“I was absolutely devastated.” Students return home and cancel trips amid COVID-19 outbreaks

As the UI cancels international programs in several countries and the regents place a temporary ban on all university-sponsored international travel, students are quickly having to return home and cancel plans to study abroad.


Tate Hildyard

The University of Iowa Study abroad office is seen on Monday, October 21st, 2019.

Caleb McCullough, Assistant Politics Editor

Anna Hull, a sophomore at the University of Iowa, had just arrived in Austria when she found out she had a week to pack up and return to the U.S.

Hull was studying abroad in Italy through CIMBA, a UI program where students spend a semester studying in Italy and traveling around Europe, and received the news on Feb. 29 that the university was suspending its programs in Italy due to rising cases of COVID-19, urging all of around 30 CIMBA students to leave by March 6.

“It was really sudden,” Hull said. “The week before we had been having these meetings about potential cancellations, or canceling travel plans and stuff, and then all of a sudden, the U.S. bumped Italy up to level three and then Iowa was like, ‘Oh, hey, you guys have to come home now.’ And we were like, ‘Oh, wow. OK.’ ”

Hull was only in Austria for the weekend, and when she returned to Italy, she spent the week packing and fitting in last-minute goodbyes, flying back to the U.S. on March 6.

To date, the university has canceled programs in China, South Korea, Italy, Japan, France, Spain, and Germany. The state Board of Regents has also put a rolling 30-day ban on all university-sponsored international travel and the three regent-governed universities, including the UI, are transitioning nearly all in-person classes on campus to be delivered online until at least April 3.

In Johnson County, there are 14 positive cases of the novel coronavirus that are all linked to an Egypt cruise. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a disaster proclamation on Monday, bringing in resources from the Iowa Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management’s Iowa Emergency Response Plan.

Hull said the message from the university came without much warning, and little explanation in regard to next steps. CIMBA students already paid tuition and room and board for the full semester abroad, and Hull said she’s uncertain that any money will be refunded.

“I haven’t gotten any money from the university at all,” Hull said. “CIMBA is talking about reimbursement, but they haven’t really done anything like that.”

According to a March 11 email sent to students in France, Germany, and Spain, the university has offered to cover change fees on airline tickets up to $500.

Students in CIMBA also had trips around Europe planned, and some had to cancel nonrefundable train tickets and flights.

“I was absolutely devastated,” said Christina Pappas, a junior who was studying in Italy. “…This was like our, ‘go travel Europe and check out all these different places’. And it’s sad because it was cut short before the bulk of our traveling.”

Pappas said she was able to get to three planned countries, but she had seven more trips planned, and she doesn’t expect to get refunds on any of her flights.

CIMBA has offered to cover fees for students who want to study in Italy again in the fall or spring semesters next year, but both Pappas and Hull said they wouldn’t be able to fit it into their schedules again before they graduate.

For students that are forced to return home, the university is making efforts to allow them to finish the semester online, Russell Ganim, the associate provost and International Programs dean, said in an email to The Daily Iowan.

“In most cases, these students are able to finish their coursework online,” he said. “Some coursework is disrupted, however, and we are urging students to work with their home colleges and departments on finding ways to complete these classes.”

CIMBA students have been given the opportunity to complete their classes online, and they’ll be getting full credits for the semester, Pappas said.

Jorge Salinas, the epidemiologist at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, said the UI’s response with regard to international programs has been in line with recommendations from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I think it’s been very proactive in learning from experiences in other areas to try to minimize or eliminate the possibility of outbreaks here on campus,” he said.

Students returning from abroad are being urged to self-isolate for 14 days, and both Hull and Pappas have stayed at home outside Iowa City since their return to the U.S.

“There’s a possibility that this infection can be very mild, potentially asymptomatic,” Salinas said. “We believe that we decrease the probability of them unknowingly transmitting this infection to other students. If they went to school, they could transmit it to others.”

Other students have had travel plans changed amid the international pandemic.

Arielle Soemadi, a senior in the College of Education, was planning to leave March 14 to student-teach at Oatlands College, an all-boys school in Dublin, Ireland, but the program was canceled when the regents instituted the travel ban.

Soemadi found out her trip was canceled while student-teaching at Washington Middle School in Washington, Iowa.

“I was livid for about 30 minutes,” she said. “I had called my parents, standing outside the school just crying on the phone. Everything had finally fallen into place… But after that, I realized there’s nothing anybody can do. So just trying to process that and try to be OK with that has been the main struggle.”

Soemadi had some sunken costs as well, spending $800 on a nonrefundable plane ticket. However, she said the UI would refund her $2,224 study abroad fees.

The opportunity to teach at a single-sex school, and understanding the benefits and drawbacks of them, was something Soemadi said she was looking forward to. She said the College of Education pushes students to gain a global teaching perspective.

“One of my dreams is to teach internationally,” she said. “This was gonna be that big test run of, is this what I truly want? And now it feels like I’m stepping in blind, if I want to do this.”

For more coverage of the coronavirus outbreak, click here.


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