Auchampaugh: Three Cayuga County students share COVID-19 study abroad stories
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Auchampaugh: Three Cayuga County students share COVID-19 study abroad stories

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Last month in my Citizen column, I asked my friends and family how they were coping during the COVID-19 pandemic. Thirty-five people responded from many states and localities. One even came from Japan.

I am writing this on Mother's Day, and could not help but think of the mothers of the following three students, who were in Europe when the pandemic surfaced. This virus would prove to change our whole world. I felt the worry and stress of these mothers as they coped to bring their children back to the safety of home and family.

I asked my great-niece Alaina Oughterson to write about her experience, as we were “all part of history.” It was her suggestion to contact and share with her friends and other students their stories, too. They were forced to cut their overseas student trip short and come home.

Here are the remarkable experiences of Alaina, Lydia Marteney and Margaret Sciria.

Alaina Oughterson

My name is Alaina Oughterson and I’m currently a junior at SUNY Geneseo. This semester I was supposed to study abroad at Sogang University in Seoul, South Korea, but obviously things didn’t quite go according to plan.

I left for Seoul on Feb. 26, after weeks of planning, packing and mentally preparing to spend four months on my own halfway around the world. The situation with COVID-19 was getting very concerning in South Korea at this point. I was really scared, not so much of contracting the virus (even though that was a factor), but of the uncertainty of the whole situation. Travelling alone and leaving my friends and family behind was also terrifying, and I was so nervous the day before I left that I could barely eat. However, despite the risk and the fear, I decided to leave because there was still the chance that everything would work out fine, and I had already spent so much time preparing and looking forward to going.

I flew out of JFK in the middle of the night and landed in South Korea on the morning of Feb. 27, 20 hours and two plane rides later (16 hours and two hours, respectively, with a two-hour layover in Taiwan in between). My flights were really empty, and was lucky enough to have the whole row to myself both times. There was a 14-hour time difference between New York and Seoul, so while I was sleeping the very first night I arrived, the U.S. State Department raised South Korea to a level three, meaning that SUNY Geneseo was canceling the program and strongly recommending that I come home. I woke up the next morning to emails, missed phone calls and emergency alerts, and after talking with my parents and the study abroad department, I decided it would be best to leave.

What was supposed to be 4 months turned into four days, and although it was an awful situation, I tried to make the best of it. So I spent the long weekend meeting new people from all over the world, eating great food and exploring the city I was planning on calling home for a little while. The more I walked around, the more I fell in love with Seoul and the less I wanted to leave, but my flight back to the states had already been booked.

South Korea was very diligent about handling the virus. Upon arrival in both Taiwan and South Korea, I had to have my temperature taken, and sign a form that stated I had no symptoms of COVID-19. Everywhere you went, there were posters and billboards reminding you to wash your hands and avoid public gatherings, and giving you the number to call if you had symptoms. Everyone wore masks, and there was hand sanitizer readily available in public spaces (my dorm hall, convenience stores, restaurants, shops and tourist sites that hadn’t been shut down). I had my temperature taken when I checked into my dorm hall, and even when we visited a popular store.

I left on March 2, and coming back to the United States was basically the exact opposite of my experience in South Korea. The flights were packed, because everyone was trying to get out of the country and back home to the states. My temperature wasn’t taken once, and after my 12-hour flight from Seoul to Dallas they didn’t even ask me where I had been. I got stared at in the airport in Dallas, Charlotte and Syracuse for wearing a mask. There seemed to be no concern at all for the disease spreading, because the situation with COVID-19 hadn’t really gotten severe outside of China and South Korea at that point. I came home before most other study abroad students did, because South Korea was one of the first heavily impacted countries.

When I got back home I was in contact with the health department right away, and was placed under the 14-day quarantine. Every day a nurse would check in on me and ask about my symptoms, and they were very lovely about the whole situation. It was honestly the highlight of my day most days, because being confined to a single room by yourself for two weeks is not an experience I want to repeat. I passed the time by sleeping away my awful jet lag, reading, talking to friends and family on the phone, watching TV and exercising. The biggest concern during my quarantine was trying to figure out my academic situation, since I had basically lost a semester’s worth of credits. Thankfully I was already ahead of schedule to graduate, so I could afford to only take one online class and still be on track to graduate on time. SUNY Geneseo was very helpful in offering support to figure out my new academic schedule. I got a full refund for the semester, and the only costs I had to pay were the plane tickets and the dorm fee for the four nights I spent in Seoul.

I had the unique experience of watching the world practically come to a standstill from my bedroom. I was released from mandatory quarantine on St. Patrick's Day, but have been practicing social distancing since then. This whole situation is totally unprecedented and hasn’t been kind to any of us, but I’ve tried to keep a positive outlook. You have to let things roll off of you as they come, because otherwise you’ll lead a miserable life, and that’s no way to live. I’m thankful for the time I did get to spend on South Korea and even though it was a whirlwind and I was exhausted, I truly am glad I went. I got to see amazing things and meet great people I never would have otherwise. But now I’ve been back home spending time with my family, which I wouldn’t have gotten to do while I was away. I have hope for the future that things will get better soon, and we all just have to take care of each other and do our part by staying distanced until this all blows over. I don’t know when, but someday I’ll make it back to South Korea to do all the things I missed out on.

Lydia Marteney

I am a junior at Hartwick College but was studying abroad for the semester at the LdM Institute in Florence, Italy. I arrived in Florence late January and already I could see some of the signs of coronavirus, particularly because there are so many visitors from Asia. However, seeing all of these people wearing masks was normal, since I had previously traveled to China and knew that this is a big part of Asian culture due to the high population density and air pollution. When Italy started to be affected by the virus, there were some noticeable changes in Florence, such as the fact that pharmacies ran out of hand sanitizers, masks and gloves by about late February. I should note that at this point, locals really weren't worried about the virus and in fact, the mayor of Florence said several days before my program was canceled that everything was under control. That was the general consensus; most locals were saying it was nothing but the flu.

Things didn't get bad until the CDC released the level-three travel advisory for the whole country. Prior to this, the virus was located in the regions surrounding Milan and Venice, but had not affected the rest of the nation. The week before this advisory was released, many of the U.S. colleges and universities had pulled their students out of my institute and universities like Syracuse had closed down their Florence campuses. Since my institute is an Italian-based university, there were less pressures to close and they were open until the Italian P.M. mandated that all schools close.

My last weekend, I traveled south to Pompeii and Capri with two of my roommates from Florence. I'm so glad that we made this last-minute decision, as I would have felt that I had missed out on a big trip I wanted to go on when I was studying in Italy. We went to sleep in Pompeii right after the advisory was released knowing that was not a good sign, and awoke to someone's phone ringing at 3 a.m. My roommate Ashley's mom called to tell us that the program had been canceled. At this point, we were very afraid because we didn't know how classes might be able to be online, if we would get all of the credits we needed for our majors, if we would get part of our fees back, and if we would ultimately be able to graduate on time if this had a huge impact on our academics. Fortunately, it took several weeks, but all of our classes were able to be transitioned to online platforms and we are currently waiting to hear back on refunds. It was a bittersweet weekend of travel, to say the least. We were experiencing the beautiful scenes of Capri, but were truly sad to be leaving Italy.

I left the country the following Friday (March 6) after taking full advantage of the time I had left in Florence. We ate at all the restaurants on our list, saw the beautiful view from Piazzale Michelangelo while eating pizza, wandered the streets of the city, spent time together and even had gelato twice on our last day. This week specifically was when you could see how coronavirus was impacting Florence — there were no tourists and most of the study abroad students had been sent home, so the streets and famous spots were empty. Seeing this was almost eerie, as the Florence I knew was always filled with noise and people walking around. My heart goes out to the people of Italy when I see how they are struggling yet still manage to be so positive even during these difficult times.

The trip back to the U.S. was pretty uneventful. I had three separate flights and my long-haul flight from Paris to Detroit was mostly empty. Coming back into the U.S., though, was the strangest. Reflecting on the new discoveries by the CDC this past week about the virus entering the U.S. from Europe seem true, according to what I experienced. In customs, I was asked where I had come from, and the agent was not concerned at all that I had just been in Italy. I was not tested. When I returned to Auburn, I got in contact with the county health department and self-quarantined for the recommended 14-day period. Everyone at the department was lovely and checked up on me every day to see if I had symptoms. Thankfully, I never did.

Margaret Sciria

I spent nearly seven weeks studying abroad in London, England, as part of a program organized by Binghamton University. I and 18 other students (mainly from Binghamton) were housed on a satellite campus operated by Florida State, and taking Binghamton University courses taught by Binghamton faculty. The program, specifically designed for English majors, took advantage of London’s literary history to bring lessons to life.

On March 10 I received an email notifying me that my study abroad program was being called back due to the spread of COVID-19. Up until that moment, the pandemic had felt distant and almost unreal. I knew that the disease was quickly spreading through mainland Europe, but London seemed safely out of its reach. I was wrong.

Faced with the option of either leaving London or signing a waiver acknowledging the risks of staying, I wanted to sign the waiver. At least half of my fellow classmates intended on doing the same. That plan quickly disappeared when Gov. Cuomo announced that all SUNY schools would partake in remote distance learning. Despite being across the Atlantic, my program still functioned under the SUNY system, meaning that my classes would now be online. With classes online, the plan to stay in London quickly crumbled.

Instead of packing my suitcase for a spring break I had booked in Germany, I was packing my bags to go home. I left London on March 13. That night, at 11:59 p.m., the U.S. would enact a travel ban from mainland Europe. Three days later, the ban would be expanded to include the U.K.

Upon landing at JFK after eight hours in the air, I went through immigration and customs. A border control officer, wearing gloves and a mask, checked my passport. He asked me where I was coming from. I replied “London." Next, he asked if I had traveled to any other countries. I told him I had been in France nearly two weeks ago. At this time, France was a level two country and was included within the travel ban that would be enacted that night. I had spent most of my flight dreading this moment; I expected to be forced into a mandatory quarantine. But nothing happened. The border control officer asked if I was showing any symptoms and when I said “no,” I was let through. Despite having spent the previous seven weeks abroad, no quarantine was imposed or recommended to me by the border officials.

Laurel Auchampaugh is the Owasco historian and can be reached at the Owasco Town Hall from 1 to 4 p.m. Tuesday afternoons or at historian@owascony.gov.

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