OLIVIA – FIE Student Stories: Studying Abroad During COVID-19

At first I was planning to stay. My home school, St. Norbert College, sent a message to all students studying abroad that we could return home by the 23rd of March and continue class at home, or we could stay. As the only St. Norbert student studying in Dublin, I chose to stay, knowing Ireland had fewer cases than other countries where my peers were studying abroad. As the week continued I heard from my friends in Spain and Prague who had made the tough decision to go home. I remember I was in a pub enjoying a pint of Guinness when my friend texted that she was heading home from Spain. My heart broke, knowing this was an experience we had both dreamed of for such a long time. I thought back to the stress and worry of filling out the applications, figuring out classes and packing and how for her, everything would be cut short. She was supposed to visit me in Ireland the weekend that she would be home by. With everyone around me choosing to go, I was still adamant that I’d be staying in Ireland until the end of my program.

That all changed just one short week later. The next Wednesday we received an email from St. Norbert telling us we had to be home by the 30th of March. I was devastated. That was just two short weeks before my program ended, surely I would be able to hold out until April 9th? I talked to my parents that night about rearranging flights to get me home earlier than expected. My mom told me not to worry and we’d get something for mid-March and I could head home. It was nearly 1am in Dublin and I was getting ready to head to bed, when my phone rang again. St. Norbert had called my parents and told them I needed to get home ASAP. Trump had closed travel from Europe and they wanted us home right away before travel became more difficult. Then everything hit the fan. I did the laundry I’d been putting off so I could pack quickly and leave any time in needed to. Meanwhile, I was on the phone with Aer Lingus trying to change my flight. My dad was on the phone with them too from home. After 2 hours of being on hold, I hung up and went to bed at 5am.

It’s now Thursday. I didn’t sleep well that night and was up again at 9am trying to call Aer Lingus. Unfortunately I ran out of minutes on my phone after being on hold with them for a total of 4 hours. Luckily, the FIE staff, Monica and Karl, allowed me to come down to their office and use the office phone instead of my minutes. I set up camp and waited on hold with Aer Lingus for about another hour before my parents contacted me and told me they were able to get a flight out that following Monday.  Now I had 4 days left in the city I’d called home for the last 2 months. I felt like a rug had been pulled out from underneath me. I tried so hard to enjoy my last few days here. I walked slowly down the streets I used to rush down. I visited my favorite market on George’s street and bought souvenirs that I’d thought I would have time to get later. The days passed slowly with a lingering sadness in the back of all our minds.

That Saturday, Trump made the announcement that Ireland and the UK were being added to the Travel ban list starting Monday. This made me incredibly anxious. What if my flight Monday was cancelled and Monday was my last chance to leave? There were too many unknowns and I continuously got myself worked up. Luckily, Aer Lingus waived their change fees and I switched my flight to that Sunday. When Sunday rolled around, I was lucky enough to be traveling with one of my roommates and another friend we had made. We took a taxi to the airport at 4am. Upon arrival we were told check-in for American flights didn’t start until 7am. So we waited around until they allowed us to queue up at 6:30. The entire process from check-in to sitting at my terminal took about 2 hours. We went through security and then U.S customs where they asked us if we had traveled anywhere besides Ireland in the last 14 days. I was grateful that my reading week trip had been 15 days ago. Once we boarded the plane, my flight was almost completely empty. The pilot made the announcement that we’d be waiting for the people that were still in the customs line before we took off. We spent a total of about 4 hours sitting in the plane on the tarmac and eventually left without the 50 people we were waiting on.

I arrived in Chicago at 7:30pm and because I’d gone through customs in Dublin, I was able to collect my luggage and leave. My parents and brother were waiting for me at baggage claim and took me straight home. Since then I’ve been doing a mandatory 2 week quarantine and checking my temperature twice a day. I’m lucky that so far, both my family and I are feeling healthy.

Through this experience I learned not to take things for granted. I had so much planned for the rest of March and April. I put off doing things in favor of doing them on a nicer weekend, or with friends who would visit. I never imagined that I would have to uproot so quickly. I’d dreamed about studying abroad since I was little girl, hearing stories of my mom’s time in England. I even chose St. Norbert partially because of their excellent study abroad program. The weeks at home have been hard, going from having complete freedom in an exciting city to being cooped up in my house hasn’t been an easy transition. I’m grateful I had the experience I did, however short it was. I’ll never forget my time spent in Dublin and I can’t wait to come back one day.  

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