Stories of Resilience: Bringing Our Study Abroad Students Home Safely

April 8, 2020
By: Guest Contributor

Director of International Programs Katey Palumbo talks about how the worldwide coronavirus pandemic affected Worcester State students who were studying abroad during this spring semester, or were scheduled to participate in faculty-led international programs over spring break.

  1. When did you first realize our study abroad students might need to be brought home?

I had been keeping a close eye on the rapidly evolving situation throughout February. Concern levels on campus were varied, ranging from not-at-all to increasingly concerned. Having worked in international education for almost 20 years, I tried to keep perspective and was mindful to not overreact; however, there was something about this situation that had piqued my concern early on. When the U.S. Department of State raised the travel alert to Italy to a Level 3 on Feb. 28, it became clear that the scope of this situation was unique. We made the decision to cancel our four faculty-led programs scheduled for spring break (Dominican Republic, Prague, United Kingdom, and Ireland) on March 4. This impacted eight faculty members and 72 students. The majority of the spring semester study abroad students had returned home by March 20.

  1. How many students were studying abroad, and where?

We had 20 spring semester students abroad: Australia (3), Italy (3), Poland (1), Hungary (1), Spain (3), United Kingdom (3), Greece (2), Chile (1), and the Czech Republic (3).

  1. What were the biggest challenges you faced?

Initially, addressing the concerns and needs of students and parents was a constant.

Thankfully, because we had already established means of communication and support for our students, the challenges were minimal. In the field of education abroad, you have to be prepared to counter the unexpected and have emergency preparedness plans in place. We had this, so the process worked as smoothly as it could have.

  1. What were our students’ reactions to this major upheaval?

Initially, many students were hesitant to accept the true reality of the situation, which is understandable. Students had committed much time, effort, planning, and money into their study abroad semester. They had just only recently (four to six weeks, sometimes less) arrived at their host institutions so it was disappointing that they had to consider returning home so quickly and abruptly. Given how quickly the situation evolved (particularly with the blanket Level 3 travel alert for Europe), however, students soon began to realize that returning home was the best option. We also worked very closely with our partners and providers overseas to communicate consistent messaging to students. Overall, students handled themselves with maturity. I worked with them to rebook flights and to follow self-quarantine measures once they had arrived back. Students are now in the process of completing their semester coursework online via distance learning with the host institutions.

  1. Were there special circumstances for some students?

Our student in Poland is a Polish citizen and has family there, so he made the decision to stay. We had an international student in Australia whose home country closed its borders, so she remains there. She and I were able to work with the host institution to ensure that her housing was extended and she will have the necessary supports for the remainder of the semester. We have another student who chose to remain in Australia as well. Overall, three of the 20 students remain abroad. I am in regular contact with them and they seem to be doing well.

  1. Overall, what did you learn from this experience?

Always be prepared and expect the unexpected to the extent that this is possible. We offer a comprehensive pre-departure half-day session for all students going abroad. One of the main components of this session is health and safety and establishing communication expectations with students. They were aware of these expectations and the communication went smoothly. Our students remained calm in a difficult situation. I was proud to see how they reacted and dealt with the situation.

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