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Beloiters abroad contend with international responses to the spread of COVID-19; Office of International Education defers to students’ decisions

When Meg Kulikowski’21 arrived in Ireland in early January to begin her semester abroad at University College Cork, “It felt like I’d dropped myself in a separate life,” she said over the phone on March 26. Cork was “so separate” from Beloit College and her hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina, “in such a good way.” Kulikowski had been studying Irish literature at Beloit in anticipation of studying abroad, and she said that she’d had a gut feeling about the university she chose. She quickly became inseparable from her roommate, a student from Germany who was also there for the semester; and from another American student. Together, they explored Cork’s pubs and churches, took misty hikes around the lakes and mountains just outside the city, and ventured to Dublin. She already felt more confident than when she’d boarded the first plane on the journey there.

Meg Kulikowski’21 in Cobh, Ireland earlier this semester.

When news of a novel coronavirus outbreak (now known as COVID-19) in Wuhan, China started circulating in late January, Kulikowski read updates on Facebook, where she often gets her news, like many Beloit students. At first, she said she wasn’t too worried. “At the time it was being first reported, it was like, ‘Big outbreak in China!’” she said. “No one considered that it would spread and become global.”

Meanwhile, Emily Kratz’21 and Nathan Marklin’21 were also settling into their lives as international students, at the Institut d’études politiques de Rennes in France and Universidad San Francisco de Quito in Ecuador, respectively. Like Kulikowski and 32 other Beloit students, mostly juniors, who were abroad during the Spring 2020 semester, they’d both spent over a year researching universities, applying to programs, completing orientations, studying languages and preparing for the immersive cultural exchange that they’d been hoping for since they enrolled at Beloit.

Kratz and Marklin both ditto Kulikowski’s sentiments. “My time in Ecuador was everything I imagined plus more,” Marklin, who shared his program with Fiona Cismesia’21, wrote in an email to the Round Table on March 28. “It was lovely and I grew plenty from it.”

Nathan Marklin’21 at Lago Quilotoa, Ecuador.

Emily Kratz’21 outside of her university, Institut d’études politiques de Rennes in France.

“I had heard so many people talk about study abroad and how it changes your life,” Kratz wrote on March 30, “but I didn’t truly understand what those people were talking about until I got to Europe, and then I realized: ‘Oh. Yeah, this is awesome.’”

Marklin also learned about the virus outbreak on social media. “I first heard of the virus through a meme,” he wrote, and not one that made it seem too serious. He said he realized “the true gravity of the situation” after talking to his former Phi Kappa Psi brother MuTian Qiao’19, who now lives in Hangzhou, China. But he still wasn’t concerned about the stability of his own situation: “South America was one of the last places to receive the virus, so the general demeanor was quite nonchalant by comparison to other parts of the world,” he wrote. “Ecuador was a sea of calm, until it wasn’t.” Kratz recalls, in early February, reassuring an anxious friend in her program that they would be OK.

On March 6, which was the Friday before Beloit’s Spring Break and just over a week before President Scott Bierman’s announcement that Beloit would be transitioning to distance learning out of concern for the safety of its students and staff, the recently formed COVID-19 Task Force mentioned in an email to the campus community that one of the “broad areas” it was addressing was “study abroad and support of international students.”

However, the students with whom The Round Table was in contact for this story said that they hadn’t heard from the Office of International Education by that Friday. Some said that they received a note checking in on them shortly afterward, but others said that they did not receive any communication from the college until after they reached out to OIE asking for advice.

By March 6, plans had already changed for Zhao Kang’21, who was spending his semester at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. The Round Table will publish a longer conversation with Kang later this week.

For the others, reality set in during the same week as it did for on-campus Beloiters. “Until a few days before I left, I was thinking, ‘This could get really bad, but I’m going to try my best to stay in Cork,’” Kulikowski said. 

Then, on March 12, President Donald Trump said during a press conference that he planned to suspend “all travel from Europe to the United States,” although members of his staff quickly clarified that the travel ban did not apply to U.S. citizens. That was Thursday; almost immediately, one of Kulikowski’s close friends was told by her home university that she needed to be back in the U.S. by midnight on Friday. Although that was not possible, the friend had no choice but to begin packing and make travel plans.

“I was shocked,” said Kulikowski. “I was so afraid of Trump changing his mind, or airlines canceling, and being stuck there.”

She called her parents, who advised her to return home. “We got some instruction from the international office [at University College Cork], but they were basically deferring to our home universities,” she said. In Kulikowski’s case, her home university was deferring to its students. She emailed OIE saying that she was planning to buy a ticket back to Raleigh, and “Beloit didn’t tell me to come back; they just said, ‘It’s a really good idea.’”

Betsy Brewer, Beloit’s Director of International Education, told The Round Table in a video call on April 2 that “[OIE’s] philosophy around study abroad is that we’re trying to help students make decisions that are good for them and to plan their own experience, [and to] direct themselves, rather than rely on someone else to plan their experience for them.” She continued that OIE encourages students to “take some ownership around health and safety,” and said that they “feel that students have a better sense of what’s going on on the ground” than international education staff in Wisconsin do. Based on that philosophy, OIE chose to allow Beloit students to make their own decisions regarding whether to go home or stick it out.

“In lots of ways, we’re blessed, in this era, that we have the internet to communicate,” Brewer said. “In earlier years, this would have been more difficult.” She also said that the college was fortunate to have sent only 35 students abroad this semester; during a typical semester, between 50 and 70 Beloit students are studying abroad.

It was easier for Beloit than it was for some larger schools to rely on students’ own judgment, because Beloit only sends students abroad on an individual basis. Some universities organize their own foreign study programs, led by their own professors, in which groups of students enroll and remain together throughout the semester. Beloit prefers that each student navigate their host country independently.

Some students who initially wanted to stay in their host countries changed their minds “when it became clear that you couldn’t even go out for simple pleasures” like the beach, Brewer said.

Eva Haykin’21 in Parque Nacional Torres del Paine in Chile. She wants Round Table readers to know that the water bottle found her, and not the other way around.

Philip Adrian’21 and Evan Watkins’21 at Cave Stream Scenic Reserve in New Zealand.

Brewer said that “five or six” students are still living in their host countries, whether by choice or because current travel restrictions won’t allow them to return. Those students include Eva Haykin’21, who is sheltering in place with her host family and completing her classes online at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso in Chile; and Philip Adrian’21 and Evan Watkins’21, who are remaining in University of Canterbury student housing in Christchurch, New Zealand.

All three students remained outside the U.S. by choice, although Adrian and Haykin noted that it was no longer possible to secure a flight home, should they change their minds.

Adrian is thankful that OIE let him make the final call. The communication he received “was nice, because [the emails] weren’t orders,” he said over the phone on March 30. “They were like, ‘Are you OK? How’s it going?’ They weren’t ordering me to do anything.” He also said that his professors back at Beloit had been reaching out.

After most international students at the University of Canterbury left, Adrian and Watkins and their remaining friends—mostly other Americans, plus one student from Hong Kong—consolidated into one student apartment, where they’ve been sheltering in place, cooking together, studying online and only going out to get groceries. “It’s been pretty fun, actually, so far,” Adrian said. “I feel like it’s healthy for everyone to realize we have so little control over what happens, and we have to let go of some plans.”

Because New Zealand was one of the last countries to have a confirmed outbreak of COVID-19, its residents and policymakers were able to watch the rest of the world attempt to contain the virus, and then to create a plan before the brunt of it arrived on the islands. New Zealand went on lockdown in mid-March once it reached 60 confirmed cases, after an announced 48-hour period for residents to prepare.

The University of Canterbury was also uniquely equipped to handle a disaster like this. Ever since the 2010 Canterbury Earthquake caused widespread damage in Christchurch, all of the university’s lectures have been filmed, in case a great number of students were suddenly unable to make it to class.

Haykin wrote in an email to The Round Table on April 2 that she decided to stay in Valparaíso in early March, “after it was clear that the U.S. government was failing to act comprehensively.” She said she received “prompt check-in emails” from OIE and frequent updates from her host university about its new protocols, as well as changes in government policy in response to the pandemic. “For the time being, I am safer here in Chile, where my food and housing [are] confirmed,” she wrote. “I feel lucky to be sheltering here.”

Haykin and Kulikowski both mentioned friends who had risked losing scholarships or credit or even being expelled if they didn’t return home, out of their home universities’ fear of liability.

“I feel lucky that […] OIE prioritized my safety over administrative bureaucracy,” Haykin said.

Back in Rennes, Kratz felt less supported by OIE’s decision to rely on her own judgment. She talked to her trusted professors at Beloit far more than with international education staff, she wrote. “It was frustrating to not have firm guidelines from Beloit, despite a request for them a few days earlier,” Kratz continued in her email. “Especially as the situation developed, I felt lost and in need of guidance […]  While I recognize that OIE has a lot of students to manage and that the coronavirus has demanded many changes, I expected more support than I received,” she wrote. “It was disappointing.”

As the crisis escalated, some of her friends from the U.S. were told that if the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention raised France’s Travel Health Notice to a Warning Level 3, they would be called home. Trump’s announcement of travel bans a few days later was “the start of the madness,” Kratz wrote.

When she woke up on the morning of Thursday, March 12, she was overwhelmed by notifications on her phone. France was now classified a Level 3, and all nonessential travel was discouraged. Some of her friends had already begun packing. That evening, the French President, Emmanuel Macron, called for all French schools to close indefinitely. On Saturday, he closed all nonessential businesses, and Kratz officially decided to return home.

Meanwhile, Marklin was on a multiday hike when he and his friends learned that 75 to 85 percent of international students at Universidad San Francisco de Quito had either already left Ecuador or had purchased tickets to leave the country.

That Sunday, March 15, Marklin purchased a flight back to the states for Tuesday, and began using his two remaining days to say goodbye to Ecuador and his host family. The next day, however, Marklin learned that Quito’s international airport would be cancelling most flights beginning at midnight that night. He found one unbooked seat to the U.S., on a flight that departed at 11:50 p.m. “I went from having a couple of days to prepare for an already abrupt departure to seven hours,” he wrote.

The international departures gate at Mariscal Sucre International Airport in Quito, Ecuador on March 16. Photo by Marklin.

Perhaps Marklin’s experience restored some cosmic balance after Kulikowski’s, which she told The Round Table was “the most easy travel experience I’ve ever had.”

“It was weird because it was so calm,” she said. “I was so perplexed. I was so prepared for hours in line,” but she wasn’t screened or even instructed to self-quarantine. “I think I just hit it at the right time.”

Now, Marklin, Kratz and Kulikowski are sheltering in place with their own families and completing their semesters online.

“While it was sad to leave my lovely host family so suddenly, I am glad I can be with my family during this time,” Marklin wrote. “A couple of dear friends of mine remain in Ecuador, unable to go back to their home countries in Italy and Austria, because of national quarantine levels and expenses.”

Brewer hoped Beloit students who’d had to return home would remember that the lives of those they’d left behind had been just as severely disrupted. “Host families are losing stipends, and students, which are a major part of their lives,” she said. “Thinking about local staff losing income, it’s very painful.” She pointed out that most organizations that facilitate study abroad experiences are nonprofits, and that those organizations are now struggling financially because they’re offering refunds for room and board fees, but they have pledged to enable students to complete their semesters.

She also hoped that Beloiters would remember their international classmates who have had to remain on campus in Wisconsin because they’re unable to return home.

Brewer grew emotional when she spoke about her hope that in the midst of the crisis, the global Beloit community would “remember how we’re connected and how we’re each affected” by events like this one. She encouraged students who were abroad this semester and in previous semesters to stay in touch with their friends and family from their adoptive countries, and to appreciate their ability to think beyond the U.S. borders when they read the news.

“I hope that study abroad remains a really robust part of what Beloit offers,” Brewer said. “It’s critical to our education, and critical to our ability to weather these kinds of things.”

Now, she’s focusing on students who are trying to study abroad during the Fall 2020 semester. OIE is monitoring its partner universities’ communications about their plans for next semester. Most students need to secure visas well ahead of time, and many of their parents would rather they not leave the country in the fall. One student has a plan in place to go abroad during the Spring 2021 semester if they are not able to leave the country by August.

The students who are home would like to return to their host countries as soon as they’re able. For the time being, in spite of the heartbreak of losing the second half of their semesters abroad, they’re grateful to be safe and to have gotten what they were hoping for out of the first half. “It’s hard to be positive about it, but I felt pretty lucky to have experienced what I did,” said Kulikowski.

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