You believe that when you’re a college student everything works out and falls right into place — especially when studying abroad. It’s an experience that cannot be forgotten or erased from one’s conscience, no matter what other endeavors follow. However, amidst an unexpected, fatal pandemic, that cannot always be the case.
Half asleep to the faint sound of Slovenian soccer and with the slight scent of cigarettes coating the sheets, Ryan Deeb and his girlfriend awoke to an ear-splitting shrill of a telephone ring on the night of March 12th. Deeb, a junior in college from the United States, was studying abroad in Prague for four months at a foreign university.
It was a quiet, late night in Prague as he and his girlfriend booked a room for the night at a tucked-away hotel on the edge of the city near the Budweiser brewery on the marina. It was 3AM in Prague; the streets were covered in a low-lying fog, and the city was plastered with the amber lights from the street lamps. The liveliness from the night before was winding down when the news spread to the American students at the ungodly, early morning hour. Deeb’s phone obnoxiously rang off the hook, feverishly waking him and his girlfriend up in a cause for concern. His family and friends tried to get in touch with him as Donald Trump just established a 30-day travel ban to and from Europe earlier that evening. Deeb temporarily resided in Czechia, but he didn’t know the fate of his girlfriend’s return — who was supposed to stay 5 more days there.
“We couldn’t believe what was happening,” Deeb sighed over the phone, talking to me about the ban two months later from his US home in California.
“My girlfriend Grace was only supposed to come for a week, and our classes had already been moved online the day before she got there. We knew it was a matter of time until the virus began to affect us here in Prague, but we thought we had more time,” Deeb said with a disheartening chuckle. Although the ban did not directly affect him, he wondered how long it would be until he was forced to head home.
The US enacted the travel ban in response to COVID-19. When President Trump enacted the ban, there were already 1,135 confirmed cases in the US, with 38 confirmed deaths. The virus spread around the globe like a petrol-doused forest in a wildfire in the middle of summer, with no signs of slowing. In the beginning, it managed to skimp over parts of Central Europe, Prague in particular. Deeb, along with his other friends, figured they would remain in Europe for a little longer. By the time President Trump enacted the ban March 12th, there were already 116 cases in the Czech Republic, with the first case found on February 29th. While the number of reported cases was significantly lower than that of other countries, it wasn’t enough to stop the government from taking action.
Meanwhile, in Oxford England on the 12th of March, Sophie Laupus groggily woke up after her three roommates jumped from their bunks and flicked on the lights around 2 am. Laupus, a senior in college from America, studied in London through her home school, University of Tennessee. She took the train back from the city earlier that night, after watching boat races on the River Fleet and touring St. Paul’s Cathedral with some friends in London the day before. Her roommates just received word about the travel ban when they woke Laupus. One of her roommates just arrived home smelling of marijuana and Grand Marnier when the news unraveled; Laupus found herself in a hazy fog as the uncertainty of her studies reeked alongside her hysterical, weed-scented roommate.
“My program was supposed to end two days later on March 14th, so the travel ban made people really jump the gun,” Laupus confessed to me over a video call two months later from Tennessee.
“Although, in the last two weeks, people were just freaking out trying to figure out what was going to happen. Some of us were trying to plan trips, and some of us were waiting around to get sent home,” she exhaled.
By March 12th, there were already 596 cases in the UK, with 491 being in England — a number consistently increasing by the day. After going home, Laupus missed a trip to Greece that she planned for early April — she has yet to be refunded the total of $400 she spent.
Laupus spent the majority of her Oxford days in class or in the library and then out to dinner with some friends, on a stroll through the square, or at a bar or club for a drink. She told me about a historic market in central town called the Covered Market Oxford, where she would normally shop for pastries, candles, drinks, fabric, linens, sweeteners, flowers, fruits, tea, and scarves every weekend morning. She couldn’t emphasize the quaintness and charm of the market enough, radiating about the appeal. You went to the market for its simplicity and comfort. You wouldn’t go for the convenience, but for the sense of community. If you felt uncertain about the version of yourself in a new culture, the market could reinforce the goodwill of people found back home. The only difference was you could find the market’s halls to be filled with English dialects and swapped pleasantries — things you don’t often come across in the States.
Laupus originally planned for her family to visit her abroad, but the ban inevitably hindered those plans, and she quickly looked for a way home. The presidents of the European commission and European council defended Europe’s way of handling the pandemic and criticized the White House for failing to consult any allies. Travellers scrambled to rebook flights after the US president imposed sweeping restrictions on travel from the passport-free Schengen zone. Prime Minister Boris Johnson worked on plans for England to move from in the “containment” and “delay” phase of the outbreak, but Trump scared all Americans abroad with the idea of getting stuck in Europe. This caused call volumes for airlines to grow immensely as people called in a frenzy trying to get home, thousands of flights were cancelled at a moment’s notice. Laupus waited on hold with Delta for around seven hours, lazing around her flat, debating whether or not to bite the bullet and pack. Her sister ultimately went to the airport to get her flight changed, or else she would’ve had to buy a ticket home for no less than $1,400 dollars before she was kept out of her country permanently.
What Deeb and Laupus went through were not isolated events. The pandemic impacted many students, domestically and internationally. For the world explorers, some of their immersive experiences got ripped away from them in a matter of hours.
Simone Lewis, a junior from Illinois, was walking home in the streets of Salamanca, Spain after a flamenco performance, when she received a flood of incoming emails from her home university demanding that she return to the states. She drank a few glasses of cava and planned on getting late-night leche fritas with her friend before hearing about the news.
Jake Steinbeck, a senior from Nevada, was having a drink with some friends at a hostel bar in Berlin, Germany when his parents called him telling him that he had to return home. He planned to see the Berlin Wall memorial the next morning, but out of fear of getting stuck in a country that was not his own, he had to return as soon as possible.
Jillian Larsen, a sophomore from Georgia, was drinking Pilsner and snacking on Tofík wafers with her roommates in Prague when her friends upstairs texted her panicking about Trump’s Oval Office Address. A wave of shock stabbed her in the chest and she still has yet to process getting the rest of her semester ripped out from under her a week later.
“It’s been hard to adjust,” Deeb confessed. “I feel somewhat…incomplete, if that makes sense? I don’t know, I just feel cheated. And like, that’s money I’m never going to get back” he said before hanging up to make dinner for his little brother.
His program still refuses to refund him months later in spite of the loss. Deeb is now residing in his home in Northern California, hoping that the virus won’t affect the coming Fall semester.
“Although my program was essentially over, I still feel unresolved. No one thought the virus was going to be as big of an issue as it was,” Laupus firmly said. “I know there’s nothing we could’ve done to predict it, but I can’t help but feel like things should be different,” she sighed, leaving me with her final thoughts.
She finished her program, but still financially suffers from the deposits she put down on the trips she planned after the program. Laupus is now staying in her Tennessee home, trying to reach out and keep in touch with her friends abroad.
Deeb, Laupus, and thousands of other students are merely just an example of the financial effects from the virus. These students all recognized how fortunate they still are to have their health, much less an experience under a different sun and way of life. Going abroad is a privilege that changes your viewpoint and widens a perspective — but now, there’s a fear of how easily you may walk the streets of a new world not knowing it can suddenly be ripped out from under you.
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