Photo by Maddy Cox

Students discuss returning home from abroad during a pandemic

Studying abroad is an experience that many Lewis & Clark students look forward to during their time

at the college, and the students that left during the spring of 2020 were no exception. Bags packed and ready, everyone had arrived in their various host countries by February. Unfortunately, the emergence of a dangerous new strain of the coronavirus had other plans.

COVID-19 took everyone by surprise, and as the world shut down, LC students were instructed to return home. However, not everything went according to plan. Students all over the world, including those in France, Japan and Australia, were left to fend for themselves, arranging trains, flights and paperwork to return home on extremely short notice. Two groups of students, those studying in Morocco and Ecuador, were stranded in their countries when the borders closed.

Kayla Barrera ’21 was one of the students studying in Morocco when the pandemic hit.

“I’m one of the many students that experienced trauma while overseas,” Barrera said. “The situation of uncertainty, perpetuated by the (indecisiveness) of the school’s administration, triggered a lot for me.”

For many of the students overseas, getting home was not easy. Many thought that LC’s response time and the mitigation of an emergency situation were lacking.

“The Morocco program was canceled on Friday, March 13,” Mary-Claire Spurgin ’21 said via email. “We all knew it was coming – with different countries closing their borders and the international response (to the coronavirus) escalating quickly, it was obvious that the program wasn’t safe or sustainable. The delay in canceling our program and the general lack of support for students in leaving Morocco really spoke to a lack of emergency preparedness in the Overseas Office. I don’t think that’s the fault of any individual working in that office, but it speaks more to broader institutional weaknesses at Lewis & Clark.”

Corey Pierson ’21 was studying abroad in Fukuoka, Japan, when the program was canceled. He received little to no support from LC, both financially and working with the school in Japan to get the appropriate credits, which led to a long discussion between Pierson and the school.

“It was very rushed and stressful,” Pierson said. “LC had the opportunity to bring us home in a less rushed, less expensive and less stressful fashion.”

Only a few students in Ecuador and Morocco were provided with financial support for emergency transportation, which was extremely costly for the rest of those who were effectively trapped in a foreign country, some having to pay thousands of dollars due to canceled flights with no available refunds.

“The Overseas Office left us on our own to book flights, both logistically and financially,” Spurgin said. “Twelve students, along with our faculty advisor, were stuck in Morocco once its border closed. Eventually, the rest of them got out on a stroke of total luck. The Overseas Office did provide some level of support in helping those students get out; however, that was only after I left, and it was only logistical support.”

No one could have predicted the extent and severity of COVID-19, but according to these students, LC could have done a much better job with helping students get home.

“I hope that the school has revisited and reassessed its emergency policies, especially when it comes to students abroad,” Spurgin said. “Unless that has happened, I would urge students to think twice about their plans to study abroad with the school.”

When asked to comment on this story, Overseas & Off-Campus Programs referred The Pioneer Log to previous statements made in March, when Spring 2020 programs were being canceled. At the time, Blythe Knott, director of the Overseas Office, commented on the unprecedented challenges brought by COVID-19.

“Normal protocols didn’t work in this situation,” Knott said via email. “(It was) 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.”

All Fall 2020 study abroad programs were canceled. On Oct. 1, Overseas & Off-Campus Programs will announce whether Spring 2021 programs will proceed or also be rescinded.

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