By April Esparza-Rogel || Contributing Writer
Study abroad programs are supposed to be life changing experiences filled with meaningful memories, friends, and obstacles. After a two and a half month long break from school, I sat in the airport waiting for my turn. This experience with the Institute for Study Abroad (IFSA) was my ticket to becoming the best version of myself.
The weeks leading up to my trip, news increased on the rising cases of the coronavirus (COVID-19), but there were no reported cases in the country I would be studying in, Peru, so I didn’t think it would impact my plans to study abroad there for a semester. In fact, it wasn’t until the day of my flight, March 6th, that Peru received its first confirmed case of the virus.
The topic of COVID-19 was discussed briefly during my program’s week-long orientation. IFSA’s primary physician gave us a 30 minute presentation informing us that despite the rise in global deaths from COVID-19, there was also a rise in people being cured and that as long as we washed our hands frequently for 20 seconds, we would be fine.
The first three days of orientation went on as normal. I got to meet my host family, visited my host university, and learned about my different course options. However, by March 10th, there were 11 cases of COVID-19 in Peru, and my host university announced that it would delay the first day of classes another two weeks due to increasing worries over the Coronavirus. On March 11 there were 15 cases of COVID-19, and word began to spread that all students studying in European countries were being sent home due to President Trump’s European ban.
The next day it was revealed that a total of 4 out of the 15 students in my cohort were required by their school to return to the U.S., and I began to wonder if Franklin & Marshall College would pull me out as well. Students began giving the program a month, at best, until it would shut down. Admittedly, I was a lot more optimistic, but that was hard to maintain when everyone I spoke to kept telling me otherwise.
On March 14th, the number of COVID-19 cases rose to 43, and my cohort and I found ourselves on the same beach. As we sat on the ledge watching the sunset reflect onto the massive body of water, a quiet sadness swept over us. We were only a week into our study abroad experience and already the end was near. Later that night, the government shut down all social businesses for the foreseeable future.
On March 15th, there were 71 cases, and at 8pm the President of Peru announced a national 2-week long quarantine requiring everyone in Peru to stay at home except, of course, to purchase food and supplies. The country would also close its borders; therefore, any individuals who needed to leave Peru had only until midnight the next day to do so. That night, everyone in my program was worried and, without IFSA-Peru officially announcing its cancellation, several opted to go home the next day. A friend and I, however, decided to wait until the next morning to decide what our next move would be.
On March 16th, the director of IFSA-Peru officially announced its cancellation and urged us to try to fly out of Peru that same day or be prepared to participate in the quarantine. As one can imagine, chaos ensued as thousands of people flocked to the airports trying to leave. Check-in lines stretched on for hours, and several flights originally scheduled for that day were cancelled. In the end, only 3 people from my program were able to leave.
To further combat the exponential rise of COVID-19, Peru’s president imposed additional regulations. It became illegal to drive a car or to step outside your home after 8pm. When I heard that Peru’s neighbor, Chile, had decided to extend their 15-day quarantine to 90 days, I worried that Peru would do the same.
By March 19th, there were 233 confirmed cases, and my program began talks with the U.S. Embassy to help us return home. Tickets, however, were estimated to cost anywhere from $855 to over $2,000 just to get to Washington DC (I’m from Los Angeles). When F&M informed me that I would be reimbursed, I was incredibly relieved.
On March 22nd, I received an email from the U.S. Embassy to meet at a Peruvian air-force base the next day. As I rode in a specially licensed van through the streets, armed soldiers and frequent police stops made me further realize just how serious the situation was. For a while, I felt as if I was robbed of an experience. I wasn’t even able to purchase a single souvenir during my time in Peru. But, as I reviewed the few pictures I did manage to take during my first week there, I felt more appreciative and thankful for the moments I did get to have, rather than angry. And as I continue my Peruvian education online, I realize now that my study abroad experience isn’t really over.
Of course, this is just my story, and in such a difficult time I recognize that it may be hard to find the silver lining in any of this, but I hope that you all do. Stay safe.
Junior April Esparza-Rogel is a Contributing Writer. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.