Halting of Study Abroad Leads to Dear COVID-19

Lehigh creates new course for students whose study abroad experiences were interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Story by

Stephen Gross

Bright colored houses in Nyhavn, a district in Copenhagen

Nyhavn, an entertainment district in Copenhagen, is known for its bright colored houses. (Nova Stoller)

“Dear COVID-19:

...You hovered and spread in the background while I began what I thought was going to be the most important journey of my life. Living in Copenhagen was something I had been waiting to do since I was very young. Growing up Danish, I [was] lucky to be able to spend summers and holidays visiting cousins and my grandparents; however, this wasn’t the same as living on my own there. I was tired of being a tourist, and I finally had the opportunity to use my time abroad to discover my own Danish identity. I wanted to make my own friends, live at my own place and have my own experiences. ...” 

Nova Stoller in central Copenhagen

Nova Stoller stands outside her apartment in Copenhagen. (Courtesy of Nova Stoller)

Nova Stoller ’21 unleashed on COVID-19 in a personal, three-page letter addressed to the disease, an exercise designed to be cathartic for students who had yet, or were unable, to unpack their experiences, thoughts and feelings when their study abroad experiences abruptly ended.

Stoller was one of 159 Lehigh students studying abroad during the 2020 spring semester who were directed to immediately return home in late February and early March as the disease spread globally. Only two remained in their host countries. 

“They were pulled home, pulled into crisis,” says Karen Rodriguez, director of global citizenship and professor of practice in global citizenship. “Students were worrying about those left behind and also about parents and grandparents at home. Understandably, nobody's saying, 'So tell me, what was life like in Switzerland?' or 'What did you learn living with a host family in Denmark?' Nope. Most people didn't have time to ask them the normal questions. So, a lot of it [was] just giving them some space to talk about both their fears and their experiences, to go into that sort of unfathomable gap between the two.”

Of those who returned, 46 opted to enroll in a new Dear COVID-19 course taught by Rodriguez. Her framework for the class was to have the students write two Dear COVID-19 letters, one as the class began and the other at the end of the term.

Sunset in Christianshavn

A sunset in Christianshavn, a neighborhood in Copenhagen, days before Nova Stoller returned home from her study abroad experience. (Nova Stoller)

“The first letter was designed to give students the opportunity to wallow, rant and let it all out with no filter, because it was so raw for everybody,” Rodriguez says. “Some students coming into the course were literally just off the plane; others were just out of quarantine and isolation. Everyone had a story full of conflicting emotions.”

Stoller wrote:

“When it came to you COVID-19, we thought we were invincible. We felt protected by Denmark; the universal healthcare, the cleanliness, and the fact that it is so far up north and so tiny that most people can’t find it on a map. We basked in this confidence for a few weeks after you made your first attack on Italy. I watched friends begin to panic, some booking flights home in the middle of the night. I thought they were being dramatic. From our perspective, there was really nothing to worry about.”

The semester started just like many others for Stoller and the other Lehigh students studying abroad. Students, all happily immersing in their new cities, classes and experiences, were spread across six continents and 24 countries, from Argentina to Austria, Singapore to South Africa.

Then, COVID-19 began to spread, rapidly.

When it came to you COVID-19, we thought we were invincible. We felt protected by Denmark; the universal healthcare, the cleanliness, and the fact that it is so far up north and so tiny that most people can’t find it on a map. ... I watched friends begin to panic, some booking flights home in the middle of the night. I thought they were being dramatic.

Nova Stoller '21

Lehigh’s Office of International Affairs, along with senior leadership, had decided early on that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) travel advisory levels would help guide their decision-making. If the CDC issued a Level 2 advisory for a country, Lehigh would allow students to return home voluntarily. If an advisory rose to Level 3, it would direct students home.

With no students studying abroad in China, where the disease began, the first outbreak that directly affected students was in Italy, where 33 Lehigh students were studying. Lehigh’s Office of International Affairs began communicating options to return home for those students on Feb. 25 and corresponded throughout the week as changes rapidly occurred. In response to the U.S. State Department’s “Level 3: Reconsider Travel” advisory for Italy, the Office of International Affairs emailed and individually called the students in Italy Feb. 29, directing them to immediately return home and offering help with arrangements.

Natalie Maroun in front of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, Italy

Natalie Maroun in front of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, Italy. (Courtesy of Natalie Maroun)

Natalie Maroun ’21 had been enjoying a weekend in Switzerland in the midst of her study abroad experience in Florence, Italy, when she got the call from Lehigh: She had five days to return home. Over the next 11 days, a similar set of circumstances unfolded for the rest of the students abroad.

“It was hard enough, but when we had to actually tell students to return, that was really emotional for students,” Katie Radande, Lehigh’s director of study abroad, says of the work her office was completing. “We did our best to support them but some of them had been planning years to have this once-in-a-lifetime experience, and here we were having them come home.”

The night of March 11 was particularly hectic for Radande’s office, as President Donald Trump announced the decision to restrict travel from Europe to the United States. Through 1 a.m., staff called each family with students in Europe to check in and offer support.

Samantha Margolis ’21 was studying in Geneva, Switzerland. She recounted the events in her initial letter for the COVID-19 course and plans to add the letter to the journal she kept while abroad. Margolis had been filling the journal with ticket stubs, notes about her experiences and, occasionally, her feelings and emotions. The letter allowed her to document the whirlwind of events that occurred in her final days abroad.

Samantha Margolis in front of the United Nations in Geneva

Samantha Margolis in front of the Palace of Nations in Geneva, Switzerland prior to speaking before the United Nations Human Rights Council. (Courtesy of Samantha Margolis)

“Thursday, March 12, 7 a.m.:
I am quite literally awoken by the yelling of my roommate Grace. Startled, I ask why she is yelling and if she is okay. She proceeds to explain that at 2 a.m. our time, President Trump had announced we had until Friday to get back to the United States. Due to my having woken up roughly 3 minutes prior to this news, I was quite confused. She opened our dorm door only to find the rest of our program in our building crying, yelling, packing, and on the phone with parents and airlines.”

Samantha Margolis in her apartment window in Geneva

Samantha Margolis in her apartment window on her first day in Geneva, Switzerland. (Courtesy of Samantha Margolis)

In the Dear COVID-19 class, students often broke into smaller discussion groups to more easily compare experiences and talk about “what they needed to get out.” 

Coming home from a semester abroad always involves mixed emotions, Rodriguez says, but this experience was unique: Students had no time to prepare and say goodbyes, then they returned home to find everything and everyone in crisis. While they were grateful to be home safely, she says, amidst the chaos no one was asking them about their experiences abroad. Therefore, the course provided space for students to process what was good about the study abroad experience as well as work through the sadness around their returns.

“It’s so hard not to kick and scream and say that I have it worse when I know that’s not true,” Stoller wrote in the initial letter. “I am not sick, I have not lost my job, I have not lost money and I am safe with loved ones.”

Rodriguez says students not only discussed the experience of having their time abroad disrupted, but also the memories they had not been able to share yet. In one breakout room, Rodriguez had them hold up their cell phones to show photos of somebody who was important to them while abroad, their favorite scenery or maybe just a good memory that was captured.

When else am I going to have … months to just breathe and just sit with myself, no responsibilities, no grades I need to look for, no expectations I need to look up to? … The world keeps turning, the waves keep on crashing, the babies are still being made, and one day my life will return to the hecticness it once was, so, for now, I am very okay counting my blessings and cursing COVID for all it has taken away, and secretly thanking it for all it has given me.

Samantha Margolis '21

With students stateside again, Rodriguez wanted to “see if they could turn that same cultural curiosity and critical lens back on their own families and homes. What could this experience teach them?” Students took on independent projects to either explore the immediate situation at home or write about an aspect of their learning abroad that they had left unfinished. Some wrote about the psychological effects of quarantine; others looked at how the pandemic was playing out in the host country; and some dove into discussions around indigenous language policy, political neutrality, and other topics related to their academic areas of interest. 

Rodriguez stressed the course wasn’t just about what the students lost or missed out on. “I also wanted them to know deeply that their experiences still counted,” she says. “They did go abroad, they did learn new languages, they experimented with different ways of living, they critically engaged difference. Their experiences ended too soon, but they still count.” 

Students finished the course by writing a second letter to COVID-19. While Rodriguez initially hoped students would have more perspective than during their first week home, she says the arc of the virus did not match the arc of the semester.

Natalie Maroun on top of the dome of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore

Natalie Maroun stands on top of the dome of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, Italy during her study abroad experience. (Courtesy of Natalie Maroun)

“When I started, I hoped this [pandemic] would all be over and we'd all be back out and about and saying, ‘Here’s what it looked like from beginning to end,’” Rodriguez says. “The challenging thing about this, that students experienced and we are all experiencing, is that there's not a definite end point. It’s much harder in some ways than a ‘quick’ emergency we can attach a narrative around.”

By the end of the course, however, Margolis came to cherish the calm amid the turmoil. 

“When else am I going to have … months to just breathe and just sit with myself, no responsibilities, no grades I need to look for, no expectations I need to look up to? … The world keeps turning, the waves keep on crashing, the babies are still being made, and one day my life will return to the hecticness it once was, so, for now, I am very okay counting my blessings and cursing COVID for all it has taken away, and secretly thanking it for all it has given me.”

Stoller, too, began to come to terms with the new normal.

“Denmark is starting to reopen. Kids are back in school and people are going back to work. I am ecstatic and excited for them, but most of all I am jealous. Despite pinging feelings of nostalgia and as much as I wish I could be living out March-Me’s predictions for April, I am prepared to sit this one out. I’ve learned that taking things by day, week and month are the only way to get through this mess. I’m over, so over it, but I also understand I can’t do anything about it.

Story by

Stephen Gross

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