My students’ studies abroad were cut short when COVID-19 hit Paris. But they learned invaluable, life-long lessons.
Ding Jiaqi’s meal on her flight from France to China, 18 March 2020
Ding Jiaqi had a luxury plane ticket home — a $5,000 business class seat from Paris to Beijing — but she avoided the meals served during the tense 10-hour flight and took only water and yoghurt. Her temperature was checked three times during the journey.
Grace Karegeannes saw her flight cancelled at the last minute and thought for a hopeful moment that she might be able to stay in France. One very expensive ticket later, she flew to Chicago that afternoon and was home that evening near Milwaukee.
Nevin Wallis was unexpectedly upgraded to business economy and actually enjoyed the flight back to Boston. Then came what he called “the last thing I want to do after getting off a plane” — a two-hour bus ride and then a ferry crossing to home to Martha’s Vineyard.
Like many U.S. students around the world, these three were torn from an idyllic year abroad and scrambled home because of the COVID-19 pandemic rolling across France in mid-March.
They were studying in Paris with the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE), a non-profit U.S. association with study abroad programs for member schools. CIEE suspended programs at its 31 centers around the world on March 15.
Students studying abroad scramble to get home.
The mad rush home was stressful and chaotic, something students said they had never imagined before. But despite all the hardships, it was an experience nobody would have wanted to miss.
“I am a better person because of it, and going through this has made me stronger,” said Kyra Mattson.
She first heard talk about China’s coronavirus problems while studying in London and then tracked Italy’s spreading distress when she was in Paris. Her spring session planned for Rome was called off.
The 13 students in my CIEE course on journalism and media literacy recounted their scramble home after their stay in Paris fell apart. One of their first assignments upon resuming their studies from their homes a week later was to write blog posts about their return.
On March 9, students filing into class told me they were worried that they might have to leave. After U.S. President Donald Trump announced a ban on travel from Europe two days later, this turned into a rush out the door as students and their families feared they might be stranded.
It was not initially clear that Americans would still be allowed back once the ban took effect at midnight on Friday.
“Everyone lost their minds,” wrote Kiana Patel, a University of Colorado student from Los Angeles. “People were booking flights home left and right or arguing with their home universities because they wanted to stay in Paris. Some even woke up Friday morning to discover a ticket from their parents in their inbox.”
COVID-19 forced some students into quarantine.
Ding Jiaqi, known as Katherine to friends at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, faced the hardest choices. As a Chinese citizen, she wasn’t sure she would be let into the United States. Once she decided to go to Beijing, her parents there informed her should would have to spend two weeks in isolation at a government hotel.
“Do not try to argue after you land,” they told her. After seven hours of confusion on arrival, she went to the hotel where she struggled to keep up with the school’s online sessions given the dodgy internet connection.
With Katherine in Beijing, another student in London and the rest of them spread out from Massachusetts to California, there was no way we could have live interactive classes online. Lectures were recorded and posted for students to watch in their time zones and then answer questions about in writing.
Another Colorado student, Sophie Benecick, spent two weeks in self-isolation at a friend’s empty home in Boston. Her parents’ apartment complex in nearby New Hampshire had refused to let her come there directly from France for fear of the virus.
“Well, f*#!,” her account began. “A so-called virus that I had only recently begun following was suddenly halting my life.”
Still, she said the thought of herself years later “telling my children about the time I fled France in the midst of a global pandemic” was “pretty cool.”
Many blog posts were tinged with regret at the planned activities that had suddenly disappeared — a weekend in Amsterdam, a much-awaited major soccer match, more lazy afternoons in Paris cafés.
Students studying abroad or at home learn from COVID-19.
Several students noted how poorly prepared U.S. airport staff were once they landed from France.
Changing planes in Dallas en route home to Huntsville, Alabama, Zak McGill was crowded into a large room with a few hundred other passengers. “This was the last thing we should be doing in order to stay safe from the virus,” he wrote.
At Washington Dulles airport, Madeleine Kriech was herded from one crowd to another. “They did everything that the Centers for Disease Control advised against,” she said, referring to the U.S. national health institute.
But the experience also offered insights, which is one of the main benefits of study abroad programs.
Back home in Los Angeles, Natalie Ahdoot marvelled at how quickly events can unfold and life can change from being carefree in Paris to confined in California. “These unprecedented times have taught me valuable lessons,” she wrote. “Our world is more connected than I could have ever imagined.”
Kriech, who eventually made it home to Denver, said the stressful trip home taught her the value of patience. “My trip back from Paris is my new answer to the interview question, ‘What’s the most difficult thing you’ve ever gone through?'”
(Read more News Decoder stories on COVID and students).
Tom Heneghan was a correspondent, bureau chief, regional news editor and global religion editor during his 40 years at Reuters, with postings in Vienna, Geneva, Islamabad, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Bonn and Paris. He covered the Soviet-Afghan war, two papal elections and Germany’s reunification, which he analyzed in his book “Unchained Eagle: Germany After The Wall”. Based in Paris, he now writes regularly for The Tablet in London and Religion News Service in Washington.