Northwest sophomore Elizabeth Skelly was one of many students on their way to some of the world’s most distinguished and sought-after study abroad institutions in late January. Many were set to spend months in countries across the globe, studying foreign cultures and experiencing things far outside their comfort zones.
Just a month later, things came to an abrupt halt.
Skelly, a Northwest sophomore studying nanochemistry with a minor in calculus, was just going to bed when she got the news.
“I had just gotten home from spending my last night with my friend who was leaving the next day,” Skelly said. “We had a little get-together with her to send her off.”
It was 2:30 a.m. for her in Rome, Italy, when the email finally came through: API, the study-abroad company through which Skelly was hosted, had effectively suspended all Spring 2020 programs in Italy. This included programs in Florence, Rome, Taormina and Tuscania. Students had one week to secure their own alternate flight arrangements out of Italy, and additional information on finances/academics were promised at an undisclosed later date.
Four days after that March 6 deadline, the entire country of Italy went into full lockdown.
‘It just became inevitable’
A few countries and a Channel Tunnel away, Northwest junior Emma Bjork was facing another dilemma entirely.
Junior mass media broadcast and production major Bjork had transferred internationally to Birmingham City University, a school just north of London. She was taking three courses through the university and had a full slate of activities and trips planned for her time in Europe. That’s when everything started shutting down.
“My heart sank with every cancellation email,” Bjork said. “I had a bunch of trips and events get slowly cancelled over a matter of weeks, and after a certain point, it just became inevitable.”
Like Skelly, she was faced with the responsibility of organizing her own way home. But without a company like API to direct her, Bjork had to make her own decisions for herself. With classes moving online and the country declaring lockdown, she finally decided in late March that it was time to cut her losses and head home.
As Bjork weighed the decision to ultimately return home, she said she looked forward to an end to the chaos with a return to “some semblance of comfort and familiarity.”
Navigating the unfamiliar
Both Skelly and Bjork had set their sights on their respective locations long before registering for study abroad.
“I had always wanted to go to Rome,” Skelly said. “I had never been out of the country, and I figured it would be cool to go there. Plus, the classes all would transfer easily into what I needed.”
Skelly was enrolled in all general education courses at Istituto Lorenzo de’ Medici, a higher education institution that sits in the heart of Rome. Her week included courses on literature, art history, Italian family and society, Italian language and Italian food. Every class centered around Italy, which meant many classes included site visits around the city to fully immerse the students in the culture they were learning about.
“The most interesting part of the classes was being able to understand what we were talking about in Rome,” Skelly said. “I really loved just exploring the city. There was so much to see.”
As she considered what she missed most about BCU/England, Bjork answered in the same manner. Listing sightseeing locations like Stonehenge, Bath, Oxford, Stratford, Cambridge and London, her biggest regret is that she didn’t get to see more before cancellations and closures forced her back into the states.
“I always knew I wanted to go to England,” Bjork said. “I’ve been obsessed with London since I was a kid, and [study abroad] would be easiest there with no language barrier.”
At BCU, Bjork’s course schedule included Fandoms and Subcultures, Film Cultures and Music Industries Promotional Practices. In the latter of the three, she was tasked with developing a promotional strategy for an up-and-coming UK artist.
Neither Bjork nor Skelly expected to see home again so soon.
“There was chatter about other schools near the end of February,” Skelly said. “We were aware of the outbreak, but it wasn’t really in Rome at the time. It was in Northern Italy, which didn’t affect us.”
Bjork echoed that sentiment, calling the spread of closures and cancellations “weirdly gradual” up until her return in late March.
The UK was slower than most to establish lockdown orders; Boris Johnson only officially announced stay-at-home directives on March 23. On the same day, Bjork bought her tickets back home.
“It didn’t really sink in that I was going home until I bought the plane tickets and started packing, which was only two days before I left,” Bjork said. “I don’t think I fully understood until I landed at the Chicago airport and realized I was back in the states for the first time in two months.”
Making the transition
With the transition to remote online classes, students have had to find their own way to keep up with coursework now that they’re home.
“It’s so much harder to concentrate and actually do the work now,” Skelly said. “I’ve completely lost a lot of my motivation.”
Since the three mass media classes that Bjork took through BCU weren’t necessarily as location-specific as Skelly’s, the transition to online was less troublesome. Skelly’s courses had to compensate for that loss in first-hand experience.
“Now, I can’t really picture what they’re talking about because I’m not there,” Skelly said. “I feel like I’m missing half of the class.”
Bjork noted no major difficulties aside from the schedule changes and the time difference.
Officially, all study abroad programs at Northwest have been canceled until at least Fall 2020. Dr. Phil Hull, director of the International Involvement Center, reported that around 60 to 70 Study Abroad students have been impacted by the COVID-19 closures. Student-led programs like Skelly’s and Bjork’s are not the only ones affected – two faculty-led programs have been postponed for at least a year, if not longer.
As for refunds and reimbursements? “Communication with API has been bad,” Skelly said. “Northwest has been better, but I’m not sure what to even ask since API won’t answer us. It's been over a month since we were sent home, and we haven't gotten the information yet.”
Bjork, however, said she received all the refunds that she expected.
“[With BCU,] if you contact the right people and explain the situation, [they’re] providing refunds,” Bjork said.
Northwest has provided reimbursement for unexpected flights home. As for API, they are still undetermined on recoverable and refundable costs for their programs. In a statement from API’s blog, it is reported that information is still being processed and decided upon – if and when refunds are issued will depend on the individual site that their programs operated from.