The Outbreak | Called back from study abroad

The Outbreak is a new blog describing the different ways the coronavirus pandemic has affected our lives.


Photo courtesy of Remy Samuels | Staff Writer

Remy Samuels poses with friends at Abbey Road.

Right now I am sitting in self-quarantine in Millburn, New Jersey, but it was only six days ago that I woke up in my London flat to an email from Pitt Study Abroad with the subject line: URGENT- BOOK YOUR RETURN FLIGHT IMMEDIATELY. I was told that I needed to return to the United States no later than Friday, March 13 — the following day — in response to fears after President Donald Trump’s announcement that it would become increasingly difficult to reenter the United States in the next 30 days.

My stomach dropped when I read this email. At this point, I knew my program was cancelled due to the COVID-19 outbreak across the globe — Pitt had already told us we needed to go home by March 23 — but I was not prepared to pack all of my stuff, say goodbye to all my friends, and bid London farewell in just 24 hours.

To back up a bit, my first two months of studying abroad in London were an incredible experience. From taking the tube to and from class every day to living in a flat with people from very diverse backgrounds, I can honestly say I was having the time of my life. I loved exploring the city on my own and with friends, and I enjoyed the newfound independence while immersing myself in a different culture. Being able to travel to other places in the U.K. and Europe, like Amsterdam, Rome, Scotland and Florence, Italy, was also an eye-opening experience, as I had never really traveled on my own before.

But toward the end of February, things started to get a little funky, to say the least. The last week of February was my program’s spring break, and my friends and I had plans to travel to Scotland the first weekend and then travel to Rome, Florence and Venice starting on Tuesday of that week. Our trip to Edinburgh and the Highlands in Scotland was a success, but on the train ride back to London, we started to panic. Texts from worried mothers and alerts from CNN were telling us that northern Italy had become a major hotspot for cases of coronavirus.

Up to this point, we had been aware that the virus was spreading, but we were not too concerned because it was not that prevalent in the U.K. just yet. While on the train from Edinburgh, we quickly decided we should cancel our plans to go to Venice and just stick to Rome and Florence. This ended up being a wise decision as the number of cases in Italy rose from 17 on Feb. 21 to 1,128 a week later.

Although our trips to Rome and Florence were filled with lots of gelato, carb-loaded meals and amazing sights, they were also filled with anxiety. Anxiety about flights getting cancelled, quarantines being imposed and the U.K. letting us back in the country. Thankfully, everything worked out and we arrived back in London safely.

Following spring break, though, we started to see a lot of universities cancelling programs all throughout Italy. Then, on March 3, Pitt announced it was cancelling all study abroad programs in Germany, Spain and France. Because the cases in the U.K. were also rising rapidly at this time, I knew Pitt would pull us next. The question was when.

The absolute worst part of this whole experience was waiting to find out when the program would be cancelled. It was the uncertainty of everything and the lack of communication from the University that made me the most anxious. In March, I had plans to travel to both Paris and Budapest — with flights and a hostel already booked — and now those trips were a big question mark.

From this point on was a series of disappointments. My friends and I had to cancel our Paris trip because our program advised not to travel outside the U.K., and France had become one of the worst countries in Europe with COVID-19 cases. On March 10, Pitt gave us the option to “voluntarily relocate” to the United States and finish our courses online from home. I was not concerned about contracting the virus at the time, nor did I have any desire to leave London, so I decided I would try to stay as long as possible. But this optimism didn’t last long. Two days later, Pitt ordered that we should book flights immediately and plan to go home on March 13.

I was feeling a whirlwind of emotions. Angry that my time had been cut short, relieved that I finally knew my fate and sad that I had to say goodbye to amazing friends and a city I grew to love. Luckily, I was able to extend my stay until the 15th and do some last-minute shopping and sightseeing in London before I was jetted home.

As I write this, sitting in self-quarantine in Millburn, I realize there are so many people who have experienced much worse than me during this global pandemic. I am grateful that I feel healthy. I am grateful to spend more time with family. I am grateful I had the opportunity to study in Europe at all.

Looking back on it now, it’s a bittersweet feeling. The time I spent abroad is something I will never forget, but I definitely feel robbed of a complete experience. My wallet certainly feels the same, as I had made plans that cost me money I will not be getting back. I missed out on traveling to all the places I set out to see. I missed out on family and friends who were supposed to visit me. I missed out on spending more time with friends and going to classes with professors that I loved. The outbreak of COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on my semester abroad, but I am thankful for the time I did have there and will forever cherish those memories.