I was studying abroad in Italy when COVID-19 broke out

Life writer Maddie McNamee describes her experiences traveling and studying abroad during the rise of the pandemic

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Once Italy was raised to a Level 4 by the CDC — meaning do not travel at all to the country — I realized my fantasy was nothing more than a pipe dream.

Madison McNamee | Cavalier Daily

“I can’t wait until I’m abroad.” These are the words I often told myself in times of stress throughout college. I found myself frequently stating this while struggling through my online financial accounting course, when I was up late writing papers or bored out of my mind at home. The simple words soothed any pain because it created the idea that there was this escape from reality in my future. As much as I love college, my incredibly amazing friends there and my family, sometimes you just need a break. 

I decided to take this break in Florence, Italy. When I arrived, it was the exact paradise I pictured. I hate to be hyperbolic, but being in Florence was truly the best I have felt in years. I would make jokes that I would never return to the U.S. as most abroad students tend to do, but I felt this with immense sincerity. I knew I would obviously have to return at some point, but I didn’t think it would happen so quickly or as the result of a global pandemic.

I wish I could pinpoint the exact moment I first heard of the coronavirus. However, I admit it wasn’t something that crossed my mind much because it seemed like a distant issue. That was my first mistake — the idea that when something doesn’t directly affect you, it doesn’t matter. Empathy is important, and this is something that will stick with me. I was always sad for those affected by the outbreak in China, but it wasn’t until it was imposed on my own plans that I really felt the effect of the virus.

Around late February, coronavirus became more of a topic in Italy. I was irrationally skeptical that it could actually spread to Florence. But Feb. 25, it came to Florence. Schools were starting to send students home, which seemed like an overreaction to me. I prayed that the University and my abroad program, the International Studies Institute, would not do the same. I constantly checked my email for alerts. We were just repeatedly told by ISI and the University that Florence was not dangerous and to simply mind normal hygiene.

While the outbreaks were rising, I was preparing for my spring break. I overheard girls in my classes from Pennsylvania State University canceling their spring break plans and flying home. I laughed at how ridiculous this seemed because ISI kept telling us we were safe. The University remained silent. 

I headed to Portugal for a taste of a new environment Feb. 27. An email from the University finally came the same day, listing the Centers for Disease Control precautions, but reminding us that Italy was still safe. It then mentioned we would have to return to the U.S. if Italy was given a Level 3 warning, meaning the CDC recommends not traveling there because of a widespread, ongoing transmission, and there would be an option for online class. However, there was no information on refunds, housing or a timeline for when this could happen, and there was no advisory to prepare for such an emergency. 

The next day, we received an encouraging letter from the mayor of Florence. It mentioned how the emergency and infections were mainly in the north and there were no risks in Florence, so we should not spread unmotivated alarm. It also mentioned how stronger measures were not being considered. This only affirmed my view that Florence was fine and that I would be returning to Italy after break. That very same day, the CDC declared all of Italy a Level 3 warning country. 

The University was not the first to inform me of this emergency. I arrived at my hostel in Lisbon, and somehow, three other girls from the University were in my room. They had been studying abroad in Milan, which I prematurely pitied because I knew more schools were closing there. They then informed me of the University’s decision to close all study abroad programs in Italy, and I panicked. At first, I did not believe them because the University hadn’t sent anything, but I called my parents and received an email from ISI soon after. 

The University did not share the news with me until the middle of the night, hours after the news broke. As soon as I woke up, I responded to the person who sent the email, as well as the two people CC’d, asking numerous logistical questions and if I could still remain in Europe somewhere else. I received no answer. I followed up with a second email. As of Wednesday, no one has responded to either my emails or questions following the declaration, and any follow up communication from University officials simply told me classes would be online and I had to leave. Five days after we were told to leave, the University emailed all students studying in Italy that they had to self-quarantine, which I felt to be an unsafe delay of health information. 

I was still in denial at this point and was experiencing all five stages of grief. I lashed out because I wanted to return to Florence. I was immensely selfish because I focused on the fact that I, a healthy young adult, would not be at a high risk — a naive, dangerous view to have  since I could be a carrier despite my age — and continued to want to travel. In those moments, I lacked empathy, and I am so regretful. 

My dad kept begging me to come home, yet I still refused. With online class, it seemed too easy to stay in Europe, rather than returning home, since my location no longer mattered. In all honesty, I was dreading online class since my previous experience with my online financial accounting course was what had made me desire to go abroad in the first place. I could not imagine having to complete an entire course load via virtual instruction, and my anxiety began to build up.

We were given an extra two weeks without class after our spring break for our professors to figure out their courses online. However, it was never stated how exactly this would work. How could we tune into video classes when the time difference was so vast between the two continents? Emails poured in from professors admitting they had no idea how to use the online resources, and they begged for patience. These professors are people too — people forced to turn an in-person class to a completely online one in just two weeks while directly suffering from the trauma of the current circumstances in Italy — and their struggles need empathy too.

I actually returned to Florence for one day so I could grab my essentials. Despite being a Level 3 country, it was astonishingly normal upon my return. I made sure to hit all of my favorite spots to try to support local businesses, and aside from a few popular places being bare of tourists, the city really felt the same. People were still jovial, and it seemed unfair that a city with so few cases at that point had to suffer.

From Florence, I did not return to the U.S. I stuck by my desire to not return home. I completed the rest of my spring break plans since I had already paid for the flights. At one point, I was visiting my friend studying in Madrid, and she told me her apartment mates were nervous since I had been in Italy. This prejudice was something I had never felt in my life, and I quickly got angry and felt they were misinformed and overreacting. This small interaction opened my eyes to what so many others are facing on such a harsher level every day and how even in a crisis, people can become more individualistic and apathetic.

From Spain, I took the flight I had booked to Prague before the pandemic started. From there, I took a train to Poland to stay with family. For me, it seemed like the perfect escape — I could stay in Europe and be in a country with zero reported cases of COVID-19. My friend from the University of Colorado, Boulder came with me, as she had also been studying in Florence and had quickly become my adventure buddy and, now, friend for life. It was only when I was in Poland, 11 days after the notice to leave, that U.Va. contacted me, asking about my return to the U.S and my mandatory withdrawal form for ISI. Despite having my previous questions ignored, I was told refunds would only be given on need-based conditions and to have patience. This failure of communication is part of why I was refusing a flight home.

I am incredibly fortunate my family provided a place for me to stay in Poland for this indefinite time. I left my large suitcase in Italy to be shipped home, so I continuously wore dirty clothes just to make the situation work. It was getting exhausting though, and I just wanted to be in Florence. I kept traveling around Europe because of the glimmer of hope that maybe I could feasibly fly back to Florence if things got better. But once Italy was raised to a Level 4 by the CDC — meaning do not travel at all to the country — I realized this fantasy was nothing more than a pipe dream.

I eventually agreed to return to the U.S. after spending around two weeks outside of Italy — the equivalent of a typical self-quarantine period that I hoped would help me avoid self-quarantining in the U.S. I know this decision was selfish, and while I was not at risk, I could have harmed others. People keep trying to underestimate the virus by claiming that it only kills the elderly or those with preexisting health conditions, but the elderly and immunocompromised are people, too, so we should be concerned for their lives as well, not just our own. 

A few days before I was scheduled to leave, the University announced it was sending home all study abroad students in Europe and canceling class on Grounds, causing immediate panic. Now, my peers back home were experiencing the pain I had been feeling for the past two weeks, as the issue started directly impacting them. It’s interesting how that worked, how things suddenly seemed to matter once their world crashed too. 

I am not trying to belittle the issue of canceled in-person classes by any means. I never wanted others to feel the pain I felt when my semester ended. But I hope others take this as a chance to acknowledge the importance of empathy. While you may still feel safe, others may not. Think of how lucky you are. Think of your elderly professors or coaches who would be in danger if we continued classes and athletic events. It could be so much worse, and we need to prevent that.

I was sound asleep March 11 when President Donald Trump announced the travel ban from Europe, but my parents were awake. They rushed to book flights while sites were crashing and miraculously found me a way home. My friend and I woke up at 5 a.m. as if our bodies knew something was not right. I saw texts from friends asking if I was stuck, missed calls from my parents and ultimately an itinerary in my email for my return to the U.S.

I am so fortunate to have been in this specific situation where I could afford a last minute ticket, especially with the University’s lack of an explicit offer to cover the cost of students’ immediate return home. Through this experience, I realized how silly I was for thinking I was untouchable. Things could have gotten so much worse — I could have gotten sick or stuck abroad after the travel ban. 

While I still dislike the outcome of my semester abroad, I am glad I am safe. I am glad I had the best two months, and I hope to return to Italy once the situation is better as the current situation in Italy is immensely upsetting. Our professors tell us they are not allowed to be out of their homes after 6 p.m., and during the day they can only leave for the grocery store and the pharmacy. However, in the evenings there are flash mobs from apartment balconies where people blast music and rejoice together. It is positivity like that which affirms my love for Italy and its optimistic and vibrant culture.

I try to think everything happens for a reason. But that does not mean we should be any less cautious or careless because we are dealing with a global emergency. Try to take a look at others’ perspectives during this time. While you may feel like you are not sick, you could still be a risk to the people around you, even your most loved ones. Monitor your responses to those who are affected, and try to channel a little empathy. You never know when it could be you.

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