Back home, students recall study abroad trips cut short by pandemic

Posted April 26, 2020

UW-River Falls, like many universities nationwide, made the decision to cancel summer programs and have all students studying abroad return home due to the rising concern of the coronavirus.

Discussion of bringing students home began the week prior to the March 23-27 spring break at UWRF. Students who had arrived in South Korea were brought home first before their class had even begun, according to Heidi Soneson, the assistant vice chancellor for international education.

Because their class had not started, the students who came back from South Korea in early March received refunds for the study abroad administrative fee and the application fee. Soneson said they also were given the option to participate in an independent study to replace the study abroad course credits.

“Reservations abroad are non-refundable, but we felt that was a hardship our students shouldn’t have to bear so we refunded in full the programs that didn’t go at all,” said Soneson.

The students who participated in the other study abroad trips that returned early were able to continue classes online, so they received just reimbursement on the refundable costs of the trip.

Natalie Torbert is a sophomore majoring in journalism. She was studying in Dalkeith, Scotland, as part of the Experience Scotland program.

“I loved Scotland and all the opportunities I had to travel to see places such as Aberdeen and London,” Torbert said. “I met amazing people who I miss greatly and will reconnect with over the summer.

“We all realized it was getting serious when countries starting closing their borders, specifically Italy. Two girls from our group went to Italy before they shut down and it was a bit nerve-racking when they got back. They did not get sick, thankfully,” said Torbert. “I was worried about bringing corona back to my family members, and especially to my mom and dad, who have asthma. Knock on wood that everyone is still healthy at this point in time.”

Since returning home, Torbert has been watching Netflix and going for walks. She said she’s disappointed about her missed experiences, though she is thankful to be safe.

Sophia Forliti is a sophomore majoring in communication studies. She was part of the International Traveling Classroom program. In this program, students move to a new city in Europe about every two weeks throughout the semester. Forliti said they began their journey in Scotland, then visited England and Germany before UWRF cut their trip short.

Forliti has already made a list of all the countries she plans on visiting someday. Her advice? “Stay positive, keep busy and keep those travel plans in the back of your mind and ready for when we’re all set free.”

Grace Coggio, an associate professor of communication studies, led the International Traveling Classroom during spring semester. Though she was monitoring the situation before leaving for Europe in January, Coggio said her concern grew slowly throughout the trip. As the group got farther into the mainland of Europe, Coggio made the decision to keep the group together during the four-day transition trips between cities, a time usually used by students for independent travel.

Coggio had seen news of hotel guests who were quarantined in hotels across Europe, and she did not want the same fate for her students. The group instead got a last-minute hostel in Munich, Germany, spending the next four nights there.

“We had heard about coronavirus, but it didn’t feel real until Freiberg,” said Forliti. “That’s when the stores started running out of hand sanitizer, we were getting hand-washing notifications and there weren’t many tourists around. Once we got to Munich it was not a matter of if, but when, we’d leave.”

On March 12, official news came that the university was sending everyone home. Coggio worked with Meg Langie in UWRF’s International Education office to get the students airline tickets home. During this time, President Donald Trump had also halted all travel between the U.S. and Europe for non-citizens.

“We had a nice hostel set up in Berlin, so we decided to go and wait until we had tickets to fly home,” said Coggio.

Because the ITC group had purchased plane tickets all together, Langie was able to shift the arrival date. Travelers coming from abroad had to fly into specific U.S. airports conducting health screenings, and then quarantine somewhere safe for two weeks after reaching their destination.

“I was really impressed with this group of students. They were very understanding and very supportive of not just me but one another,” said Coggio. “When I had to make changes to plans that they had made for a long time, no one whined or complained. They were upset but they understood. They were very mature about it and I couldn’t have asked for a better group of students to go through this with.”

Coggio said she’s proud to be part of the first all-women leaders managing the program. She said she hopes to have an opportunity to teach ITC again.