What was supposed to be a four-month-long study abroad trip for Brandon Lawson, a junior, was cut short to eight weeks amid rising coronavirus concerns.
Lawson, who was studying abroad at the UA Rome Center, returned to the U.S. two months early and entered a self-imposed quarantine after UA officials suspended the center’s operations as a health precaution Feb. 28.
“This was kind of my only chance,” Lawson said. “I’m glad I got my two months abroad. I wish it had been four, obviously. But a lot of people can’t say they got to spend eight weeks in a foreign country.”
UA officials suspended all university-sponsored travel to countries with a CDC COVID-19 risk level of two or higher March 3 and all school-sponsored out-of-state and international travel March 11.
University officials closed the UA Rome Center and ordered students to return home Feb. 28, after the CDC issued a level-three, essential-travel-only advisory for Italy. South Korea, Mongolia and Iran are also at a level-three travel advisory, and China is at a level-four advisory, according to the U.S. Department of State.
Since beginning his self-imposed quarantine two weeks ago, Lawson has seen no one except his immediate family. Today marks the end of his quarantine at his home in Arlington, Texas, which he has spent watching Marvel movies and playing Minecraft with his roommates from Rome.
“I feel completely out of the loop of what’s going on in the world because I haven’t left my house,” Lawson said.
The only people Lawson has been able to see are his parents and sister, he said.
“You think like ‘Oh, two weeks isn’t that long,’ but yesterday felt like 48 hours instead of 24,” Lawson said.
For Lawson, the chance to spend a semester in Rome was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity because he wants to spend his senior year on campus, he said.
Lawson had enjoyed Rome for about two months when concerns about the coronavirus started to arise. Students were worried about the virus, but Lawson did not think they would be sent home, he said.
“I woke up at 3 a.m. one morning to my roommate telling me to look at my email,” Lawson said. “We got told we were getting sent home and to book the earliest flight possible.”
Lawson was not able to sleep after reading the email because he was trying to contact his dad, who was six hours behind in Arlington, about a flight home.
“You expect to get these extra two months with these friends that you’re just now getting comfortable with and the area you are in,” Lawson said. "And then it's just like, 'Snap. You're done. You're going home.'"
Lawson and other Rome Center students thought the virus might affect their travel plans later in the semester, but they did not think it would be sending them home so quickly, he said.
“It was like a bat upside the head just hit us,” Lawson said.
Despite their trip being cut short, Lawson said he and other students at the Rome Center managed to enjoy their time in the country.
Lawson and his friends spent the weekend before their return to the U.S. eating seafood and playing football on a beach outside of Rome, he said. He was glad they got the chance to spend that time together before having to leave so abruptly.
Lawson is taking online classes through the UofA and waiting to find out more information about the refund process for the study abroad program.
Updates about refunds will be added to the university’s coronavirus update site when available, said Mark Rushing, assistant vice chancellor of University Relations, in an email.
The flight home from Rome was somber and packed with other students being sent home from their semesters abroad, Lawson said.
“Plane rides are terrible anyway, but the whole situation on top of it just made it feel so much worse,” Lawson said. “The airport was full of college students.”
Ellis Tran, a junior, is another UA student whose trip was cut short.
Tran took last semester off of school to work 40 hours a week as an intern in Dallas, where he managed to save enough money to fulfill his dream of studying abroad in South Korea. But just eight days after arriving in February, he was on a plane returning home.
Tran arrived in Seoul, South Korea, to start his year abroad at Yonsei University on Feb. 20 and by Feb. 28 he was returning to the U.S. because of COVID-19 travel restrictions.
“It was kind of hard coping with it,” Tran said. “I had spent like a year plus planning this.”
Instead of getting the chance to explore South Korea and travel across Asia, Tran was ordered home within a week of starting his trip.
Tran was looking forward to starting classes at Yonsei, especially an intensive Korean language course that is not offered at the UofA, he said.
Tran was already concerned about the virus when he was getting ready to go abroad, but the crisis escalated quickly after members of South Korea’s Shincheonji Church of Jesus refused to get tested and treated, he said.
Of the 8,162 cases confirmed in South Korea as of March 15, 73.9% occurred in the city of Daegu, where the religious group is based. The sect is considered the epicenter of the Daegu outbreak.
Tran, who is Vietnamese, was excited to make a trip to Vietnam while based in South Korea and to connect with the country’s culture, he said.
Instead of traveling across South Korea and other Asian nations, Tran spent two weeks quarantined in an apartment in Fort Smith, Arkansas, after arriving back in the U.S. Tran stayed in the apartment alone to avoid spreading the virus, just in case he had it.
The only things Tran could do were watch television and go outside to pick up food when his mother dropped it off, he said.
“I had a hotspot, and I hotspotted over 150 gigs of data,” Tran said.
Tran hopes to return to Seoul in August to complete his year abroad, he said.