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Study abroad semester cut short by COVID-19

Updated: Apr 8, 2020

by Gabriele Eubanks

Copy Editor

I’ve wanted to travel abroad since my first semester at Rochester University. From the moment I heard about the semester long trip to Vienna, I knew I had to go. I couldn't wait to travel through Europe and see the impressive sights of Austria and all that Europe had to offer me. Little did I know that this semester was going to be unlike any other, but not in the way I expected!

After I first arrived in Europe in January, the main obstacle was culture shock. Viennese culture is completely different from America. The people are reserved and extremely quiet in public, and barely speak on the public transit. The food is rich and filling. As a vegetarian, it was moderately difficult to find restaurants with good options. 

Another struggle was the simple ratio of students. I was only one of two Rochester students—the other being Kaydee Cooper, a sophomore English major — and we were immersed with a group of nine students from Oklahoma Christian University and 19 students from Lipscomb University. This was overwhelming at first. I took German to start learning how to better converse with Austrians, but the language barrier proved to be challenging.

Despite these challenges, it wasn’t long before it felt like home. The city became easier and easier to navigate. I knew how to get almost anywhere in Vienna. Using the subway system called the U Bahn or even without it, I could walk almost anywhere. 

I was also able to travel to many places outside of Vienna. I had an adventure in Prague, hiked through Salzburg humming songs from "The Sound of Music" the whole time. I saw the Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany and walked around in Graz. I also traveled to Poland with the whole group and enjoyed the fun city of Krakow — as well as experiencing a somber tour of Auschwitz. 

Along with the other challenges of organizing our opportunities to travel throughout the semester, another complication arose — COVID-19. As our semester progressed, our ability to travel outside of Vienna lessened due to the increased spreading of the coronavirus.

Initially it didn’t seem that it would affect us at all, and that it was simply like any other cold or flu, but that soon changed with the rapid increase of cases right next door in Italy. Soon Italy closed its borders to large groups and our weeklong group trip to the country was canceled. I was saddened by this, but it didn’t stop there. We were also told to cancel all weekend plans and informed that we had to stay in Vienna — even though I had just finished planning and purchasing hostel reservations and plane tickets for a weekend in Sweden.

But the challenges didn’t stop there. Lipscomb informed us that their study abroad students in Florence, Italy, were being relocated to Vienna and that they were moving in with us. We had to scramble to clean rooms and move mattresses to make sure that they had enough beds in their rooms. These students had a two-week quarantine and couldn’t share living spaces with the Vienna students.

We welcomed them as best as we could and continued as normally as possible. Though the study abroad group leaders assured us that being sent home was never off of the table, we were also informed that they did not believe that it would happen. But with every new restriction, I became increasingly worried. But I never truly believed it would come to an end.

The travel restrictions were moderately lifted and we were allowed to replace our week trip to Italy with a trip of our preference to an approved location that was a level 1 or lower for the virus. I took it as a good sign, and together with my friends, booked a six-day trip to London. 

Being in London was a dream cut short when three days into the trip, we got the emergency notice that because of the rapidly approaching travel ban to the U.S, we were being sent home. We first had to return to Vienna immediately, pack up and leave by Friday morning.

When I arrived in Vienna at 12:30 a.m. on a Friday morning, after our flight from London took longer than expected, I barely had time to pack before our upcoming nine-hour flight to Toronto. I simply threw everything in my bags and prayed they weren’t too heavy.

After having said goodbye to all of my new friends and to my new home, stress increased the next day when our flight to Toronto was delayed by an hour. After the long wait and an even longer flight to Toronto, Kaydee and I had to run through the airport and through customs to catch our connecting flight to Detroit. We made it time — only to sit on the plane for an hour before we had to disembark due to mechanical problems with the plane’s right engine.

The stress increased when we found that our flight was canceled and the only other flight that night to Detroit, where my parents were waiting, was fully booked. Kaydee had another connecting flight to Atlanta that she also missed.

We came to the conclusion that it was time to split up. She caught a direct flight to Atlanta from Toronto, and I flew to Columbus, Ohio, and my family met me there.

A three-hour drive later, I was finally home in Flint, Michigan. Though I was sad to have left the beautiful city of Vienna, it was nice to finally be home.

Though my study abroad trip wasn’t what I initially signed up for and had many more challenges than simple time management, I loved and am grateful for every moment I had, all the people I met and all the places I experienced.

Auf Wiedersehen Wien und bis bald! (Goodbye Vienna and see you soon!)

Read more of Shield's in-depth coverage about RU and the impact of COVID-19

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