I so appreciate all of the people who have been reaching out to see what happened with the UTSA Study Abroad Program. The first 4 weeks of the trip were wonderful. We got settled in Urbino, made a day trip to the Adriatic Coast, spent a long weekend in Rome, and visited Pompeii. Unfortunately, after that the Corona Virus Panic caught up to us. Although there were no cases of the virus in Urbino, or in Rome while we were there, UTSA, along with most other US Universities decided to close their Italian Study Abroad Programs. We found out on Friday evening, and left Urbino at 3 am on Monday morning. In the interim we lived through a veritable internet storm while UTSA tried to book over 60 people on a return flight (shout out to Delta Airlines for coming through), find housing for students who had nowhere to live in San Antonio and couldn’t go home for various reasons, arrange for them to finish classes online since two of the classes were being taught by faculty in Urbino, and some of the students weren’t coming back to San Antonio, and figure out what to do about refunds to the students who had paid for a 13 week adventure, and were only getting to stay for 5.
The situation was complicated by the fact that in the student and faculty dorms we didn’t have reliable Wifi, and the walk to the classroom on campus where we did, took over 20 minutes, and involved a steep hill, sections with no sidewalk and crossing several very busy intersections so it wasn’t something you could do easily, especially in the dark. But, since we were 7 hours ahead of San Antonio, many of the messages we were getting from people at work in San Antonio, were coming in when we couldn’t receive them in Urbino. Complicating things further, was the Italian government’s erratic response to the virus, the random tweets we were seeing from Washington about closing borders and the news media’s frantic, sensational efforts to fan the flames of panic. On the whole, the student’s stayed calm and took things in their stride, but they got understandably frustrated when they found out that the UTSA community received an email saying we were coming home before we were told, and by the initial messaging which said that they would have to pay for their own flights home, and could not get a refund for the unused part of the trip. Those issues have now been resolved, but as always, it’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it!
Our exodus from Urbino had the feel of the last few minutes of the Sound of Music, if not the lighting and stage set. We left our dorms at 3 am, rolling our suitcases behind us down a very steep, cobble stoned hill through the middle of town to the bus plaza. The wind was blowing so hard that it even tipped over some of the suitcases, and some of us wondered if would be easier to just sit on the suitcase and ride it downhill. Of course, our luggage was also bursting, as we were all bringing souvenirs, and hadn’t had much time to plan our packing. We pulled out of Urbino at 4 am on a charter bus, and drove for over 4 hours, to the airport in Rome. If you have never made the drive, it is characterized by several very long tunnels to get out of the hills around Urbino, so while we didn’t climb the alps to escape, we did tunnel under their equivalent. Luckily the airport in Rome wasn’t terribly crowded, as we needed to check over 60 people in for one flight, and to navigate security and the passport checks. We had all been taking our temperatures twice a day before we left, so we knew no one was sick, but rumors of health screenings at the airport were rampant, so we were all apprehensive. Fortunately, we did not encounter any problems checking in, and all boarded one of 3 flights within an hour of each other, which was a major relief to the three faculty who were herding this large group of cats! The planes were packed with college students being called home (We met kids from Iowa, Villanova, The Citadel, New York, Duquesne….) It could have been a spring break flight to Florida, except for the exhausted sad faces, face masks, and obsessive use of hand sanitizer. I was with the small contingent of our students who were rebooked through New York, while most of the others went through Atlanta. In New York many of the TSA, Airline, and Customs officials were wearing gloves and face masks, but we were treated kindly, and managed to get ourselves, our luggage, and the bottles of olive oil we all bought when we visited a farm that produces olive oil and wine through the checkpoints and back on the planes to fly to Texas. By the time we landed in San Antonio we had been traveling for 26 straight hours.
We were met at the luggage carousels by the head of UTSA’s International Programs, and the Physician who is in charge of our health services, which I thought was a nice gesture. The students who didn’t have anywhere to live were transported by bus to a hotel near campus, while most of the others were picked up by family. We are all under a mandatory 14-day self-isolation, which means that you have to stay at home, avoid close contact with family members, be careful with dishes etc. I honestly don’t know how effective this can be. Most American families share bathrooms, and we don’t know how long the virus lasts on surfaces. However, I also don’t think any of us have the virus since there were no cases in Urbino or Rome while we were there. Still, it is a bitter pill for a group of students who thought they would be spending Spring Break in Europe and are now spending it in their bedrooms. I am starting an online “self-isolation coping group” today to talk about what we can do to make positive, productive use of this enforced down time.
Coping with stress is all about accepting reality and creating ways to move forward, which we are all doing as we return from Italy (whether we want to or not!). However, I cannot help but feel that this panic pandemic is going to cause far more damage than the virus itself. Somehow, we have to find a way to tone down the “take no prisoners” tone of our media and political discourse, to convince people to take responsibility for educating themselves, and evaluating the veracity of the news they choose to consume and share, and for not allowing ourselves to fall prey to exaggerated fear and anxiety. To date, there is no evidence that the Corona Virus is dangerous to children, and the risk to young adults is minimal. Older adults and people with a compromised immune system are at higher risk, but even there, the outbreaks in Wuhan, Lombardy, and on the quarantined cruise ship may not be representative of typical risks, because in all three cases mistakes were made in diagnosis and isolation and sanitation was a major issue. Despite all of the headlines, more than 3 times as many people have died of the flu in the US, since October 2019, than worldwide from the Corona Virus. On the upside, maybe more people will get vaccinated next year! I was going to stop blogging when we returned to the US, but since I am only a couple of days in to my enforced retreat from the world, I think I will continue musing about what it is like feel perfectly fine, while being treated as though you are carrying the plague! Ciao`
PS I looked it up. The author of this article is a Physician~ at Harvard.