Twenty-one Plattsburgh State students traveled hundreds of miles to study abroad in other countries at the beginning of this semester. Two months later, they were asked to pack their bags, book the next available flight and come home as soon as possible, as the coronavirus pandemic put an abrupt end to their study-abroad experiences.
On March 4, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the suspension of five study-abroad programs within SUNY and CUNY for the rest of the semester in China, Japan, Italy, South Korea and Iran. These countries were the most affected by the outbreak at that time.
But on March 10, SUNY suspended all remaining programs for the semester and mandated that all students travel back to the U.S. immediately. PSU’s Global Education Office notified all study-abroad students of the order and sent them an acknowledgement form to sign the following day, noting that if they chose to stay abroad, it would be at their own risk and without SUNY involvement.
GEO Study Away Coordinator Brooke Layhee said most students elected to travel home and not stay abroad. Nineteen out of the 21 students have returned home or are in the process of coming home.
Some students had a hard and stressful time traveling back to the U.S. Junior English writing and literature major Marie Alcis, a permanent resident in the U.S. but originally from Haiti, had lost her green card while studying abroad at Keele University in the United Kingdom. Before the SUNY mandate, Alcis thought she would have time to file for a replacement from the U.S. Embassy, a process that usually takes months and cannot be issued overseas. Without her green card, Alcis could not travel back to the U.S., especially on short notice and during a pandemic.
“I couldn’t leave the U.K. without getting a new green card or getting a stamp in my passport saying that it was OK for me to go,” Alcis said. “[The embassy] wasn’t responding to my calls or emails for two weeks.”
The stamp, or a boarding foil, permits lawful permanent residents to travel back to the U.S. for a single entry. Because of the delay in obtaining the stamp — and paying $575 for it — Alcis had to wait until yesterday to travel from London to New York City, from there to Washington D.C. and finally to Burlington, where she returned to her off-campus apartment in Plattsburgh.
Junior global supply chain management major Connor Jeffers spent the beginning of his semester in Sydney, Australia, studying at the International College of Management. His journey home Tuesday consisted more than 30 hours of traveling, flying from Sydney to Honolulu, Hawaii, to Chicago and landing in Syracuse, New York, where he went home to Clayton, New York.
“When I was booking flights, all the ones that would originally go to Los Angeles were either fully booked or canceled,” Jeffers said. “The airports were pretty much dead. I had a nine-hour layover in Honolulu and a couple more hours in Chicago.”
Some students may have even been exposed to the coronavirus. Sophomore hospitality management major Yasmine Bensai was studying at Florence University of the Arts in Italy when three out of her five roommates fell ill while abroad and later tested positive for the virus. Those roommates each left the country before Bensai, who tested negative.
“The doctors told me they were pretty sure I did have it at one point, just because everyone around me in my apartment was sick at the time,” Bensai said. “No one ever thought it was the virus. The first girl that got sick [had] every symptom, but she never left Florence, so we never, in a million years, would’ve ever suspected that she had that. I’m surprised I didn’t get it.”
When other study-abroad students in Italy were offered full transportation via a Delta charter plane paid for by SUNY, two weeks before the mandate, Bensai elected to stay in Florence. But as the country gradually began to shut down, her university closed its doors as well. She booked the earliest flight from Rome to John F. Kennedy International Airport last Saturday, where she went through additional screening at customs and is now quarantined at her home in Astoria in Queens, New York.
“I did not want to go, until like a week after when things started shutting down,” Bensai said. “Every flight kept getting canceled. The Florence airport barely had flights. I had two flights that were canceled before I ended up taking the train in Rome. I wasn’t sure how long I was going to be trapped there.”
Most of the students are under self-quarantine at home or elsewhere. Sophomore English major Clarice Knelly, who also studied at Keele University, traveled to Montreal last Sunday. Knelly is staying in her boyfriend’s apartment for the remainder of her 14-day quarantine to avoid potentially spreading the virus to her mother, who is immuno-compromised at their home in Plattsburgh. Knelly said although her time abroad was short-lived, she was glad she had any experience at all.
“It’s a bummer that it happened when it did, so I’d like to study abroad again if I had the chance, because I feel like I got half of an experience,” Knelly said. “If it happened earlier, I would’ve been really sad.”
Knelly also never would’ve met sophomore economics and environmental science major and future roommate Mia Morgillo while studying at Keele. Morgillo said when she, Knelly and other friends realized the situation, there was a lot of crying.
“I was sitting at the kitchen table with one of my flatmates, and Clarice told me to check my email,” Morgillo said. “I already had a bad feeling. I opened it and put my phone right back down. I didn’t even want to think about the fact that I had to go home. We all felt the same way.”
Both Knelly and Morgillo said they had lost money on future trips around Europe they had planned for the rest of the semester.
“A lot of us are really feeling it in our bank accounts,” Morgillo said. “We all lost a lot of money.”
Like PSU, most students also said their universities abroad have shut down their campuses and moved classes online. Another Keele student, junior marketing and global supply chain management major Lauren Lawliss, said she was following her lectures online, despite being home with her parents and brother on a poor internet connection in Peru, New York.
“There’s four of us trying to use the WiFi at once, so that’s kind of difficult, but it’s not too bad,” Lawliss said. “We’re spending quality family time when we can,”
Aside from a loss of funds and future memories, some students felt frustrated for their experience being cut short. Junior hospitality management major Briana Clinton said she had to leave Bilbao, Spain, where she was studying at the University of Deusto, and asked GEO for help as the crisis escalated.
“I had to send countless emails,” Clinton said. “They were making it mandatory for people to come back, but they weren’t going to help people in any way, shape or form because it was so last minute. I felt abandoned by GEO at one point, and then they made it right, but it just took a very long time.”
Clinton, as a first-generation student who received financial aid and worked two jobs in order to afford a study-abroad experience, said after communicating with GEO about her situation, the office paid for her flight back to the U.S. Clinton said that although her time was shortened because of the pandemic, she believes everything happens for a reason.
“I chose to study abroad in Spain this semester for a reason,” Clinton said. “I think I learned much more within two months of being abroad and seeing how things are internationally. I think I’ve grown and matured. I worked hard for this, but it lasted for as long as it lasted for a reason.”
For the future of PSU study-abroad, Layhee said GEO is continuing to operate next semester’s programs. Thirty-five applications from both PSU and non-PSU students have been received for programs in Australia, France, Spain, England and Canada for fall 2020. Layhee also said some GEO deadlines for programs have been extended until April 1, and the office is “continuing to monitor the situation and being flexible for students financially committing to their program at this time.”
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