For Lucinda Morgan and Lenee McCandless, the night of March 11 is etched in their memories. Shortly after 9 p.m. on that Wednesday, President Trump announced a travel ban for many European countries because of the COVID-19 outbreak. They realized that the announcement would have major implications on Allegheny College students who were studying overseas — and those in the United States as well.
Morgan, director of the International Education Office in the Allegheny Gateway, and McCandless, the office’s assistant director, both drove to campus that night to discuss communication plans with students who were overseas. Once there, Morgan noticed an email arrive in her inbox from the U.S. Department of State Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. She read it aloud to McCandless, and she was “shocked” at the announcement that all countries around the world had just been increased to a Global Level 3 Health Advisory.
“Neither of us had ever heard of the State Department elevating all countries at the same time before,” Morgan recalls. “It was issued with a strong recommendation to ‘reconsider travel abroad due to the global impact of COVID-19. Many areas throughout the world are now experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks and taking action that may limit traveler mobility, including quarantines and border restrictions. Even countries, jurisdictions, or areas where cases have not been reported may restrict travel without notice.’ We left our office around midnight to drive to our homes, and walking out to our vehicles, we both acknowledged these announcements meant the next days at work would be very busy.”
When all was said and done, Allegheny administrators and staff, and in particular Morgan and McCandless, directly assisted each study-away student in a myriad of ways, even those studying in Allegheny’s domestic study-away programs in New York City and Philadelphia. Allegheny had a total of 29 students studying away in the spring 2020 semester. Over the coming weeks, students returned internationally from programs in Australia, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Senegal, Taiwan, Japan, Costa Rica, Mexico and Ecuador.
“We had been following the outbreak of COVID-19 since January, as our students who were to study in China in the spring semester had their programs canceled, and consequently, were quickly ushered to Taiwan in order to continue their language programs in a Mandarin-speaking location,” says Morgan. “We had also done outreach with our international students from Asia in January and February, as we knew they were concerned about their family and friends back home and had started working with the Career Education Office in the Gateway and Alumni Affairs to develop additional internship opportunities for students in case they would be unable to return home in the summer.”
Trevor Mahan, a junior from Wichita, Kansas, was studying in Senegal under the University of Minnesota’s Studies in International Development (MSID) Program, arriving there at the end of December 2019. “I was supposed to stay in Dakar until May 2020, but that got cut short and I ended up leaving on March 17,” Mahan says. “I had just started my spring break when I received an email from my program that I would have to return home by the end of the week. Within minutes after getting the email, Lucinda Morgan was calling me. She had booked me a flight within 20 minutes. I didn’t have to pay for anything which was a big relief because I had enough worries on my plate as it was.
“I had a lot of mixed emotions, and I had a lot to do in the next 48 hours after that. I had a day and a half to pack my things and say my goodbyes to my friends, professors and host family. It felt like a movie; none of it felt real. A few students in my program had already been preemptively pulled by their home universities before MSID was canceled, so I knew there was a real possibility I would have to go home early, but at the time I didn’t think it would happen so fast. I’m glad that I am back home and safe, but I miss my home in Senegal, too. I greatly improved my French, I learned a lot about myself and the world, and I made life-long friendships there. I’ll find a way to return there someday, that’s for sure.”
Christina Winbigler, a junior from Austin, Texas, returned to the country after spending two months in Lancaster, England, but couldn’t stay with relatives. “I had some difficulty finding a place to stay in the U.S. My path wasn’t so simple as my mother is immunocompromised and my other familial households have either elderly or infant members,” Winbigler says. “I wasn’t comfortable with asking just any friend to put me up, but my dearest friend from Allegheny and her family offered to put me up in Montana for as long as I needed. When I told Lucinda about my predicament, she didn’t hesitate and found an appropriate flight in 10 minutes. She made sure all parties were happy with the decision and consoled me on the ending of my time abroad.”
Redefining Crisis Management for Study Away
“Crisis management is a major component of training for those in the field of international education. However, we were never trained for, nor ever considered a need for, the evacuation of students from study away programs worldwide all at the same time,” says Morgan.
With health and travel alerts raised to their highest levels and borders closing across the world, getting Allegheny students home was a challenge, to say the least. “This made getting flights for students increasingly difficult as days passed and often resulted in using multiple websites, phone numbers and airlines to book students at all hours of the day and night. In many situations our office had to coordinate with multiple students at once across various time zones to ensure their safe return,” recalls McCandless.
March 13–26 was a very busy two weeks for Morgan and McCandless. Here is some of what they did to get students home:
- Called and emailed students to ask what they knew about COVID-19 and what was going on in their locations and with their specific programs while also communicating the seriousness of the potential implications if they did not consider their evacuation options. With student consent, called parents to discuss the situation and address concerns from parents.
- Emailed and called program providers/host institutions about program status and updates on cancellation plans.
- Assisted students with changing their return flights home (scheduled for the end of their program in May or June) or purchased new flights home for them. The wait time to call airlines ranged from six to 24 hours, and airline websites crashed often due to overuse, so purchasing flights directly for some students was more effective and reliable than hoping they would get through to be able to change their return flight plans.
- Even after purchasing their flights home, many of the flights were canceled prior to departure due to the massive cuts airlines made to international flights. Students would text/call/email when they received flight cancellation notices, and Morgan and McCandless worked with them and the airlines to get rebooked on new flights. They also ran into problems of students being routed through Amsterdam, which would have required more extensive medical checks and the possibility of 14-day quarantine, so they had to quickly reroute students through London and Paris.
- As students were flying back, they were asked to stay in contact with Morgan, and text when they arrived at each layover, in order to ensure smooth transport home.
A Global Retreat
“There was a lot of stress, concern and care for our students, but our knowledge of the field and best practices helped us to power through,” says McCandless. “We knew it was a priority to do everything we could to ensure students’ safety while also considering the enormous impact leaving their programs had on their personal and academic goals.”
Students had to get home from all corners of the globe. For example:
Jonathan Bumanis, a junior from Buffalo, New York, and Markeyda Jones, a junior from Philadelphia, came back from Taiwan. Their programs began later in the semester, after the Lunar New Year. Unable to go to China to start their programs due to the COVID-19 outbreak there, the program provider helped to facilitate the same program for them in Taiwan, “This was obviously a challenge and adjustment for the students that unfolded very quickly. Unfortunately, they were faced with further setbacks when the situation worsened in their new location, resulting in the need to evacuate back to the U.S. and continue their coursework online,” says McCandless.
“As someone who loves Chinese culture, I was excited to study abroad in Nanjing, China,” Jones says. “As I was preparing to finally receive my visa on Jan. 26, I was informed that due to the COVID-19 virus, I could not study in China, and my trip was suspended. After two weeks of frustration, optimism and hard work by the Council on International Educational Exchange and the International Education Office, I was able to study abroad in Tainan, Taiwan. From February 23 to March 18 was possibly the best experience I have ever had. However, my time was short again due to the global panic. I sadly returned home. I am truly grateful and happy that I was able to experience just a small taste of a wonderful country and culture. Yet, as I sit at home now, I can only imagine how much I could have learned and how much I could have experienced.”
Kyra Nielsen, a junior from Pulaski, New York, and Flannery Pillion-Gardner, a junior from Pittsburgh, returned from Cologne, Germany. These two students had just gotten to their programs shortly before the outbreak began to take hold in Europe, Morgan says. They were in their language pre-sessions and had just started getting settled into their apartments and new communities. “With the presidential administration’s order to close the U.S. border to foreign nationals entering from Europe, it became apparent our students needed to return to the U.S. This had to happen rather quickly to avoid the influx of travelers from Europe to the U.S. to ensure their safety, allowing little time for students to depart Germany,” McCandless says.
Joseph Silvester, a junior from Wexford, Pennsylvania, and Jasmine Ramirez-Soto, a junior from Santa Ana, California, had to get back from Ecuador. They were a few hours outside of the capital city of Quito, traveling with friends, when Morgan called them. “They knew that a lot of their program activities had recently been canceled due to COVID-19, but did not know how quickly the situation had escalated internationally, as Ecuador was suspending international flights within 36 hours,” Morgan says. Their study away program announced it canceled the in-country program, and that all participants should return to their home countries immediately, and proceed with completing the coursework online. They quickly arranged to get back to the families they were staying with in Quito, pack their belongings and head to the airport to fly home.
Recalls Silvester: “I was in a jungle region in Ecuador called Mindo doing some hiking and rafting when the U.S. State Department ordered that we all return home within 48 hours. So I immediately had to book a flight home, the flights went quickly so the only one I could find was through Panama-Newark-Chicago-Pittsburgh. I then traveled chaotically for about 25 hours straight safely back to Pittsburgh. It was obviously a big shock, and it took me a while to deal with the time that I missed out on studying abroad with my Ecuadorian family, but I am extremely grateful for the time that I had, and for the Allegheny study abroad team and my family that ensured I made it home safely.”
Says Morgan: “These students had to deal with the shock of quick or no goodbyes, the guilt of not finishing their coursework overseas, anxiety of not knowing initially how they will finish coursework, quickly leaving people they have been romantically or socially involved with, disappointment they didn’t get to travel more, and worry about financial costs of leaving unexpectedly in mid-semester. In addition, they returned to this surrealness at home of restaurants and movie theaters closed, and unable to have large gatherings; they can’t just come to Allegheny now to spend the weekend with their friends. It is a very different America from the one they had left just weeks before.”