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Original photo by Kate Porch

How COVID-19 Affected My Study Abroad Experience

The spring semester arrived at my door with all the splendor you’d expect from the beginning of an era. 2020 promised to be the start of the new “Roaring Twenties,” a title full of anticipation and hopes just waiting to be fulfilled. No one could’ve guessed how quickly our world was about to change.

I had a lot to be excited about when the new semester began. In March I’d finally be turning 21, graduation was coming up in December…but most importantly, I was going to spend the first half of the year studying abroad in the U.K.! It was everything an English major could wish for.

I departed Florida’s sunny shores in February to begin my program at the University of Surrey — a charming school in the Guildford countryside. I traded my year-long wardrobe of skirts and blouses for coats and scarves to prepare myself for the European winter and arrived shivering from both the cold and my excitement.

There was so much to see and do when I got there — I was meeting people and making new friends from all around the world, including the nine flatmates I shared a home (and a single kitchen) with. I traveled around England on weekend field trips, went dancing, joined clubs, tried new foods and learned about the difference between Publix and Tesco.

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You could say I went totally nuts on my study abroad bucket list. I explored Windsor Castle, went shopping in London, toured the Warner Bros studio, visited ancient Roman ruins and the Jane Austen museum in Bath, experienced high tea, went on a road trip to Wales with my flatmates, and did a Jack the Ripper walking tour. After just a few weeks I’d even started booking flights to see more of Europe with my new friends during spring break.

I was determined to get as much as I possibly could out of my study abroad experience and return home with very empty pockets, feeling proud of myself for doing something so far outside of my comfort zone.

During the first month I spent in the U.K., COVID-19 still seemed distant and irrelevant. Everyone had a general idea of what was happening in Asia, but I wasn’t well-informed about the situation and wasn’t particularly concerned that it would affect me or the people in my life. But as the spread worsened and western governments started to respond to the crisis, it became clear that things were about to change. It was about mid-March when I noticed that stores were starting to close, people were starting to panic-buy all the rice, pasta, and hand sanitizer, and there were fewer trains coming in and out of Guildford Station.

The situation just got worse from there, and all the exchange students at Surrey started to receive emails from their home universities asking them to return. Soon I found a notice from UCF Abroad in my inbox, too: my program was canceled

At first, I was determined to remain in the U.K. no matter what, even if that meant quarantining in my campus flat — I had friends there, there were things left undone, and Guildford had started to feel like my home away from home. I loved the cobblestone streets, the cafes, the roadside markets, and the old men playing music on the street corners. But one by one, the other exchange students started booking their flights home, classes were moved online, and England started going into shutdown. Our once-full little flat started to grow quiet and empty, and a hush fell over the usually bustling streets of the Guildford town center.

I tried to cling to the hope that if I stayed things would start to get better, but as time went on my anxieties heightened and the future became more and more unclear. The U.S. issued a level 4 travel warning and closed its borders to non-citizens, and my parents worried that if I continued to wait things out, I could eventually be barred from flying home to my own country when the semester was over.

The time had come to make a decision. Should I give up and go home to quarantine with my family while I still could? Or do I stay, with the risk of being stuck abroad indefinitely? A myriad of questions swirled around in my brain like soup as I weighed my options. I felt helpless, and loneliness was starting to sink in as I realized that soon, all of my flatmates would be gone, leaving me to weather the era of COVID-19 in an empty dorm room.

After some tears, a bit of hysterical internal debate, a lot of prayers, and a series of long phone calls with my friends and family back home, I booked an early morning flight back to the United States.

The idea of abandoning my dream semester was difficult to come to terms with — even when I packed up my bags it didn’t feel real. I folded up my sweaters and nestled souvenirs into my suitcase pockets with a numb resignation.

My last night in the U.K. was spent having a few drinks (at home) with my roomie, and then tossing and turning in my bed as I waited for my alarm to tell me it was time to say goodbye. Eventually, the time came and the walk from campus to the station felt excruciatingly long. I was one of only two passengers on the bus to Heathrow Airport, and as it rumbled away, I whispered my goodbyes to the dark shapes of Surrey passing by outside my window.

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I arrived at the airport before the sunrise had, checked my bags, and before I knew it I was boarding a half-empty plane home. As London started to disappear beneath the clouds, the finality of it all hit me. My study abroad program was over, and the place I was returning to was going to be much different than how it was when I last saw it.

When we touched down at MIA I was questioned by airport staff, had to sign a waiver, and was given a COVID-19 pamphlet with instructions for isolation. Then began my two weeks of self-quarantine, which I spent in my bedroom to lower the risk of getting my family sick. I had a lot of time to reflect during my isolation period and to begin accepting how things had turned out.

Although my semester did get cut short, I realized how lucky I was to be at home and safe with my family. So many international students who wanted to go back to their families ended up stranded, and others who wanted to stay abroad in their new homes are now left wondering what the next semester holds for them. I realize how privileged I was to have the choice to stay or go, to have parents who were still employed, and to have not lost anyone I cared about to the virus.

I was still sad, and I'll still always wonder how things could’ve been and what adventures I missed out on, but I'm also eternally grateful for the month and a half that I had the privilege of spending in England. I made lots of precious memories with some unforgettable people and had the experience of a lifetime. When UCF Abroad opens its programs back up, I’d encourage anyone who has the opportunity to take the same leap and try studying abroad. You’ll learn things about yourself and the world that will surprise you, and I promise you this:

You won’t regret it.

Kate Porch graduated the University of Central Florida in December 2020 with a bachelor's in creative writing and an education minor. She spends her free time collecting hobbies, and her most notable personality traits are crying over Studio Ghibli movies and buying more books than she has time to read. Kate loves traveling, learning new languages, and pretending to be a mermaid in the local Florida springs.
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