“Do I have to go? Do I have a choice? I feel safer here.”
“This is incredibly disappointing – I’ve been planning this for years.”
“What are the consequences if I stay?”
“I can’t concentrate in class, I feel like any minute it will be my turn to have to go.”
“I’m spending my last day at the Hermitage.”
“I was just getting comfortable here – I love it here.”
“This was probably my only chance.”
“Everything has changed.”
“At least we’re all in this together – group hug.”
These are some of the things I heard from students as the pandemic crisis unfolded. During this time, our students continued to bond. They kept going to class, hanging out with local peers, eating great local foods, visiting world-renowned museums and theaters, and enjoying breathtaking nature. They continued to study abroad.
SRAS feels incredibly fortunate to have a strong team that was able to meet over the course of the crisis to develop policies to ensure our students’ safety. We were also incredibly fortunate to have students in parts of the world that weren’t as immediately and directly hit.
That said, it was heartbreaking to see it all unfold. The crisis picked up just a little over a month into their programs, when students are really starting to settle in and embrace their new city. This is when they start to gain more confidence and take steps to knock that language barrier down. Meaningful bonds with locals and with each other have begun to form. In spring, the days are just getting longer and warmer and students realize there is so much to do in such a short time and that study abroad really is going to be a life-changing experience.
That’s just when the student recalls started to come in, borders started to close, understandably concerned parents started to write, and the news cycles started to feed on and feed into the panic. Preparing for the worst, I called a student meeting and was ready to calm the panic and discuss the fears. As the students gathered in the room, I sensed not collective panic, but somber solidarity. Sadness tinged their faces as everyone already knew that the first student was departing later that day and they would have to say goodbye mid-meeting. Each student was wondering: Will I be called home next? Should I be going home? What’s going to happen here? Where am I safe? What happens to my credits? How will we study abroad online?
The group sat patiently as I gave them the facts. They nodded understandingly when I told them I could not predict what would happen next. They listened intently as I assured them we were making contingency plans. They remained composed when I didn’t have all the answers but promised to try to get them. They responded with reasonable, thoughtful questions and demonstrated that they were carefully analyzing all angles of the situation, critically looking at the information and options. I could feel the tension and the weight of the decision some had to make to stay or go.
Studying abroad presents students with a fair amount of psychological stress even under usual circumstances. However, these spring 2020 students were forced to deal with an unprecedented set of stressors and unknowns. Every day brought new information, new restrictions, new questions, growing tension, and it didn’t let up. It exhausted us all. Yet through all of it, I witnessed in every email, meeting, and phone call the grace and maturity with which students handled themselves.
This was not just our great St. Petersburg group. In my correspondence with our students in other locations: Moscow, Bishkek, Warsaw, Vladivostok, and Kyiv, I saw that our students did not fold under pressure and they did not panic. Their thought process was rational and intentional, not reactionary. My colleagues on the ground in these locations all noticed that our students were calm and patient and showed tremendous gratitude and kindness.
What I love about working in study abroad is that I get to see a lot of growth. I see students grow to love and understand a new city and culture. I see them grow as individuals and world citizens. I see them grapple with their identity and independence and questions about their future. I feel for all students whose study abroad experiences were cut short. For some, that month and a half might have been the only opportunity they had. Others will return. And study abroad in general will continue to be an experience that shapes individuals and the communities they are a part of. I encourage students to reflect on the before, during, and after of the crisis and embrace the growth opportunities presented. I commend all study abroad students for their maturity and decorum as we all navigate this crisis together and continue to plan for the future.