Editor’s Note: This article was sent to print on March 9. Please check covid19.umbc.edu for updates.
“It was a really emotionally taxing time for a lot of reasons,” said one student who was forced to return from their study abroad semester because of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). “I’m still in quarantine.”
Approximately 11 University of Maryland, Baltimore County students have returned from studying abroad in Japan, China, Italy and South Korea due to the growing international concern of the highly infectious COVID-19 epidemic. After spending the entire fall semester in the affected country, the students had only 36 hours after they received the evacuation email to return to the United States. The aforementioned student asked to remain anonymous due to the stigma surrounding COVID-19.
UMBC made the decision to cancel “university-related student travel” in countries under a Center of Disease Control Risk Assessment Level 1, 2 or 3 in February. Maryland has had five cases confirmed of COVID-19 as of March 8.
Tess McRae, a junior English major with a creative writing minor, feels anxious about the impact of COVID-19 on her travels. McRae is currently abroad, studying at the University of Brighton in England. There have been five cases (out of the eight in the United Kingdom) confirmed in Brighton as of Feb. 12.
McRae traveled through an affiliate program, University Studies Abroad Consortium (USAC). “I’m not as worried about contracting the virus myself as I am about the general spread of it getting worse, and getting bad enough for [UMBC] to be like, ‘I need to come home,’” she said.
McRae has received communication from both UMBC and USAC, with her program director at USAC putting out daily communications to help debrief students. “The local friends I’ve made don’t seem to be too concerned [because] they are feeling good about the [National Health Service] plan in place,” said McRae. Citizens of the United Kingdom have access to the NHS, which provides free health care.
McRae has seen that the members of her USAC cohort are more on edge, though. When it comes to communication requiring students to be ready to leave, she says, “it could be as soon as tomorrow.”
She has been in contact with USAC and also met with her residential director at his office hours, asking him questions about coronavirus and her semester. “Our entire semester here is in jeopardy,” she said.
Additionally, McRae and her mother have been in touch with her UMBC study abroad advisor. “It’s a tough decision to make because they want to prioritize safety of students abroad, but also to not have this horrible disruption,” McRae said.
The most difficult part for her has been the unpredictability of the outbreaks and preparations. Organizing her semester has been challenging. McRae’s mother was planning to fly out and visit, but they are no longer sure that visit will happen. “There’s a lot of disruption and uncertainty, we’re just taking everything day by day,” she said. “You can’t make plans for next week. It’s unfortunate, I really hope we can finish [our semester] out here, but I’m not sure.”
Other universities in the United States, like Clemson University in South Carolina, have recalled all study abroad students, bringing 385 students back to the U.S. UMBC has cancelled an ancient studies spring break study abroad program, and as of March 7, all summer study abroad programs have also been cancelled. “Our number one priority is the student’s safety and well-being,” Associate Vice Provost for International Education Dr. David Di Maria said.
Some semesters in other countries are shifted either earlier or later than American semesters. For Jack Taylor, a third year psychology major, his semester in Nagasaki, Japan was cancelled before his program even began in March. “I never even got the chance to leave the country. My program didn’t start for another three weeks” and the university he was planning to attend, Nagasaki Foreign Student University, was still open.
On Monday, March 2, Taylor found out that UMBC had cancelled his program, which is also through USAC. “I have to deal with a lot of this by myself because I organized a lot of it without the school since it’s not a direct exchange,” said Taylor. “So now I’m behind a semester, I need to get ten grand back from Japan, [I] am stuck at home for five months. I’m pretty angry about this whole thing.”
Taylor is currently working as a subcontractor and living at home in Montgomery County with his parents. “I am working full time right now to save money for Japan, but now [I don’t know] why I’m doing it anymore,” Taylor said. “At this point it’s too late to sign up for classes for this semester so I need to contact my advisor on how to make up an entire semester. I don’t think [UMBC] had a lot of options. It was either put students in jeopardy or pull everybody.”
Students who return are helped with academic continuity on a case-by-case basis. Some faculty members have offered to help by teaching individualized classes for students who have returned from being abroad. Dr. Nancy Young, vice president for Student Affairs, stressed the “compassion” that faculty and the different Dean’s offices have extended towards students. Online classes may also be available to some students through other universities or the study abroad program, but they will not be able to attend classes on campus normally.
Taylor, who only has one year left, feels as though he has missed his chance to study abroad while in college: “I don’t think I can [study abroad] anymore. I’m supposed to graduate next year and have activities in the fall I want to be here for. This was my only shot really. I don’t blame the school for this. They had no say in people dying. They just did what they had to in order to protect people. Am I mad? Oh, I’m furious, but it’s not their fault. It’s no one’s fault and that’s what hurts the most.”