Students reflect on studying abroad in Europe at start of COVID-19 crisis

Photo Illustration by Andy Caress

Iman Mekonen, Spectrum Editor

Some students spend the entire school year planning to study abroad, completing tasks such as booking travel tickets and verifying credit transfers with various offices. After COVID-19, the experience was cut short for several VCU students.

Junior photography and film major Amanda Burton left the United States on Jan. 27 to study in Italy at Florence University of the Arts this semester. She chose to leave the program on March 6 due to rising concerns surrounding the coronavirus spreading throughout the country. 

“I opted to come back because I knew that it wasn’t going to get better quickly,” Burton said. “And I didn’t want to get caught up in the rush to get home from the train. So I was like ‘OK, this is coming here, it’s gonna get worse and I’m unfortunately going to go home.’”

She described herself, her roommate and her visiting mother as being very sick at this point and unsure if it was COVID-19 or not. After noticing symptoms, Burton and her mom booked a flight back to the U.S. 

Despite returning from a country with a Level 3 travel advisory from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Burton said her and her mom were not checked or scanned for the virus upon arriving on March 6. 

“I was in Italy — Florence — for a month, you know, and I was wearing my mask. … I was coughing,” Burton said. “So obviously there was something going on, but he [a customs worker] just waved me through.”

Burton said having to wait for COVID-19 test kits to become available and fearing the risk

Junior photography and film major Amanda Burton studied at the Florence University of the Arts before leaving the program on March 6. Photo by Amanda Burton

of exposing her dad or brother to the virus were the hardest parts of coming back to the U.S. After calling both her doctors and the CDC, she was told she was not a candidate for the test because she didn’t have a fever. 

“I was so confused because I didn’t understand how … coming from a Level 3 country, having other symptoms and just — it just like, made no sense to me that they didn’t consider me a candidate,” Burton said. “But I kind of just let it go until the test was available for everyone.”

Burton said she has since tested negative for COVID-19. 

She said life in Florence carried on like normal as the virus spread throughout Rome and Milan.

“We were kind of all like ‘yeah, it’s like getting closer, you know, it hasn’t hit us yet,” Burton said. “We’re still doing our normal routine. I was going to class every day, doing the same things that I was normally doing.”

Burton said she received an email from school that stated students could choose to stay in Florence or go back to their home countries. She said the alerts and class cancellations that followed came in one after another. 

Junior photo/film and theatre double major Rubén Pagán-Ramos only spent about a month in Italy, where he also studied at Florence University of the Arts. He arrived on Jan. 27 and returned to the U.S. on March 6.

When his classes were canceled, Pagán-Ramos was disappointed and “heartbroken” that his experience was cut short. Now, he’s reflecting on how COVID-19 has spread.

“The feeling of being bummed out of how long it took to plan for studying abroad and everything we had lined up just kind of felt like it was outweighing the circumstances at the time, but now we know a lot more,” Pagán-Ramos said. “And it’s actually worse than we originally thought.”

Junior photography and film major Rubén Pagán-Ramos studied abroad in Florence, Italy, where he was able to attend Carnavale, a celebration marking the beginning of Lent, outside of the Palazzo Vecchio. Photo by Rubén Pagán-Ramos

The week Pagán-Ramos left Italy was the same week that his first photography class at the university was scheduled to start. Among the assignments he was looking forward to, he said he was most excited to show off his work at the Corridoio Fiorentino, an exhibition in Florence. 

“At the very end of semester, we would have been able to have all of our images, like in a gallery in Florence. … People would be able to go and see them,” Pagán-Ramos said.  “So that’s a bummer we didn’t get to do that.” 

As part of a course on Italian culture, Pagán-Ramos toured the Florence Cathedral after learning about the site in the classroom during a unit on Renaissance art. Now, his professors are using virtual instruction to recreate the class.

He said learning about Italian culture without directly interacting with the environment feels disconnected. 

“It just feels … empty in a way because it’s not actually directly benefiting me,” Pagán-Ramos said. “I don’t even know when the next time is I’m gonna go to Italy now or be immersed in their culture.” 

While studying abroad in Greece for about two months, junior political science major Lucille Sherlock was able to do a lot of traveling and is grateful for what she experienced in the short time period. 

Sherlock and her roommates decided to leave their dorm on March 12 after students in nearby residence halls tested positive for the coronavirus.

“Two out of the three residence buildings had people who were testing positive,” Sherlock said. “And so they had locked them down and then it was this whole, like, unknown of whether they were going to lock down our building, and we just kind of decided that we had to go.”

Political Science major Lucille Sherlock studied in Athens, Greece before she was sent home on March 15. Photo by Lucille Sherlock

She said booking flights for the U.S. after the government announced the plan to restrict travel from Europe was “chaotic.”

“At first I was really opposed to coming home,” Sherlock said. “And then at a certain point, I was like ‘No, I just need to get home. … Once I just get to the U.S., we’ll be fine.’”

After she returned from Greece on March 15, Sherlock self isolated for two weeks. 

Sherlock said she recommends studying abroad and wants to return to Greece in the future.

“If anyone is ever considering studying abroad, they should do it,” Sherlock said. “Even though I only had two months and it got cut halfway through like, I wouldn’t trade this two months for anything.”

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