How COVID-19 Took my Study Abroad Experience Away Before it Began

It’s March Seventh and I’m staying with some of my friends in Orono, Maine as I continue to prepare for my departure in about three weeks to study abroad in Hirosaki, Japan. As I have been every morning, I wake up and immediately check my email inbox because I’m worried about the escalating situation surrounding the coronavirus both domestically and internationally. I don’t see any emails announcing any changes to my program, so I go about my morning as usual as I am now one more day closer to my departure date. Around 10:45 that morning, I received an email from my study abroad advisor, with the first few sentences saying, “It’s totally up to you to decide what you want to do.”

Attached to the email was a correspondence between the International Programs Department at my host university and my advisor and in this email, the corresponding parties stated that due to the rapid escalation and spread of coronavirus internationally, they were unsure if they would be able to hold classes as planned for the spring semester. My heart sank as the possibility of going abroad seemed to be slipping away with one email. I called my advisor immediately, and after a long talk, I found myself both confused and saddened about the reality of my future without the opportunity to study abroad in Japan. I hung up the phone with my advisor and burst into tears because I knew that I now had a really hard decision to make. When I talked to my boyfriend about the update I received and the impending choice I faced, he made the suggestion that because this is such a big decision to make, I should take the weekend to think about it before I began calling the place I had been working or emailing my host university or advisor. 

After a long weekend laying out all of my options and weighing the pros and cons of each of these decisions, I decided that at the end of the day it is clear that this was not the time to go abroad. On the phone, my advisor told me that I had two options: one) I could go, everything could be fine, and I would have an amazing semester as planned or two) I could get there, find out that many students are arriving later than planned or not coming at all, and get sent home early, potentially having to scramble to find the remainders of an equivalent class upon my return home. 

When reading this, I understand that many students would be saying, “Why not just go? Any time there is better than none at all, right?” In a lot of ways, you are correct and I would be lying if I said that the same thought hadn’t crossed my mind as I made my decision. As great as it would have been to go for even a short period of time which would have allowed me the ability to accomplish my goal of traveling by myself and navigating a foreign country, I wasn’t willing to risk my health or the money I had put into it for a chance that once was a certainty. After a couple of days had passed, I emailed both my advisor and my host school to let them know my decision. 

Outside of this decision, I found myself having to navigate a life I was about to leave temporarily. My boyfriend of nearly three years was still planning to leave the same day I had and I wasn’t able to hide that I was deeply upset that something we had planned together wasn’t even remotely going the way we had originally planned. One night, we sat down so that we could have the conversation we both knew we needed to have with the other that centered around the question: “should he go even if it means that I could not?” - I am going to be entirely honest because I can’t lie and say that my feelings weren’t hurt as we’d had a number of conversations over the past week about how it was going to be black or white meaning “we go together, or we don’t go at all.” I couldn’t help but ask myself the question, “why was he trying to go without me?” This conversation led into the next day and I found myself sitting on the floor of my best friend’s bathroom for three hours crying on the phone with him, as we both tried to figure out what to do. 

At first, we came to the decision that I was right - this is something we have been planning together for nearly a year and a half and at the end of the day, it’s wasn’t fair for one of us to go if the other person was no  longer able to. However, after another hour of listening to him tell me how upset he was about what our grand study abroad dream in Japan had come to, I just blurted out that he should go. For him, this was not just studying abroad - he had been planning this for years long  before I met him or even before we had begun dating one another and I wasn’t about to force a decision on him that I knew he would resent me for later on. 

After I told him he should go, to say I was upset would be an understatement as I thought about everything he was leaving behind and what that meant for me. I worried about how I would manage to move into our apartment alone this summer and how we would navigate our relationship in different time zones. The latter wasn’t much of a concern because I knew in the back of my mind that we would be perfectly fine- but having someone you love across the world from you for months at a time is a scary thing to think about. All that being said, I chose to look at the situation positively, knowing that someday we could go back maybe to study or visit and he promised me we could go back to Spain which was my dream. Thankfully, the rest of my time that I spent in Orono that week was great, filled with support and love from my friends who had helped me cultivate a family that I could come back to with open arms. 

As I’m writing this article, the date I was meant to leave for Japan passed yesterday, and so much has changed. In Japan and in the United States, the number of cases of COVID-19 have risen so much that Charlie’s program abroad was canceled the night I returned home from Orono. Not only have all study abroad programs been canceled or ceased, but international travel is restricted everywhere. On the domestic front, nearly every University of Maine student who was abroad is home and trying to pick up the pieces of a journey they never expected to end so early.

I understand to some this article may read as me taking advantage of the safest way out of an experience when things weren’t even that bad or risky yet, and as a result,  those who think so may not understand how I could be feeling the amount of grief over an experience I didn’t get to have and maybe still could in the future. To that, I will say that no words can describe the feeling of having to cancel a flight you saved for after months of picking up extra shifts and the feeling of uncertainty of home and being there when I had prepared to leave, all paired with the feeling of knowing you missed out on something you’d been planning for most of college - this is something I truly would never wish on anyone. 

As difficult as the abrupt end of this experience has been, I am thankful that I am able to be safe at home, as I know other students are not as fortunate as I am and I have a job that I am able to go back to after all of this is over and I am so thankful for that. I have learned a lot during this experience, but I think the most important thing is how to make light of a bad situation. It has been hard to look at my calendar on my laptop each day and think about what I could and should be doing right now, but I have to remember that there is a reason for every negative experience and I know it is propelling me into a more positive future.