Study abroad students lament, reflect on the impact of COVID-19


Samantha Lee

Calvin students on study abroad trips return to Grand Rapids and some continue classes online.

COVID-19 has not only impacted Calvin students locally as they transition to online classes, but globally as study abroad trips return home. Students on the Ghana, York and Chicago semesters discussed the process of returning to Calvin and home to other parts of the United States. 

Cynthia Slagter, the director of off-campus programs, discussed the protocol that was in place for study abroad trips amid COVID-19. In collaboration with information from Dr. Laura Champion, the CDC, and the US State Department, Calvin decided when the CDC announced a threat Level 3, all off-campus programs would return to Grand Rapids. “By the end of last week, the global threat level had reached Level III and all students were advised to return to their homes,” said Slagter.

Samantha Lee, a student on the Ghana semester, discussed the chaos before the semester was told all students must return to the United States. According to Lee, Calvin originally gave an option to stay or return, “but the next day, after that first email, we got another email saying we had to go back to Grand Rapids, and literally within a span of 48 hours we had to pack up all of our things and leave.” Camryn Young, a student on the Ghana semester, confirmed Lee’s account saying, “Throughout Friday, things changed rapidly with the news of two confirmed cases near us.” The group flew from Ghana to Grand Rapids Saturday night. 

The Ghana semester reported not having much communication with Calvin during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I think the communication was so little mainly because there were no confirmed cases in Ghana during that time so they didn’t have to stress too much about my group compared to other semester groups like Spain and England,” explained Lee. 

Sophia Morgan, a student on the York semester, echoed Lee. Students on the semester received vague information from Calvin acknowledging the virus and announcing Calvin’s move to online courses. Morgan noted, “At that point, Michigan hadn’t even had a confirmed case of the virus, whereas the U.K. had had 40.” 

Like Ghana, York was also given the option to return or stay, but the next day was sent an email from Calvin advising students to return to the United States. According to Morgan, the group decided to leave York, and Calvin announced they would book the flights Monday morning. 

Trump, however, announced a U.K. travel ban that would begin on Tuesday. “All 17 of us at this point packed and sat anxiously awaiting an email confirming we were able to book a flight back. The email didn’t come until Monday night at 6 p.m., [and] we were told we would be leaving at 7 a.m. the next morning,” said Morgan. 

Morgan acknowledged the stressful time for Calvin administration, and was thankful to have Tom Betts, professor of business at Calvin, with the group, who “fought hard to get us information quickly and weathered us through the storm.” 

According to Camryn Dillender, a student on the Chicago semester, she and the other four students on the semester did not receive information from Calvin regarding COVID-19 other than the university moving online. It was ultimately the Chicago semester’s decision to end the program for the rest of the semester. “I got an email from Chicago semester staff that we were to pack up and leave our apartment by the 18th,” said Dillender. Dillender mentioned trying to continue her internship remotely. Dillender’s plans were to return to Calvin to pack and move home to California since her semester was over. 

According to Slagter, all study abroad trips have returned home and will continue online instruction like the rest of the Calvin community. Off campus program directors will continue teaching their courses in an online format and if Universities students connected with internationally have gone online, students will continue those courses online. Slagter noted, “In other cases, Calvin is working on alternatives for students whose classes cannot be continued online. We hope to have a plan in place for all students by the end of spring break.”

Lee noted her sadness at being back in America despite understanding the safety measures of leaving Ghana. “I feel like I was just stripped from a place I was starting to feel comfortable with and thrown back into a pool of unknown,” Lee lamented. 

Dillender remarked, “I’m really frustrated and upset that this was the way my semester ended, but I can only imagine what seniors and athletes are feeling right now as well.” 

Stressors of returning include figuring out classes and housing for the rest of the semester. “I wasn’t ready to say goodbye, and being back in America, stuck in quarantine, not even being able to be at school is really tough,” said Lee. Along with following guidelines in place by the local health department, students returning from abroad are asked to quarantine off campus for 14 days (unless permission is granted for them to quarantine on campus) said Slagter. Slagter expresses gratitude for patience as the return of students has been coordinated. She acknowledges, “With so many moving parts and an ever-changing world situation, we know this has been a stressful time for many. We are praying for wisdom and strength and courage.”

Jeff Bouman, director of the service learning center, acknowledged the grief students and faculty are experiencing with their sudden return. He continued by urging friends and family to ask students deep questions about the time they were able to spend abroad and listen to their reflections. “Of course, this is the kind of practice all of us will need in the coming days of social distancing — creative ways to remind each other that we are here for each other,” Bouman said.