If normal re-entry sessions for study abroad students coil around transitions, links, and connections, there is nothing fluid about students’ return experiences now. This is a moment of sharp, harsh breaks.

One day you are sipping espresso at a café in Florence; the next day you are on a plane to your parents’ cramped apartment in Philadelphia. Where there was a new daily routine in Sweden or Sydney, there is now an odd mix of chaos and waiting, combined with fear, illness, and news overload. While this latter piece characterizes everyone’s lives under our new reality, for study abroad students, the rupture is especially or uniquely challenging.

A week or so before Lehigh decided to go remote, in conversation with Cheryl Matherly, vice president and vice provost for international affairs, I imagined offering returning Italy students an in-person, ad-hoc course around COVID-19. As a professor of global citizenship and a former field director for study abroad providers, I wanted to create a way for students to process the interruption and to think further about this global phenomenon that was bringing them home.

Students needed a space and a means to process from home, and they were seeking a community of others who understood the intensity of this return.

As the virus quickly expanded and Lehigh moved all courses online, almost all of our students returned from around the world, and it became clear that this emergency might not end with the end of the semester: the arc of the course was somewhat impossible to plot out. Nonetheless, students needed a space and a means to process from home, and they were seeking a community of others who understood the intensity of this return. While they were clear on why the university and/or parents had “recalled them” home, many were mad at this virus that robbed them of one of the best experiences of their lives thus far.

We delayed a week for students still en route and then began the course, titled “Dear COVID-19,” as a remote offering. At the moment, we are more than halfway through, and between a third and one half of students who went abroad to different sites around the world are enrolled.

Re-entry normally

In a normal semester and in my past life as a field director, we prepare students for the return home. Near the end of the term, we encourage students to see what they kept meaning to see – the museum you never made it to, the small town you meant to visit. We talk about making a final push to use the host language as much as possible. We stress the importance of saying goodbyes to host families and friends.

As we frame this leave-taking onsite, we also discuss the challenges of going back to a U.S. campus, friend group, or set of cultural norms that might suddenly feel small or limiting. We ask students to think about who will be interested in what they’ve just achieved and discovered, and who will want the 30-second response to “What were Italians like?” or “How was Denmark?” We bring them back into discussions of experiential learning and help them start to map out ways to thread together what they have done and who they have become onsite to what may be next.

Natalie Maroun ’21 started the semester studying in Florence, Italy. She is now back home in Pennsylvania, and enrolled in Rodríguezs class.

We also normalize the potential experience of disorientation and dissatisfaction many feel when they return to the U.S. For many, this eventually smooths out: you cease starting every sentence with “When I was in Costa Rica…” or stop eating dinner at 11 pm. But it might also lead to a shift in majors, relationships, career plans, and values, as well as new explorations into Fulbrights and Watsons, or links to internship or capstone ideas, or thoughts of graduate work abroad. Certainly, for many of us in the field, these early experiences led us to make similar shifts and changed our lives permanently.

Re-entry in COVID-19

Re-entry or return under coronavirus did not follow our normal plans and did not involve a return to the familiar. Now in our Zoom-world, students were already back, so we spent our first class discussing what re-entry should have looked like and how it looked now, thinking through the double adjustment they were being called to embrace.

The coordinates of their return are well-known by now, but still striking in their breadth and depth:

  • Many students had 24 hours from the border closing announcements to departure. No time for proper goodbyes or preparation.
  • They returned to a country that looks nothing like what they left.
  • They returned to quarantine, nothing any sane person would suggest is good for processing shock and grief.
  • They found their usual support people and systems emotionally stretched to the max or accessible only by Zoom or Whatsapp. Who had time to ask them about what life in Geneva looked like, or how they adapted to a local university in Barcelona?
  • With social distancing, they were deprived of physical contact, an extra affront if you are returning from Nicaragua or Panama, for example, or other hug-heavy, high-touch cultures.
  • They went from independent living in Prague to finding themselves in their high school bedroom with parents asking whether something is due tomorrow.
  • Some went from shared housing with friends from around the world to being only children home alone; others who have siblings, some with special needs, found themselves in the middle of home-schooling projects and on childcare duty.
  • Many have fears about parents or grandparents dying, they are ill themselves, or they have friends with the virus. Some had already learned of the deaths of people in their host countries.
  • Financial inequities are becoming more apparent. Some students have parents losing jobs, and some are working themselves, while others are more comfortably waiting this out.
  • And on top of these issues, they have academic work to get done, often at both Lehigh and the abroad site, in multiple time zones.

From here, students were asked to write.

Dear COVID-19 – Letter 1

The course is framed by two letters addressed to the virus. The first one was easy and obvious to assign. In Dear COVID-19 #1, I asked for a sheer rant or wallow, no filter, no judgement. If our longer goal is to somehow narrate this disruption into meaningfulness and into our lives, our first goal was to generate enough of an outpouring that we know what we need to process.

What came out in these first raw letters was a view into a grieving process for what was meant to happen – a process shared by all college students (and faculty and every human…), but one that had its particularly poignant contours here. From initial denial (this won’t be that serious, this won’t get to my study away site), to anger and fear (why me, why now), bargaining (please don’t let the virus get to my site, my family), depression (my whole future is ruined) and acceptance (I will deal with this) – all of this was present.

Commonalities in the letters will resonate with students’ peers around the country and with international students sent home from the U.S. To note a few:

  • Students wrote about the sheer amount of dreaming and preparation going abroad required, from first hearing about study abroad in high school or freshmen year to actually going. They wrote about the paperwork, financial aid hoops, credit and schedule maneuvers, extra work hours… how much effort it took to materialize their plans and how overjoyed they were to arrive in their chosen sites.
  • They wrote about the thrill of what they were learning and experiencing, the friendships they were making, and that feeling of having just gotten comfortable in the language, cultural setting, and place.
  • Among many, there was intense grief wrapping around the shock, and the letters speak to a meaningful time and place that will never be regained even if they return later.
  • There was rage that was heart-breaking and, often, humorous, as they called COVID-19 out (and called it names) for the havoc it wrecked.
  • From here, already, they also started to fight back by not giving in to despair, but by being thoughtful about others, showing concern not only for those they knew, but the world at large. They showed hope, care, and incredible solidarity.

Even in these first letters.

Now we are close to the middle

We are in the middle of this final quarter and – perhaps? hopefully? – in the middle of the experience of this virus. The middle of study abroad, we know, is like this: the novelty-slash-chaos has diminished, a daily routine in a strange place has developed, and you are calm enough to make a choice to go deeper or plateau.

I am not sure I love the term I am seeing online this week about 'pandemic-positive' messages. But we are trying, individually and collectively, to be thoughtful and to move forward in a positive way.

We apply this in our class as well, talking about getting curious about the unwanted homestay with your real family, thinking about who you want to be in your current space-moment, and asking what skills and identity-pieces from abroad life you might usefully insert into this new adaptation.

Students have now proposed final projects in different areas. Some will write more about how they had been learning and changing abroad because they want to get that articulated: as one wrote, “so that I can reflect on how much I loved my time abroad instead of just how it was taken away from me.” They are also examining core areas of interest they had been developing, such as morality in the context of Swiss neutrality, the history of the Maori language, or the impact of Communism in the Czech Republic. Many are now able to step back and ask about coronavirus in comparative lens: responses in Italy compared to the U.S., or the cultural context of how people are coping in Denmark. Still others will consider the psychological effects of quarantine, loneliness in a photo essay, dating apps and relationships under coronavirus, ancient and online predictions around this event, and the effect of COVID-19 on New York City schools and in towns across the country.

They are adjusting. They are now thinking through aspects of this new reality, working through what it looks like in different realms of daily life across the planet. Together, their topics link self and other, before and after, here and elsewhere, underlining this now permanent understanding that we are all inextricably linked and that all divides exist less than we thought.

What’s next

At the end of the term, students will turn in a second Dear COVID-19 letter. I am not sure I love the term I am seeing online this week about “pandemic-positive” messages. But we are trying, individually and collectively, to be thoughtful and to move forward in a positive way.

Do I think the course is helping students to process? Perhaps. I try to send students to frequent Zoom breakout rooms so that they can chat – whether about prompts I give them or about whatever they need to share. I want them to be able to talk about the wonderful things they learned as much as the sorrow of leaving because they still had legitimate study away experiences that need to be recognized and valued. Not all of this can be done in one day, so we keep picking this up as a thread.

Remembering and not silencing are ways to triumph as well. One thing I am finding is that students (in this course and my others) are incredibly gracious, resilient, and kind, both with me and with one another, as they share these personal stories generously with 46 floating heads on Zoom.

From a teaching perspective, it is challenging to not get emotional listening to students as they work through this all, and why on earth should we ban emotion during this time? In the frenzy of end-of-term work, hilarious and embarrassing Zoom failures, mixed with fear of dying or losing someone, absurdly labor-intensive analyses of how to secure food and toilet paper, plus the need to handle contradictory news in overwhelming quantities – we are all doing the best we can. We are all emotional.

When you move abroad, you learn that success depends more on being able to let go and make mistakes, and that those who do it best are the ones who keep throwing themselves back into things regardless of conjugation errors or missed bus stops. A tough lesson for over-achieving students and academics – we normally prefer to read ahead, study up, and look smart.

But here we are again, doing the best we can, together, now from home. Reaching out to others. Asking questions.

Opening up to learning how to live in this unfamiliar new place into which we’ve been collectively immersed.

We’ll see where the final letters take us.

Karen Rodríguez is the director of global citizenship and professor of practice in global citizenship in the College of Education. She joined Lehigh in January 2020.