Studying abroad is supposed to be a life-changing, illuminating experience. But for hundreds of U.S. students, the situation has turned into a nightmare as the new coronavirus spreads around the world.
Agnes Scott College's Hannah Williams didn't get to go to South Korea.
"To be two weeks from the experience of a lifetime and have it canceled was one of the most heartbreaking experiences of my life, as studying abroad was the one thing I knew for sure I wanted to do in college," she told USA TODAY.
From Italy and China to a ship docked in Mauritius, East Africa, U.S. students and universities grapple with the ripple effects of the new coronavirus – and what will happen next is as uncertain as the spread of the virus itself.
Coronavirus map: Tracking the spread of coronavirus cases in the USA and worldwide
Syracuse to students: Leave the country, and soon
On Feb. 25, students gathered outside at Syracuse University's campus in Florence, Italy, expecting university officials would host a Q&A about the coronavirus situation. Instead, they were told to leave the country.
Many started crying, called their parents and panicked, according to junior bioengineering major Sammi Abate, 21, of New York. Abate had never been to Europe before and planned to take all her nonengineering courses during the semester.
She asked her parents about the coronavirus as news reports cropped up. Then it suddenly broke out in Milan.
Her friend and roommate, Isabel Golan, 21, a junior psychology major, was heading back to Florence after a trip to Interlochen, Switzerland, when she heard about Milan on Feb. 23. The bus had planned to stop in the city, ultimately stopping in an auto shop because so much of the city was under quarantine.
Syracuse's Florence program included 342 students.
Some students opted to stay in Europe while others headed home; classes will resume online after spring break. Students aren't allowed back in any university building or facility for two weeks after their return to the USA, consistent with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to Sarah Scalese, Syracuse's senior associate vice president for communication.
Abate chose to go home, making a pit stop in London to visit friends. It was a tough choice, and she wondered, "Am I gonna regret this the second I get back and have nothing to do while everyone's still in Europe?"
Student booking agent Advantage Travel paid for her flight rebooking. Scalese said the school covers change fees associated with the quick departures from Italy.
Golan chose to stay in Europe and spoke to USA TODAY from London. She plans to head to Morocco and Ireland for spring break.
"It's not necessarily safer for us to go home, especially because there wasn't really any direct danger in Florence," Golan said. "I'm still here in Europe because I feel like being in Europe is just the same as me going home."
'It's hard to feel optimistic': A (chaotic) semester at sea
Lizze Heintz, a journalism major from Emerson College, is one of about 580 students with Semester at Sea. Students embark (and disembark) on a floating cruise ship campus around the world.
The semester began in port city Ensenada, Mexico, on Jan. 4. On its way across the Pacific, it stopped in Hawaii on Jan. 12 and Japan on Jan. 24 to 28.
Students heard about the virus before stopping in Japan. The ship was supposed to disembark in China next, but concerns grew because of the virus, which originated in Wuhan, a city in China's Hubei province. Students headed to Vietnam from Feb. 4 to 16
Students on the ship have limited internet access (75 mb per day), and most of the information they receive is directly from the captain and deans on board.
The next two scheduled stops in Malaysia and India were canceled. Seychelles, East Africa, barred the ship because of coronavirus concerns, "regardless of proof that we did not have any passengers on board with it," Heintz said. "We had been at sea 11 days, but the captain offered to sail around for three additional days, so we met the incubation period. They still refused."
Mauritius, an island nation in East Africa, granted the ship safe harbor Feb. 29, though not before medical screenings, including a temperature scan, for those on board.
It's unclear whether future ports will let them in, including Cape Town, South Africa, a stop scheduled for mid-March.
"It’s hard to feel optimistic knowing they could turn us away at any point," Heintz said. "I didn’t think the outbreak would ever get so bad to a point where we’d be turned away like in Seychelles. It caught us all really off-guard."
'Kind of a nightmare'
Amanda Walencewicz, 24, a student at Johns Hopkins University-Nanjing University Center's graduate certificate program in Chinese and American studies, had been studying in Nanjing, China, since September. She was on a six-week break for the Chinese New Year in Japan when she found out her return to campus was delayed – then canceled.
She's in her second week of online classes using Zoom conference calls from her home in Detroit.
The plan is for classes to be held online until at least the end of March, but that timeline is indefinite. "Should the predicted date be extended, we will continue to deliver course content virtually, and students will be informed of our decision no later than March 9," Miji Bell, director of communication and media relations at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, told USA TODAY.
According to Walencewicz, communication has been chaotic from the university. The university said it has communicated frequently.
"As a student on financial aid, trying to book a last-minute, one-way flight back to Detroit was kind of a nightmare," she told USA TODAY.
"Hopkins has thus far not made any indication they will cover any charges," Walencewicz said.
Bell told USA TODAY the university shared with students the options regarding leave of absence or withdrawal applications, as well as how to work with the financial aid office regarding housing, travel costs and related expenses incurred. Students who paid for housing will get a pro-rated housing credit.
'If I could, I would 100% still go'
Hannah Williams was set to arrive Feb. 25 in South Korea to spend the semester. Her host, Ewha Woman’s University, pushed the start date back a few weeks because of coronavirus concerns.
International Student Exchange Programs canceled the program entirely once the outbreak began.
"Of course, I was devastated, disappointed and worried because now I am stuck figuring out how to replace the classes I would have taken abroad for my majors so that I can still graduate on time," Williams said. She can't return to Agnes Scott College in Georgia because it's too late in the semester, and she can't earn credits.
"The Center for Global Learning and the Office of Academic Advising have worked on individual solutions for each student, ranging from a leave of absence, to taking off-campus courses through one of our partner schools," Dr. Gundolf Graml, Assistant Dean for Global Learning, Professor of German Studies at Agnes Scott College, told USA TODAY.
Her efforts to get a scholarship from her college to cover most of her expenses is for naught. If it were up to Williams, she'd be in South Korea despite the outbreak.
"If I could, I would 100% still go, even knowing the risk of going to South Korea," Williams said.
Not easy for universities, either
Peyton Olechna, a finance and marketing double major, arrived in Florence, Italy, on Jan. 29 and was just getting used to her program at Florence University of the Arts when she found out Fairfield University in Connecticut canceled it.
She said the university wants to bring students back March 16 and have them take online or accelerated classes. She said the university wants them to stay on campus through the summer, even though that would be a hassle for those with internships and jobs. Some students may decide to take summer online courses, at no cost to them, to stay on track to graduate, though those are individual cases, according to Jen Anderson, vice president for marketing and communication at Fairfield.
Bringing the 142 students home was an important factor to keep students on track for their graduation dates, Anderson told USA TODAY. The university is working to help students come to campus to finish their semester, setting up online and hybrid courses and working through free on-campus housing logistics.
"It's very unorganized right now," Olechna said. Booking agent STA Travel absorbed the cost of her flight back to the USA.
Anderson noted that the work universities face is no easy task, making sure students don't lose their credits, financial aid and more.
"People always focus on the students and the (study-abroad) experience, which I think is a very, very large part of it," Anderson said. "But I also think when you think about the footprint of campuses and the fluctuation of students in and out, that's an important component of it, too."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus: Italy, South Korea, China study-abroad students affected