Culture shock in quarantine, Pitt students sent home from semester abroad


Photo courtesy of Jess Fisher

Jess Fisher, third from left, poses at Stonehenge with friends from her building.

By Lucy Li, For The Pitt News

Junior Jess Fisher was roaming the streets of London last week. In a matter of days, she was back in Pittsburgh and quarantined for the following two weeks.

She and other Pitt students that were supposed to be spending their spring semester abroad are directly feeling the effects of the University’s actions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a newsletter sent out to all students on March 3, the University announced its decision to cancel all study abroad and study away programs that required air travel due to the pandemic. In a March 11 email, Chancellor Gallagher announced a recall of all students, faculty and staff from countries that were hit hard by the virus.

Fisher, a junior psychology, sociology and social work major, was studying abroad in London when she was asked to return to the United States. She suspected for weeks that they were going to be recalled, but was still sad when the day came.

“Before we were recalled, we gradually saw the virus becoming more and more of a threat, but it did not directly affect our day-to-day lives,” Fisher said. “As silly as it sounds, we weren’t necessarily worried about getting the virus, we were more worried about our program ending and getting sent home early.”

According to Fisher, she does not have a plan of what she’s going to do for the remainder of the semester.

“It is not like we came home to anything normal,” Fisher said. “The world is completely different so the reverse cultural shock is even worse than it originally would have been.”

According to Fisher, she will still get credits by taking online classes, but her program includes an internship for which she is also receiving credits. She said University administrators are trying to figure out what to do with these credits, but without those credits, she might not be able to graduate on time next year.

Although she said the University plans to reimburse study abroad students’ expenses to travel home, her tickets cost $2,100 since the University wanted students home on such short notice. Fisher said it was quite a large sum to pay at a moment’s notice.

Fisher said ending her study abroad experience in such an abrupt manner was frustrating, and she is still sad that it ended so soon.

“I would have been sad in April too, if it didn’t get cut short, but this was far too soon,” Fisher said. “The sadness I felt the past few days I wouldn’t wish on anyone, but the joy I’ve experienced the past two and a half months I wish everyone gets to experience.”

Fellow Pitt student Brendan Kane was also sent home early from his study abroad program. Kane was studying abroad in Florence, Italy, but was travelling on spring break when he got recalled.

“It seemed like the cases were pretty contained and there wasn’t much to worry about,” Kane said. “But a week later it was a different story. At first, they gave us the option to stay or go. The next day Pitt stepped in and pulled us, then our entire program got canceled.”

Some students, including Katelyn Bailey, a senior public administration major, didn’t get the opportunity to attend their abroad trip at all. Bailey signed up for a PittServes alternative spring break program, in which students participate in community-based projects that engage them with communities locally or abroad. However, due to the pandemic, Bailey said her trip to Ecuador was canceled before she had the opportunity to leave the country.

“I was very upset about getting pulled back for the virus,” Bailey said. “I was really looking forward to ending my Pitt experience with four years of alternative break services under my belt.”

Bailey said service is a way for her to relax and escape from the stress of college life, and she said she has been training with her cohort for the program.

“This is my last semester and it has been very hectic so I was looking forward to doing something fun and rewarding as a service,” Bailey said. “It is sad to not see that training going to use.”

Bailey said the University has not announced a reschedule for the program, and since she is graduating, she will not be able to participate anyway.

For Fisher, Kane and Bailey, the cancelled study abroad programming was disappointing, but Kane said he understands that it wasn’t anybody’s fault.

“I felt robbed of a lot of my experience,” Kane said. “Nobody is unaffected by this now, plans, work, school, everything is changed by this.”