COVID-19 shuts down Brown study abroad programs

When Halle Fowler ’21 arrived in Australia in mid-February for her semester abroad, she looked forward to excursions to the Great Barrier Reef, the Northern Territories, Western Australia, New Zealand and more. Instead, three months earlier than her intended departure in June, she found herself scrambling to book a flight home to Clayton, Georgia when her program was suspended March 17 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Those were all things I was really excited about that I’m just not going to be able to do anymore,” Fowler wrote in an email to The Herald. 

Many University students’ semesters abroad were similarly cut short after programs in Europe, China, Australia, Iran and South Korea were suspended by the Office of International Programs or the programs’ host schools in response to the current global health crisis.

Students studying abroad in Europe were required to leave their host countries by today, March 20, and many have already returned home. Reimbursements of up to $1,500 for travel expenses will be available, according to a March 12 email with guidance on booking flights from Director of the OIP Kendall Brostuen and Deputy Director of the OIP Lauren Alexander. 

Programs were suspended throughout this semester as the Center for Disease Control designated certain host countries as Warning Level 3. A Level 3 designation “recommends that travelers avoid all nonessential travel to the specified countries,” and per University policies, necessitates suspending study abroad programs.  

European countries listed as Level 3 in the CDC’s March 11 notice, which sparked the University’s correspondence with students in Europe, included Denmark, Hungary, Spain and France, all of which hosted University study abroad programs. The University had already suspended its Brown in Bologna program on Feb. 28, The Herald previously reported.

“In the case of coronavirus, we’ve been watching this very closely over the last several months,” Director of International Travel Risk Management Christine Sprovieri told The Herald. 

Along with CDC recommendations, Sprovieri looks to recommendations from the Department of State to inform University travel policy-making, she said. Though Sprovieri does not work directly with the OIP, she said she has met with the office daily as the COVID-19 outbreak has developed. 

Fowler, who was enrolled in the Arcadia University program at the University of Sydney, said she has not heard from the University at all. “Brown never actually informed us that we had to return home,” she wrote in an email to The Herald. “Arcadia was the institution that made the decision and is now enforcing it,” giving students five days to leave the country after informing them of the decision. 

Because Fowler’s program is approved, but not run, by the University, she wrote that Brown “could (not) care less about us.” She wrote that she would have liked to receive confirmation regarding academic credits and program refunds, but added that she does “understand that they’re dealing with a lot and they would just prefer Arcadia to manage everything.”

Fowler plans to return home to the U.S. March 21, she wrote, but “organizing travel has been very chaotic.” She noted that several U.S. airlines are no longer flying out of Australia, leading to overbooked or sold-out flights, and added that a number of Australian airlines were suspending international travel. “Several of the students are worried that airlines might just start pulling all international flights, so students have been trying to leave as soon as possible,” Fowler wrote.

“A lot of us are kind of just in shock and in denial that this is happening,” Cynthia Lu ’21, who is enrolled in the Brown in France – University Studies in Paris Program, told The Herald. Unlike Fowler’s program, Brown in France is directly run and overseen by the University as part of the OIP’s Consortium for Advanced Studies Abroad initiative. “I don’t think anyone wants their study abroad experience, which is supposed to be super fun and magical … to be ruined so suddenly,” Lu said.

Aside from an initial lack of clarity on how much in travel expenses the University would reimburse, Lu said the level of communication from the OIP was reasonable given the fact that “there are so many factors that even the University doesn’t know.” She added that the directors of her program have been “very responsive and helpful” in organizing the logistics of departure. 

Lu returned home to Los Angeles earlier this week and noted the high cost of plane tickets departing Paris this past weekend. She said that before the University specified the maximum fare it would reimburse, several of her peers immediately reserved expensive flights, some of which exceeded $1,500.  

Lu also said that it was unclear what her next steps were academically in terms of finishing her courses and earning course credit. 

“Given that all of the universities are shut down in France, I have no idea what’s (going to) happen and if it’s even possible to receive any credit for the rest of the semester,” she said. Lu added that her program at the Sorbonne does not offer online courses, unlike some other programs. 

“I think I’d feel worse if … this was just happening to us, but it’s happening to everyone,” she said.

Camden Baer ’21 first booked his flight home from Budapest, Hungary March 11 when he received a notice from the Aquincum Institute of Technology, where he was enrolled, announcing the closure of all universities in the country

But shortly after President Trump announced travel restrictions on foreign nationals entering the U.S. from countries in Europe March 12 and the OIP informed students abroad of the suspension of their programs, Baer switched his flight to an earlier date. 

“It’s bittersweet because I, for one, am super bummed that I didn’t get to finish my whole abroad experience,” Baer said. “But I’m also just really glad that I’m safe and the world’s getting pretty crazy and I managed to make it home.”

While the University has not given any updates on the status of his academic credits, Baer said that he has conferred with his academic advisor and plans to continue his full course load remotely. 

Baer added that the University has been “really communicative, and the resources have been pretty exhaustive. I don’t have any major complaints.”

Ari Mazza ’21 recently returned to the United States from Spain, where he was studying in Granada. “After hearing a lot about the Italy program … we were all kind of worried and a little bit upset at the time because Brown wasn’t communicating much,” Mazza said. 

Mazza quickly booked a flight to depart March 18 after receiving the first notice from the OIP of his program’s suspension. But less than a day after, Mazza and his classmates were informed that they had to evacuate “as soon as possible,” after which he booked a flight for four days earlier. 

“It was impossible to switch the flight (on short notice) … so I had to book a second flight,” Mazza said, adding that the University said it would eventually reimburse both but did not offer specific details on how it planned to do so. 

Overall, “I wished that there was … more communication from the OIP,” Mazza said. His program directors are currently working with his professors with the goal of accommodating remote learning, but Mazza said he is still unsure about course credits going forward. 

Ghazi Ghumman ’21 and Ariel Weil ’21 were both studying abroad in Amsterdam when they received word of the suspension of programs across Europe. 

Because they were enrolled in The Council on International Educational Exchange, one of many approved study abroad programs not run by the University, “for us, it was a question of, ‘Will CIEE end the program and send us home, or will Brown pull us from the program before the program ends and send us home?’” Ghumman said. “Brown did not tell us in what scenario they would pull us from the program,” leading to uncertainty surrounding credits and potential tuition refunds, he added.  

Ghumman largely disagreed with the University’s decision to require that he and his peers return home. “To send us home, to fly us out, and then send us to a country with a worse healthcare infrastructure for dealing with COVID-19, … they did not even have an avenue for discussion about that, or what would actually be the safest scenario.” 

Weil reiterated similar concerns about the lack of communication from the University. “I don’t know how much money I’m gonna get back, I don’t know if I’m gonna get credit for the semester, I don’t know if I’m gonna be able to graduate on time now,” Weil said. 

He said he wishes that the University had provided him with potential scenarios and consequences earlier in the development of the pandemic, “rather than waiting until (a CDC Level 3 designation) definitely would have been helpful,” he said. 

Students studying abroad in the U.K. experienced a different transition home than those studying abroad throughout the rest of Europe. Anticipating that the U.K. would reach a CDC Warning Level 3, former section editor at The Herald Kate Bennett ’21, who was studying at the London School of Economics and Political Science, decided to fly back to her home state of Wisconsin before the University officially suspended programs in the U.K. and Ireland. 

Bennet said that she decided to leave preemptively because she was “worried that the U.K. (would) suddenly change to a higher level and that there might be a travel ban put in place.” The CDC issued a Warning Level 3 designation to the U.K. and Ireland March 15. 

In seeking appropriate and expedient responses to student concerns, the University continues to navigate challenges presented by unpredictable changes in the pandemic, wrote University Spokesperson Brian Clark in an email to The Herald. “Interactions with students, their family members, Brown’s emergency assistance and program partners … have all come in the context of an unprecedented global health emergency, where travel and health care guidance changes on a near daily, and often hourly basis.”

“This was not the study abroad semester that anyone envisioned,” Clark wrote. “At this point, Brown’s focus remains on directly supporting students in need of the most urgent assistance, with the essential but less immediate conversations on other impacts of program suspension continuing into the weeks ahead.”

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