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Personal Essay: Getting sent home from England

The views expressed in this article are the views of the author.

March 12, 2020

2:32 a.m. GMT: In your dorm room at the University of Brighton in Brighton, England, you are awake.

It has been a rough, anxious day. The World Health Organization classified the COVID-19 outbreak as a pandemic. President Donald Trump announced new travel restrictions between the United States and Europe (excluding the United Kingdom) intended to curb the virus’s spread. Now you have received an email from the Education Abroad Office stating that the University of Maryland, Baltimore County is immediately suspending all study abroad programs in Europe, and suddenly you can’t breathe.

Within two minutes you fire off a reply, holding out hope: given the travel restrictions, are UK programs included?

The response comes a minute later: Yes.

Your world caves in.

4:18 a.m.: You turn off your laptop at last, trembling with exhaustion. You have just booked your flight home for slightly under 56 hours from now. This ticket cost more than twice as much as your original (June) return ticket did, but you don’t have time to worry about that. Right now your priority is returning home as quickly as you can. 

You have also just hung up from a long Skype call with your family, which you placed as soon as you heard the news. Your mother and sister both cried. You haven’t, though: you’re in shock. Your heart is pounding, your head is spinning,  your chest is tight and that’s all you know.

It is hard to fall asleep.

10:31 a.m.: You are drained and devastated, but on a mission nonetheless: you need to deliver the news to UoB’s Study Abroad Office. Through the door you can see the office manager standing in the lobby with three students from the University Studies Abroad Consortium. Everyone turns to look at you as you enter. You see it in their eyes, as they do yours: UMBC is not the only university that recalled students today.

You’ll be the first in the cohort to leave, so the entire SAO team comes out to see you off. You know it’s probably irresponsible, but you’re grateful that they all insist on hugging you goodbye.

9:03 p.m.: This is real. This is happening. This is really happening.

Brighton has felt like Brighton all day long, more or less: though COVID-19 is looming, everyone you’ve seen in town has been moving about as if the world isn’t caving in. But you have not felt like you all day long. The weight of the dwindling time you have left (39 hours now!) keeps crashing over you like waves against the Palace Pier.

Tonight, your friends from the UoB Musical Theatre Society threw you a goodbye party. Now you and your friends are heading to the bus stop, and you know this is goodbye, and you’re not ready. Everyone is grinning, and most people are singing, and a few others are hugging you. The wave crashes and you can’t fight it off this time. Soon enough you’re sobbing through the streets, overflowing with gratitude and grief.

You’re not ready to leave them or this beautiful place. But you have to.

March 13, 2020

12:36 a.m.: While you’re packing, another email renders you breathless: USAC is terminating all of its European study abroad programs. Everyone you’re with in Brighton is going home. Everyone’s world is caving in.

2:32 a.m.: You’re jolted awake when you hear shouting outside your window: “F*** CORONA!”, over and over, in both American and British accents.

Nothing is ever going to be the same again. No one is ready.

1:22 p.m.: You buy a UoB sweatshirt from the Students’ Union Shop. Then you come back and pack.

1:53 p.m.: You say goodbye to the kind staff at the farmer’s market down the road. Then you come back and pack.

2:48 p.m.: You play a final song on the keyboard you rented out for the semester. Then you return it to its original owner. And then you come back and finish packing.

6:36 p.m.: You’re on Brighton Beach, saying goodbye to the sea and to the closest friend you made here. She wraps you in a long hug. You sob into her coat sleeve.

Waves crash against the Palace Pier. You have to turn away.

March 14, 2020

5:18 a.m.: In your dorm room at the University of Brighton in Brighton, England, you are awake. And you can’t stop crying.

6:23 a.m.: You close the door to your flat for the last time. You cross the courtyard to Reception and return your key. And then you lug your heavy suitcases up the hill and across campus to the station, where you catch a train out of Brighton to London Gatwick Airport.

You’re not ready to leave this beautiful place. But you do.

Written by Tess McRae. McRae is a junior pursuing a degree in English Communication & Technology with a minor in Creative Writing.