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Stranded, scattered, and sidelined: students face coronavirus outbreak abroad

<h5>The Louis A. Simpson Building, which houses the Davis International Center.</h5>
<h6>Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
The Louis A. Simpson Building, which houses the Davis International Center.
Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

As coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) swept across northern Italy last week, Julius Foo ’21, a Woodrow Wilson School concentrator studying abroad at Bocconi University in Milan, found himself in the crosshairs of an epidemic. His primary concern was not the spread of coronavirus itself, but rather being stranded in Italy. Ticket prices were skyrocketing. Flights began to sell out.

“Panic was spreading just as quickly as the virus across the city,” Foo said.


Foo, along with other students studying abroad at Bocconi University, voluntarily fled the country due to the escalating severity of the coronavirus. Though the University asked students to remain in Milan in a Feb. 25 email, the University later updated their guidelines. By then, many students had already dispersed across Europe. 

On Saturday, Feb. 22, Bocconi University notified the students that all classes in northern Italy universities were to be canceled until Friday, Feb. 28. The University reached out to students about the rapidly developing situation in Italy on Feb. 25. On Saturday, Feb. 29, an updated announcement extended the cancellation until Mar. 7.

Coronavirus has now disrupted several international programs, including South Korea study abroad, the Novogratz Bridge Year China program, and the International Internship Program (IIP). 

In light of updated Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) travel guidelines and U.S. Department of State (USDOS) advisories, the University has prohibited all sponsored travel to CDC Warning Level 3 countries, which now include China, South Korea, Italy, and Iran. In addition, recommendations were issued against University-sponsored travel through the fall semester and Wintersession 2020.

“The University is working closely with students in the affected countries to understand their individual situations, help them evaluate their options, and provide appropriate support,” said Deputy University Spokesperson Mike Hotchkiss. “We have been in direct contact with these students and their parents.”

Italy Study Abroad


In an email obtained by The Daily Princetonian, Director of the Study Abroad Program Gisella Gisolo requested that students inform the University of their whereabouts as well as their “level of comfort” with continuing their studies in the host city.

However, multiple sources confirmed to the ‘Prince’ that the University asked students to remain in Milan — or return, if they had left. Gisolo’s email stated, “being far away from Milan might introduce newer, unpredictable risks.”

Several students considered the prospect of returning to Europe’s most severely-affected country frightening and unacceptable.

Students were also frustrated by the University’s initial response, characterizing it as “disorganized” and “unsettling.”

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“At the end of the day, Princeton was just trusting that Bocconi had a plan to get classes going again and they were clearly worried that we were going to get away from progressing with our study abroad courses,” Foo said in a written statement to the ‘Prince.’ “From afar, Princeton could not empathize. That was a disappointment.”

In response to the canceled classes, Bocconi University elected to move their courses online. Given that the study abroad program was an exchange, students expressed frustration that Bocconi students were able to fully enjoy their experience at their university, while Princeton students had no choice but complete their courses in front of a computer screen. 

“We are heartbroken, and what was supposed to be a dream, once-in-a-lifetime experience has turned into a disaster,” Foo said. “I wish Princeton would support those feelings and offer something more than haphazard and confused information.”

It wasn’t until the Friday email that students were informed of the University’s new travel restrictions. Only then did the Office of International Programs (OIP) instruct students to return to their respective homes, a decision which Foo felt was made much too late. At that point many of the students had left Italy, scattering across Europe and settling in places from London and Edinburgh to Morocco and Berlin.

To make matters worse, the eight University students who were studying abroad in Italy — seven Milan and one in another northern Italy city — left many of their belongings behind when they evacuated. In a follow-up email on Feb. 29, Gisolo asked students to communicate their travel plans and offered to retrieve their belongings for them.

Meanwhile, the number of cases in Italy has risen to over 2,000 — marking an increase of over 50 percent on Sunday alone, with a death toll of 52 as of Monday afternoon.

Hotchkiss, said in an email statement to the ‘Prince’ that “each students’ needs are being assessed and addressed on an individual basis.”

“As an example, we have offered financial assistance with change fees for flights home,” he added.

South Korea and China Study Abroad

Meanwhile, students in other study abroad opportunities in mainland China and South Korea have had their programs canceled entirely. As of Monday, South Korea has more than 4,000 confirmed cases and 28 deaths.

There are currently no University students studying abroad in either country, according to Hotchkiss.

Nicolas Chae ’21, one of three students who were originally planning on studying abroad at Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea, was informed of the cancelation on Tuesday, days ahead of the general alert. He has remained in the United States since the announcement, and plans to do so until further notice.

“Since school had been delayed two weeks due to emerging cases of the virus, we decided to wait to book our flight until we knew for sure we'd be able to go,” he said. “So luckily I never ended up in Korea before it got canceled.”

Ultimately, the University stepped in and canceled the semester abroad at Yonsei. However, at that point, it was too late to re-enroll for Princeton's spring semester.

Even so, Chae felt that the University’s response was timely as the extent of the outbreak was unpredictable. He is communicating with advisors, deans, and others to discuss his options.

“To be honest, I'm sure they're doing the best they can given these circumstances,” he explained. “But the opportunities they've presented us are very underwhelming and don't provide me a lot of feasible or fulfilling options for this coming semester.”

Other Programs

In an email Monday to students, Director of the International Internship Program (IIP) Shahreen Rahman announced that internships in mainland China and Italy are no longer supported due to their CDC Level 3 designation, directing students to the Center for Career Development for domestic opportunity recommendations.

The email indicated that for affected students, they will request their IIP partners to defer offers of internship for summer 2021.

According to Hotchkiss, the Novogratz Bridge Year China program has been relocated to Yilan City, Taiwan, where the students will be working on service projects and learning Mandarin.

 “We are monitoring the location closely and if circumstances change, the program may end early,” Hotchkiss said.

The status of Princeton in Beijing is unknown, aside from a Feb. 4 notice indicating that staff are “monitoring travel advice.” The program director did not respond to the Prince’s request for comment.

Other affected University programs include the Peking Opera Shanghai Immersion Program, which has been postponed until 2021.

The University Responds

The University has taken steps to support students in each of the affected programs. 

Students studying abroad were offered the option of enrolling in a quarter system school like Northwestern University but would ultimately have to remain there until August in order to complete the two quarters that are equivalent to one semester.

Alternatively, students were permitted to take the current semester off and come back in the fall or take a leave of absence. Students expressed concerns that financial aid would not be flexible or understanding in helping students afford living costs, should they choose to find an internship for the semester.

The options offered by the University to Woodrow Wilson School concentrators included taking online courses to supplement the Bocconi courses, electing to take Advanced Standing, or choosing to take a leave of absence and graduate in January 2022 instead of May 2021.

“The University has given us very poor support overall,” Foo explained. “They don’t know what to do and, being so far away, their empathy is limited. Now, we are grappling with the question of how to complete a Princeton semester of credits with the worry that perhaps we might not graduate in time or be course deficient.”

“It is an unprecedented situation, but for a school with such a big endowment, I find it surprising they're not willing to push the budget to accommodate us for a semester already being lost, and not doing more to help us with our options,” Chae continued. “I think it's too early to tell whether or not we'll be receiving helpful guidance about what we can do to have a productive and fulfilling semester.”

Chae expressed dismay that some of the options would leave students with no availability for summer opportunities.

“We understand and share the frustration of students whose plans for the semester have been affected by this global health emergency,” Hotchkiss wrote in an email statement. “Inconvenience, disruption and frustration are, unfortunately, unavoidable. We will continue to work diligently with all affected students to address their situations and their concerns, with their safety and security as our top priority.”

The University indicated that they are aware of roughly 100 students, faculty, and staff with plans for University-sponsored travel to Europe over spring break. Over 500 students, faculty, and staff currently are either on trips, or have travel plans to Europe prior to the summer. Programs in Italy have been canceled or shifted to alternate destinations in Europe.

“Princeton is certainly not unique among colleges, universities, and other institutions across the country responding to this evolving global health emergency,” Hotchkiss wrote to the ‘Prince.’ “We have been sharing information and best practices with our Ivy League colleagues and other peer institutions such as Stanford and MIT.”

In the United States, as of Monday night, there are currently over 100 reported cases of the coronavirus across 14 states, with six confirmed deaths, all in Washington state. Worldwide, there are over 90,000 known cases of varying degrees of severity with more than 3,000 deaths spread across six continents.

The CDC requires individuals returning from mainland China to self-quarantine for 14 days. Members of the University community who have been in close contact with a patient diagnosed with COVID-19 are expected to complete a short form and undergo self-quarantine.

For countries under CDC Alert Level 2 — advising enhanced precautions — the University recommended canceling or rescheduling sponsored travel due to elevated risk of contracting COVID-19, possible travel interruptions, and potential return restrictions.

As of Monday, the countries listed by the University in the Level 2 category include Japan and Mongolia, although the latter is not listed by the CDC in its travel health notices.

Hotchkiss reaffirmed the University’s commitment to monitoring the global health emergency and conducting planning to account for a range of scenarios.

“We will continue to communicate about developments and engage with students, faculty, and staff with a focus on ensuring the health and safety of the University community,” he said.

“University Health Services is equipped and prepared to see patients with coronavirus at McCosh Health Center and is in constant communication with the New Jersey Department of Health for updated guidance on how to best deal with such cases,” Hotchkiss added. “UHS has a board-certified infectious disease specialist on staff to coordinate the medical response to this type of situation.”

The most up-to-date information on the University’s response and frequently asked questions can be found on the University Emergency Management’s website. Procedures for self-quarantine are available on the Environmental Health and Safety website.