Future Tense

Coronavirus Diaries: My Nonrefundable Semester Abroad Was Canceled

Arrivederci, semester in Italy. Ciao, online semester abroad.

Two hands hold a surgical mask that says "Coronavirus Diaries" in front of an image of Florence, Italy.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Keith Zhu/Unsplash

Coronavirus Diaries is a series of dispatches exploring how the coronavirus is affecting people’s lives. For the latest public health information, please refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. For Slate’s coronavirus coverage, click here.

This as-told-to essay from Sarah Louise Rhodes, an American university student whose study abroad program in Italy was canceled, has been condensed and edited for clarity from a conversation with Shaena Montanari.

I’m a junior majoring in political science and art history at the University of South Carolina, so I wanted to go to Florence, Italy, specifically to study art history. Studio art is my minor and I wanted to take some drawing classes there too. The coronavirus really didn’t even cross my mind back in January when I left for Italy because the virus was just in China then. I guess I didn’t think it would be anything that we had to worry about.

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I arrived in Italy on Jan. 26, and I had a one-week-long traveling course through central Italy, which was great. We got to Florence on Feb. 2 and started our regular classes at Florence University of the Arts the next day. I was in a drawing class, and [a classroom] art history class, and a political science class. I was in another really interesting art history class where we would walk around to different sites in Florence and learn about them. They were really fun.

On Valentine’s Day weekend, I went to Paris with two of my friends. We came back into Florence on Monday the 17th, and that was the first time we’d had any thoughts of the coronavirus because they took our temperatures at the airport in Italy. The temperature checkers were in the full protective suits that you see in the videos online, and I had no idea that that would be going on.

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I was planning on going to Milan for a day on Sunday, Feb. 23, but my boyfriend in the U.S. texted me and told me, “I don’t think you should go there.” I hadn’t heard much about the coronavirus in Italy and it still wasn’t really on my radar. We decided not to go to Milan, which was probably a good idea because on Monday, the 24th, I heard there were over 250 cases in the area.

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That day, the company our study abroad program is managed through, CIS, emailed us and said to practice normal precautions, like washing our hands, and to not travel to northern Italy. On Wednesday the 26th, when the U.S. issued an increased travel advisory for Italy, it felt like a turning point. All of a sudden people started talking about going home. It created a divide between my classmates—some people like me thought it was a big deal, but others wanted to keep traveling and enjoying their study abroad program.

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On the same day, my parents secretly bought a plane ticket for me on Wednesday to get out of Italy back to the U.S. for Saturday, Feb. 29. They later told me they got it for me just in case I needed it. On Thursday, CIS recommended we go home. On Saturday, when I got to the airport, I received another email from the study abroad company saying it was suspending all on-site operations, so I made the right decision to get out when I did.

I was sort of surprised that there was no temperature check, when I got home to the U.S., at any of the airports I passed through. They only asked if I had been in China.

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I have no idea how I will finish my classes this semester. CIS said it will talk to us about online classes by this Friday. But I don’t know how I will be able to take a drawing class online. They also said we will not be getting any refunds for the program we already paid for.

I wasn’t sure if I should quarantine myself because I didn’t get any specific information, so I have been just sitting in my house in South Carolina for the past few days. I’m frustrated it ended this way, but I’ve always had the mindset I’d rather be safe than sorry. I’m glad my friends and I got home safely.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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