Junior Becca Olson was expecting the email asking her to come home after days of quarantine in her small apartment in Greece. But she didn’t anticipate how devastating it would feel when UM emailed her on March 13 asking her to return.

“It really hit me hard as I bought my return ticket and realized that I was actually leaving Europe,” Olson wrote in an email from Greece. “I’m not mentally ready to go back because I know there’s so much left for me here, but I don’t have a choice.”

The University made the call to bring students home after the Department of State issued a Level 3 Global Health Advisory for U.S. citizens to reconsider travel abroad in response to the rapid spread of COVID-19.

Olson, a UM journalism student, had been in Athens, Greece, since January studying at the American College of Greece (ACG).

She always wanted to travel, she said, to see the world before things (like coronavirus) start to hold her back. She also wanted to take the time and change of scenery to figure out who she wants to be.

“I wanted to focus on myself, forget about my life back in the States and get lost in a country I’ve only dreamed about visiting,” Olson wrote. She said studying abroad had been one of the most gratifying experiences of her life, but it wasn’t always easy.

During her first day in Greece, Olson cried in the bread aisle of the grocery store because she couldn’t read any of the labels. The combination of jet lag, recently getting over the flu and the shock of an unfamiliar culture and language overwhelmed her at first.

“The locals in the store probably were like, ‘Who the hell is this chick and why is she crying over bread?’” Olson wrote. “What I’m trying to say is that study abroad is such an amazing time where you learn a lot about yourself, how to handle different situations and how to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. But you have to go through lots and lots of rough patches and hard times to get to that point.”

Olson said she felt like Greece had finally become home and she was sad
to leave the friends she made there. She said she won’t even be able to say goodbye to all of them because of strict quarantine rules.

“It really, really sucks. We all feel like we’ve been robbed of an experience that we worked so hard to make happen,” Olson wrote.

Olson said she takes back every joke she made about quarantine. She and her roommates were stuck in the small apartment with guards posted outside who she said yelled any time they went out on
the balcony.

“At this point, we don’t care if we get yelled at or not because what are they going to do? Deport us?” Olson wrote. “Please, we’re trying to go home anyway! It’ll just speed up the process.”

Olson planned to return home March 24, after her two weeks of quarantine would have been up. But, on March 19 she received an email from ACG with the subject line: “URGENT: ACG UPDATE.” She needed to leave Greece before borders were closed and nobody would be allowed to leave. Twelve hours later, she was rushing to the airport. Olson is now home.

Another UM student, junior Haylie Peacock, said her classes were moved online at her host university in Granada, Spain after a professor tested positive for COVID-19. The response was quick, but the preparation wasn’t sufficient. She said manyprofessors there can barely work a computer, let alone teach an online class.

Peacock is a media arts and Spanish student who traveled abroad with the help of the Global Leadership Initiative (GLI). She always knew she wanted to travel abroad in college, to experience new cultures and improve her fluency in the Spanish language.

“To have my experience abroad be cut so short is absolutely heartbreaking,” Peacock wrote in an email from Spain. “I was just starting to notice my Spanish improving, and had just gotten over the original hump of the making new friends challenge. Granada was beginning to feel like a home away from home.”

She received the email from UM at 3 a.m. on March 13, informing her she needed to come home.

“When I found out, I was partially relieved that I had least had some sort of direction, but it also felt like I had a rock in my stomach,” Peacock wrote.

Peacock made plans for a flight that departed just a few days later. Once back in the U.S., she will finish her courses in Spain online through videoconferencing. This means she will have classes at late hours, like 2 a.m., because of the time difference.

Both Peacock and Olson said as far as they knew, the University was not planning to reimburse them for the flights home. The Global Engagement Office did ask students to reach out for any concerns about academics, finances or housing.

“UM has been working to assist every student the best we can and every student’s situation is different,” wrote Donna Anderson, executive director of the Global Engagement Office, in an email on March 25. “Students have been responsible for their return flights home.”

Anderson said the office encouraged students to contact their airlines as quickly as possible to change their return flights. She said the Global Engagement Office is working with the Provost’s Office, the chief financial officer and UM Housing to work with students who need assistance. Peacock said she was allowed to keep all the scholarship money she received for her trip from GLI.

“At the moment, I am just hoping that I can get home,” Peacock wrote while still in Spain. “The scariest part of this is being on lockdown in a foreign country, across the world from your family, unsure if your travel plans to get home will make it through.”

Peacock said she has since made it home without any major issues.