This Is What Happened When My Study Abroad Program Was Canceled Because of COVID-19

My semester abroad in Florence, Italy was abruptly canceled because of Coronavirus — here's how it played out.

Sarah Louise Rhodes
Photo: Courtesy of Sarah Louise Rhodes

Upon my arrival to Italy at the end of January for my semester abroad, Coronavirus had not crossed my mind. Of course I had seen news of the outbreak of a “novel virus” in Wuhan, but I never thought that it would affect my study abroad program in Florence.

I really loved living and studying abroad in Italy — where better to study art history and drawing than the home of “The David” and the Uffizi Gallery? I lived in an apartment with 6 other girls, and quickly made plans to travel all over Europe with them during the semester. Over Valentine’s Day weekend, three of us went on a girls trip to Paris, eating and drinking our weight in French pastries and wine. It was a great weekend trip, however when we arrived back in Florence on the following Monday night, February 17, we had our first real encounter with the Coronavirus.

As we got off the plane, people dressed in hazmat suits instructed us to form a line so that they could take all of our temperatures. This was the first time I felt really worried about the virus. I hadn’t even heard of cases in Europe at the time, but I tried to quell my anxiety by reassuring myself that it was a good thing that they were being so proactive to protect the city from the virus. We passed through the temperature checkpoint and made our way home, concerned but relatively calm (despite our mothers’ stressed out phone calls).

Almost a week went by without any other thoughts of the coronavirus. On Saturday, February 22, my roommate and I had a class trip to Prato, a town neighboring Florence, just for the day. We were considering going to Milan the next day, but when we were on the trip my boyfriend texted me, “Don’t go to Milan tomorrow.” He explained that there were around 10 cases of Coronavirus in a town very close to Milan. Since we hadn’t bought our train tickets yet, we decided not to go, opting for a weekend at “home” in Florence.

By Monday, the number of cases had exponentially increased. Even though the cases were only in northern Italy, it made me extremely uneasy. Our study abroad program told us to practice our normal precautions like washing our hands and instructed us to avoid traveling outside of Tuscany if possible. My roommates and I had plans to travel to Budapest the upcoming weekend, but by Tuesday I began second guessing whether or not we should still go.

On Wednesday, everything started to change. The energy in the city shifted and everything seemed tense. The US issued a level 2 travel advisory for Italy, and some universities started to bring their students home. There was a stark divide among the students in my program — some were extremely worried and cancelled their weekend plans, and others didn’t see an issue whatsoever and still planned on traveling internationally throughout Europe. I was constantly on edge. My anxiety grew every time I had to leave my apartment to go to class. Our program in Italy emailed us with the option to go home and complete classes remotely, or stay in Florence. They gave us just 4 days to decide.

Tourists in The Square of Signoria (Piazza della Signoria) in Florence
Bob Hilscher/Getty Images

On Friday, February 28, I made the decision to leave Florence and my semester abroad. My parents and I booked a plane ticket for the next day. My roommate decided she would do the same, so we spent our last day in Florence packing up and saying goodbye to the city with Aperol Spritzes and prosciutto. I was truly scared to be traveling, but I would have been more scared to stay in the country not knowing what would happen next. I am so thankful to have left when I did, because shortly thereafter our program sent an email out instructing all students to leave Italy by March 8 at the latest. It’s easy to joke about mandated quarantines and isolation until you face the reality of potentially being stuck in a foreign country thousands of miles from your home and your family.

Related: I Traveled to Asia for My Honeymoon Amid the Coronavirus Outbreak — Here’s What I Learned

I am upset that our study abroad experience was cut short. We lost hundreds of dollars in non-refundable plane tickets for trips that we won’t get to go on, and we won’t be getting any money back from the program for the months of housing we won’t be using or the field trips we no longer get to experience. Even though it feels like we were cut short on the experience we were promised, I am grateful to be home and feel safe for the time being. Much of my anxiety was relieved when I arrived back in the United States, however now that a similar situation is developing here, all I can do is hope for good health and safety for the foreseeable future. Now, I’ll be taking online classes for the rest of the term and self-quarantining at home with my parents and my dog until 2 weeks have passed.

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