not the only ones facing wide-reaching financial troubles. Ensign’s internship, which factored in choosing his abroad program, went bankrupt due to COVID-19. Although he will hopefully receive school credit through alternative assignments to compensate, it will not be the same. 

The financial firm was operating fine one month prior to his leaving Europe and within a week of his departure, he learned of their closing.  Although he only lost an internship, there were now people whose livelihoods were in doubt because they no longer had jobs: a sad reality many will be facing in the coming months. 

What shocked and confused Rewa most upon her return to the US was the lack of awareness of COVID-19. She said a friend asked her if there was COVID-19 in Europe. 

Ensign’s journey back to the United States is concurrent to the comments made by Rewa’s friend. He flew from Prague through Paris to Chicago O’Hare finding minimal trouble at customs to reenter the country. 

United Nations, Unsplash

“When I landed in Chicago, I went through the screening process and got my bags. I think it lasted an hour.” The events these two witnessed in Europe legitimized their disbelief at the lack of precautions taken upon their return to the states.  

The ‘screening’ Ensign went through included a quick temperature check and inquiring as to where he was coming from. He was then on his way.  

Unfortunately, study abroad programs are going through hard times as well. CEA is a study abroad provider for students from U.S. universities and their Prague office welcomed about 610 students in various programs in the last few years. Currently, all upcoming programs for the summer and fall are cancelled.

Within a few days, CEA Prague sent home all 224 spring semester abroad students. “We hated to do it,” stated Dr. Richard Stock, CEA Prague Center Director, “the group of students in spring 2020 were great and were more engaged than any semester we had before.” As the unique situations arose due to coronavirus, Stock and his staff did their best to keep their students informed at all times.  

This pandemic affected CEA, like many businesses, financially as well. The staff has been working from home for two whole months and had to implement staff reduction in both Prague and the states.  

“This situation will impact the study abroad field in a huge way,” Stock stated. Currently, CEA has launched ‘Virtual Study Abroad’ programs for the summer and fall of 2020 to keep students engaged.  

“Normally we are in our very communicative, friendly, open office working together every day. Online meetings cannot replace that connection,” he said. However, even through adversity, the staff at CEA still tries to stay positive.  

As for Ensign and Rewa, both are rising seniors and have full, specialized course loads; they cannot reattempt a semester abroad. Though saddened, both look back at the silver lining of this unique and tumultuous experience.  

“I enjoyed the time there,” said Ensign. His brief time in Prague compels him to plan to return there once his schooling is finished. Rewa has mixed feelings as well. “It sucks,” she said, “but I’ve gotten to spend a lot of time with my family. Life goes on.”