LC overseas programs cut short amid global pandemic

Illustration by Ada Barbee

As of March 17, the Overseas & Off-Campus Programs Office has now canceled all Spring 2020 semester programs and is working to get students home and complete their coursework remotely. The Overseas office’s protocol was to cancel programs once they were given a Level 3 Travel Advisory warning by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); however, countries began to close their borders before they were designated Level 3, making it much more difficult for LC students to return to the U.S.

President Wim Wiewel said that although the College’s previous policy was to cancel programs in Level 3 countries, this quickly changed as Trump designated all of Europe Level 3 with the travel ban.

“So there was a very un-nuanced designation … at that point, many people said, ‘Well, this is no longer a useful categorization. So we can’t make decisions based on that,’” Wiewel said. “So that’s why we and many others did not then immediately go to say, ‘Oh, now everybody has to come home’… We felt that because of the sort of unspecific nature of his statement, that we should do a country by country review. ”

LC students studying in France, Spain and Germany initially expected that their programs would be canceled following this designation. However, on March 13, Overseas and Off-Campus Programs emailed the participants in Europe, saying it was their decision to stay or leave. 

“The situation is frequently changing, and it is possible that travel-related difficulties may increase in the coming weeks,” the email said. “Students in Germany, Spain and France may want to make arrangements to return home as soon as feasible. Students returning home should work with onsite staff to arrange for online continuation of coursework to assure that credit can be awarded for the full semester. If returning home is a problem due to flight availability or other issues, we expect that your program site will remain open and that you will be able to remain there for the duration of the program.”

Olivia Olson ’22, who was studying in Strasbourg, was frustrated that the program was not canceled once France became Level 3 and all schools were closed.

“When Macron announced that all daycares, elementary, middle, and high schools, as well as universities would be closed, we assumed we would get an email from Lewis & Clark canceling the program,” Olson said via email. “We had been told that if it reached CDC Level 3 we would be sent home. We were told that if the university closed, we would head home.”

After receiving word from LC that it was their decision to leave or stay, most participants made the decision to leave and started booking flights to fly home. Skylar Golleher ’21 was one of these students.

“Based on everything that was being said, and how cases have been growing in France, I kind of saw this coming,” Golleher said. “All the unknowns have been very stressful and difficult for me. And so I chose to go home. And I think it’s kind of the same for a lot of people, that were like, ‘I don’t want to deal with a pandemic in an unknown country.’”

Ultimately, on March 14, France moved to close all non-essential businesses, and Overseas officially terminated the program and told participants to depart by Tuesday, March 17. 

Milica Stanisic, who was studying abroad in Seville, Spain, was on a program run in cooperation with Spanish Studies Abroad (SSA).

“(SSA) kept telling us that everything was alright and that we didn’t need to worry … They said this even though the Spanish government closed down all the schools they would continue because they are a private entity,” Stanisic said via email. 

Like the students in Strasbourg, those on Stanisic’s program decided to leave before the program was canceled by LC, or SSA. 

“If we waited for the SSA to get their acts together so we would buy our tickets home, we wouldn’t have been able to leave the country,” she said.

Stanisic started experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 while in Spain and went into strict self-quarantine after returning to her home country, Serbia, from Seville.

In a different part of Spain, Josh Phillips ’21 has been in Alicante through an LC program offered through the Center for International Educational Exchange (CIEE). On March 12, CIEE canceled the program, and gave participants until March 22 to leave the country. LC canceled the program days later.

“Students from Penn State, Oberlin, and Elon all received maximum pressure and support (and in the case of Elon a $1000 stipend) to return to the states as quickly as possible,” Phillips said via email. “The best we got from LC was a late reiteration of CIEE’s decision to cancel all European programs.”

It was previously said on the LC website that if it became necessary for students to return home the office would “work with students to change their existing flight or purchase a new flight.” Phillips plans to try and gain compensation from LC for his flights. 

With LC students scattered around the world, the Overseas office was not able to aid all students in finding and funding flights. When students were trapped in Morocco and Ecuador after the countries’ borders closed, Overseas helped pay for their expenses.

Director of Overseas and Off-Campus Programs Blythe Knott commented on the difficulty of the situation.

“Normal protocols didn’t work in this situation,” Knott said via email. “It’s not a normal situation on any level. We always evaluate our protocols after any emergency situation. Certainly we will do so again once the dust settles from this one.”

LC students saw this rapidly changing environment first-hand. 

Margarete Maneker ’21, who was one of the students on the Taiwan program, commented on the state of affairs in Taiwan. She was previously on the Beijing study abroad program, but moved over to Taiwan after that program was canceled.

“Everyone here in Taiwan is wearing masks in public  — If you’re on public transportation, it’s easily 95% of people,” Maneker said via email. “As part of our program, we went on a walking tour of the older part of Taipei last week. The tour guide wore her mask the entire time and told us that Taiwan is being so hyper vigilant because they remember how the SARS epidemic played out.”

Phillips said that while the atmosphere in Spain is also filled with fear and caution, he has seen much apathy and racism.

“Now it has lessened, but college students and kids at first took the closed schools as an excuse to hang out, defeating the purpose of closing in the first place,” Phillips said. “Xenophobia and racism are not limited to any country, but I have personally heard the conspiracy theory about COVID-19 being a synthesized Chinese invention pop up too frequently in my last few days in Spain.”

Chloe Safar ’21 was on the Mérida, Mexico program, where the virus is just starting to spread.

“Other parts of Mexico have had more cases of the virus, this is just the start of it in this area and it hasn’t been confirmed yet in Mérida, but people are worried and trying to take precautions to limit it spreading,” Safar said via Instagram. 

Some students said that they felt safer in their programs than they would have in the U.S., before their programs were canceled.

Alex Webb ’21 said this about his program in Cuenca, Ecuador, before the country decided to close its borders. 

“I personally feel pretty safe here, especially since there are so few cases compared to the U.S.,” Webb said via email. “I am not worried about my personal health or safety and I believe that it wouldn’t make sense for us to have to return to the U.S. early because it’s so much worse there right now.”

Maneker also shared similar sentiments about Taiwan. 

 “I feel very grateful to be here in Taiwan, as it is vastly safer here than in my hometown or America in general,” she said. “I am from Westchester County, NY, which is one of the epicenters of the American outbreak, and Governor Cuomo has recently sent in the National Guard to assist in the quarantine of the town next to mine.”

Although these students felt safe at the time, the crisis has quickly grown. Phillips hopes that people in the U.S. take the situation seriously.

“I hope everyone in the states realizes the importance of social distancing and the responsibility we each hold to impact the outcome,” Phillips said. “We change our opinions based off of the norms in our social circles. And to minimize harm in this context literally every hour can count.”

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