Studying abroad during a pandemic: a timeline
January 13th, 2020
I arrived in Madrid with my three suitcases, a great deal of exhaustion, a ton of excitement and an equal amount of fear for what I was about to get myself into. I had spent all of winter break getting ready for my semester abroad and, still, the moment I got to the airport I was anxious about what there would be for me across the ocean. A new language, a new currency, a city so much larger than I had ever lived in before. I had so many ideas about what I wanted to do, while also having so many questions about what this experience would really be like. Let’s just say, the semester had some surprises in store for us all.
After having about a month in Madrid with the other study abroad students, we had a good routine down. We had made friends, all our classes had started and we could buy things at the store without forgetting every word of our fourth-grade Spanish (más o menos). Every weekend we would take some sort of excursion to a new place in Spain or Europe, my friends and I would get tapas every Tuesday night and we could find our way through the public transportation system. We were all paying attention to the news of coronavirus, and by that time we heard rumors about gaining cases in Italy, but as it was to the rest of the world, we all still considered it a topic of conversation rather than a topic of concern.
On this day, U.S. citizens received information from the U.S. Embassy in Madrid that the first cases were suspected in Spain, one of which in Madrid. I remember I was sitting in my health sciences course when we all got that email and texts started flying. We all started to put up a little bit of a defense against our worries about it coming to the city that we had started to consider as our home.
Fifteen cases were reported in Spain, one of which in Madrid with an unknown origin. After getting news of this, there was an underlying knowledge throughout our cohort that this one case meant that Madrid would be exploding with cases within two weeks.
The number of cases in Spain elevated to 76. This is when our nerves about the ramifications of this pandemic started to rise drastically. I specifically remember so many of us repeating the same thing: “I give us two weeks”.
Only two days later, airlines started to cancel flights. I had planned to travel to Italy for our spring break, “semana santa,” with my family who would come from Michigan to visit, and Vienna with a friend before that, but we got notice that the flights had been canceled. These cancellations were earlier than many others, a sign of the lack of transportation between countries that would soon ensue.
Cases in Spain rose to 228 with 76 in Madrid. It became a habit that everyone would reload the Spanish news websites live-reporting on the current number of cases in the city. Everything in our lives had become “wait and see” and the only concrete information that we could look at was the statistics loaded more than every hour. In our common areas, the only topics of conversations were about “corona” and midterms.
202 cases in Madrid, 644 in Spain. Public transport danger became our major topic of conversation along with the view of health care in the country. We had been told over and over about the difference in personal space definition in Spain in comparison to the U.S., and at this point, it became a reason to suspect that Madrid could be in real trouble soon.
I remember sitting on the floor of my room in my homestay when I got a text in a group-chat of friends saying to turn on the television and watch the Madrid news. We didn’t have a television, so my roommate and I sat together and started refreshing the news pages. Then it was uploaded. Madrid had made a declaration that all educational facilities would be closed for three weeks. IES Madrid alerted us that our learning would be transferred to online and that everything would continue as normal. They had no intentions of closing the program or any reason to think that we would return to normal class in the three weeks. There were 644 cases in Madrid as of that day. University of Michigan students received news that the program was aware of the situation in Madrid and it was under review.
In the morning, my roommate and I woke up still in shock that there would be no classes in-person, and just sitting and waiting for our universities to notify us what their decision was. We went to Buen Retiro park to sit in the sun, not fully knowing how much more time we had. There were 1600 cases in Spain, 782 of which in Madrid. That night, a large group of students from the IES program all ended up at Círculo de Bellas Artes, a lookout over the city, to watch the sunset. We talked about the possibility of getting sent home, some students were convinced we would be able to stay, others took a more pessimistic approach. Regardless, we all sat and watched the sunset over the buildings of our Spanish home, took pictures and reminisced over what wonderful things we were able to do.
That evening, I got the email from the University announcing their decision to pull all students from Spain
While things had been getting crazier in Spain, stress was growing back in the U.S. as well. U-M announced their decision to cancel all in-person classes which shocked us all. We had been living in a city with so many cases, and with just the beginnings of the pandemic in Michigan, classes were canceled right away. I am still trying to find a way to explain the difference in perspective that I had compared to my friends back in Ann Arbor, not better or worse, but entirely different. Despite constant conversations about the virus, I had never felt in danger or that there was anything to be afraid of by being in a place with so many cases. Being then able to look toward the U.S. and seeing how differently they reacted was interesting. This perspective on how the different parts of the world reacted to this pandemic and continues to react will be so interesting to dissect more as time carries this part of history through.
I woke up later that morning after staying up reading the news about Spain and Italy, canceling trips I had planned and talking to my parents while trying to comprehend what was happening. By the time I rolled over and checked my phone, it was well past 10 a.m. and, within the hours I had been sleeping, the entire world changed. I had notifications from friends saying they were boarding planes, on busses, re-booking flights and that all the sudden if I didn’t get home within 24 hours, I would be stuck in Spain for months. The president had announced the travel restrictions for all of Europe and Spain had obtained a level 3 travel advisory by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and State Department as Spain had reached 3,000 cases in the country. A time of reaction filled with misinformation, we suddenly were under the impression that we needed to fly back that day. A great way to wake up in the morning.
After calling my parents, 2 a.m. in the Midwest, I rescheduled a flight back for Friday the 13th after making one for Saturday only two days before. Only slightly later did it become clear that U.S. citizens would not be affected in the travel ban. But regardless, my roommate and I spent our days packing up our lives and shoving them into the couple suitcases we had, telling our host mom that we would be leaving the next day. After packing up my study abroad room, I walked around the park with some of my closest friends that I made while in Madrid, and watched the sunset over Temple de Debod, the last sunset we would be able to see in Madrid.
I woke up at 4 a.m. to catch a taxi to the airport for a 9 a.m. flight back to the U.S., because the lines had been hours long to get through security the day before. I took a plane with several other students from my program, many of which had masks on for the plane ride. Airport personnel passed out gloves and masks, and we were forced to go through extra security checks due to Department of Homeland Security’s new measures. After a 10-hour flight, we landed in Atlanta. Expecting tests for fever or illness, I made sure to have plenty of time for my layover. To my surprise and astonishment, I had to go through no health checks on my arrival. My passport was barely checked, and no questions about my health were made.
That day, Spain reached 6,000 cases, and in the following week, rose to be one of the countries with the most cases. Our professors have been in forced quarantine since we returned to the U.S., and the stories I’ve heard from them about what Madrid is going through breaks my heart. My heart goes out to every place that is severely impacted by this virus, yet the place that is hardest to come to terms with being in such dire circumstances is the place which I called my home for the last two months.
I so appreciate all the time that I spent in Madrid and I truly believe I made the best out of my experience while I was there. I traveled to Europe for the first time in my life, I gained so much independence and I know this is just a glimpse of all the travel I hope to do. This pandemic has and will impact us all in ways that we are not even aware of yet, and although I am sad to have missed out on half of what my abroad experience would have been, I am grateful to be home safe and know that every individual is being impacted by this in unimaginable ways. Seeing every community come together to support each other is inspirational. Each one of us has a unique story of how we experienced the pandemic of the 21st century. In 10 years, I hope we will be able to talk about how it brought us together.