By Wednesday, March 25, only six undergraduate participants in Spring 2020 abroad programs remained abroad. Five of those students had chosen to do so. The sixth was junior Ally Bartell, who until the morning of March 25 had been stranded in Peru with her study abroad program.
After multiple false cues to leave from the American Embassy in Peru, Bartell and other members of her study abroad program departed Cusco on a chartered flight that returned them to the United States.
“We actually got another email in the middle of the night telling us to go to the airport this morning, so we’re trying that now,” Bartell wrote in an email to The News-Letter that morning.
For a period of time, Bartell was one of the more than 13,000 estimated Americans stranded abroad due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bartell is majoring in Environmental Science. She had been attending the School for Field Studies (SFS) program in Peru, learning about the environment and taking courses such as tropical ecology, political ecology and conservation science, with 20 other students. The program is not affiliated with Hopkins but is approved by the University.
She explained in an interview with The News-Letter that the University had notified her to return to the U.S. on March 12, around the same time many other students in the program were receiving news to return to their home universities. They had been on a trip in Cusco and had planned to fly back to Lima in order to return to the U.S.
“SFS announced that they were going to close down all of their centers on the 21st, so we were making arrangements to leave Peru on [March] 21st,” Bartell said. “But we heard the borders were closing so we were going to stay in Cusco.”
Peruvian President Martín Vizcarra proclaimed a 15-day nationwide state of emergency on March 15. This led to an abrupt closure of all borders and the end of domestic travel to stop the spread of COVID-19. It also left more than 2,500 American citizens and thousands of other foreign tourists stranded.
The group primarily stayed in Cusco as a result of the closure of domestic travel. Three students on the trip managed to find flights out. In the meantime, the rest were stranded.
“When we heard that the borders were closing, we were told we had until midnight to get out of the country, so we were all looking online for flight tickets,“ Bartell said. “We were looking for several hours but a lot of airlines were just canceling all the flights so we couldn’t book anything to get out.”
The SFS students stayed in a hotel in Cusco while they waited to see if they could return to the United States. Bartell stressed that the Office of Study Abroad (OSA) did its best to help her return back to the U.S. given the stressful circumstances.
Director for Study Abroad Lori Citti explained in an interview with The News-Letter the role OSA played in trying to return Bartell home. In addition to working with other American universities to get students on SFS safely home, the University uses the security agency and travel medical insurance company, HELIX, for any student that is on a University-sponsored trip to another country. HELIX is attached to World Travel Inc. (WTI), a travel agency that the University uses to book flights for students going abroad.
“We're looking at two governments, the Peruvian government and the U.S. government. And then we're also looking at colleges and universities and programs that are trying to work within the parameters to do that,” Citti said. “We also have our own charters that are waiting for permission from the Peruvian government to go as well.”
She expressed the difficulty of dealing with the rapidly-changing nature of the global pandemic, even though Bartell’s abroad program had been stranded in the major city of Cusco.
“They were in a hotel, we knew they had supplies, we knew they had medical attention, we knew they had wifi, we were in communication with the students, parents... the program. So we were monitoring that situation,” Citti said.
However, the situation changed rather abruptly after the mandatory 15-day quarantine.
“What we recommended is that our students have a flight in hand, a ticket in hand, for the first day after the quarantine ends,” Citti said. “We're also working with the program, with the U.S. Embassy, with HELIX, to work on making sure they're registered for the embassy flights to leave. We're also looking at special University-chartered flights that might actually be able to leave. So we're basically looking at any way that we might be able to get that.”
Bartell emphasized the necessity of the embassy in helping her and her classmates return home.
“HELIX...would only repatriate citizens if they have a medical emergency or there’s a political insurgency,” she said. “I’m not sick so they can’t use that to pull me out, so the only option is for the embassy to try and arrange something.”
Bartell explained her emotional reaction to the slow burn of the crisis from abroad. She had initially hoped to stay but became stressed as she realized that she might not be able to go home even if she wanted to.
“Early on in the semester we didn’t really have great access to the Internet so we didn’t realize how serious corona was getting and how it was affecting other countries,” she said. “But when we came to Cusco we started seeing people wearing masks and things like that so we started understanding that coronavirus was serious.”
Bartell had posed concern on Tuesday as to whether she would be able to return home in an email to The News-Letter.
“Yesterday we got an email from the embassy that we were on the list for the next flight out of Cusco. We were told that it would be today. But then this morning we received another email that the flight was delayed. From what we know now, it seems like there was some sort of diplomatic breakdown and now Peru is not allowing American flights in the country,” Bartell wrote.
Amid the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, the University announced on March 11 that it is assessing the placement of study abroad students worldwide. Prior to this announcement, the University had already required students from programs in China, South Korea and Italy to return to their home countries based on warnings from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Citti said that this spoke to an ongoing issue of student autonomy and University control when it comes to booking travel for study abroad.
“Do we let students book their own travels where they might be able to get their own tickets inexpensively, but then we have no ability to assess or rebook that ticket or use that ticket as a way of getting a group flight and other things out? Do we actually begin to encourage students more directly to use WTI?” she said. “WTI is going to be much more expensive for students when they are booking tickets...We could have booked all of the students... to get them out really early, but that type of control comes at a cost.”
Citti hopes that students will still apply to study abroad programs in the fall.
“Everybody in the OSA is absolutely devastated. We really firmly believe that there is a value added to having an immersive experience. And now we’re in a position where we’re doing remote learning,” she said. “We’re encouraging students to continue to apply, we still have our hopes up that we’re going to do our fall program. We’re still going forward.”