Study Abroad Students Sent Home Due to Coronavirus Concerns


Graphic by Emma Carmody and Rebecca LiVigni

The outbreak of the coronavirus variety COVID-19 that began in Wuhan, China last year and has since spread globally is now affecting the ability of study abroad programs to run safely.  Although SLU has not cancelled its Madrid program, Spring Hill College and Loyola University in Chicago, through which 13 SLU students were attending universities in Italy, suspended their programs on Feb. 28.

Most cancelled programs have been in Asian countries bordering China, such as Japan and South Korea, but a growing number of universities have closed campuses in Italy, where over 500 cases of COVID-19 have been reported. These include universities like Elon University, New York University and Syracuse University, all of which cancelled their programs in Florence despite only two recorded cases of COVID-19 in Tuscany. Other universities have offered students the ability to transfer their credits or complete online courses upon returning.

The University News contacted the President’s Office and Office of International Services about SLU’s response to the spread of the virus and how it may affect students abroad. Rebecca Bahan, director of the Office of International Services, commented that at the time of publishing, 18 SLU students had their programs delayed, suspended or cancelled. 

Speaking on the SLU office’s ability to decide which students are required to return home, Bahan said, “SLU-Madrid is the only study program that’s operated by the University. Other study abroad programs are operated by partner universities and organizations. None have indicated that they plan to cancel classes or close campuses, but we’re remaining in close contact.”

Bahan also stated that the university recommends receiving all necessary immunizations before travelling, and it has been continuously supplying health information and tips for students, in addition to the enrollment of all SLU students abroad in an international health insurance plan.

Three SLU students were affected by the cancellation of a program in Beijing on Jan. 28, including sophomore Jennifer Cheun, who spoke with the University News. Commenting on the justification of cancelling programs, she stated, “I think that people being concerned is fair. People should take precautions, of course. But the flu has a higher mortality rate … I think people’s biggest fear is the unknown.” 

Cheun was disappointed with SLU’s response and lack of assistance. She said, “I had to do everything. SLU did not contact me whatsoever until I contacted them first … I felt as if they were not much help. I understand that this was a first time event, but I am not kidding when I say that every other university that was affiliated with the program was more accommodating with their students than SLU.”

Noah Elbert, a SLU sophomore who was studying abroad at the John Felice Rome Center through the Loyola University Chicago program, commented on the effects the virus had on life in the city: “The only way that we have really been affected here … is through the temperature checks mandated by the government, checking for fever conditions … We also participated in a government mandated informational session on the virus put on by Loyola.”

Anna Burton, a SLU sophomore also studying at the John Felice Rome Center, elaborated on the anxieties the virus has caused, stating, “Everyone has been tense and on edge, especially since we get updates every hour about more programs sending their students back or rising numbers of cases.” 

Both Burton and Elbert agree that the virus seemed to have caused little concern in the local Italian population, and beyond temperature checks in some terminals and several train cancellations, there has been no major or evident interruption in the city’s daily life.

 “My personal opinion on the virus is that it is very much overhyped by the media, as many things are … I believe that this is a complete overreaction by universities whose members are not at risk really,” Elbert said on the subject of American universities’ reaction to the spread of COVID-19 and the cancellation of courses.

Burton expressed a similar skepticism of universities’ decisions, commenting, “From my point of view, I think it spreads panic and hurts the tourism and economy of the Italian communities to a stark degree. On the other hand, this is a public health concern and I understand wanting to put students health and safety as a number one concern.”

As of March 3, SLU also suspended all university-sponsored travel to countries with a Center for Disease Control Level 3 Health Notice, which includes Italy, China, South Korea and Iran. Additionally, the university asked all students, faculty and staff members to state their travel plans for the next month via a Google Form, stating that SLU will require any person who travels to a CDC Level 3 Health Notice country to be isolated at their home for 14 days before returning to campus.


Jennifer Cheun (on how SLU didn’t respond well or give much help) – “For instance, when I initially found out about the program cancellation, I called the emergency hotline that was on the study abroad website because that was one of the circumstances that was listed, and when I called the people on the phone, they said “try contacting a different department because we don’t know what to do.” I thought that was ridiculous because their number was listed for help in circumstances such as this, and they didn’t even have a clue what to do.”


(on whether or not cancellation of abroad programs justified) “I think that the universities have their students health as their main priority. I think that if they pull the program, they obviously feel like it is serious enough to where they need to cancel their program. It definitely is heartbreaking, and you’ll never have an experience like this again. With that being said,  I think that they wouldn’t do it unless it was absolutely necessary.”