Studying Abroad During a Pandemic: How It Started and How It’s Going?

Several students had to change their plans for studying abroad due to the pandemic

Sarah Jaworski at O’Hare International Airport on Jan. 6, 2020. (Photo Courtesy of Sarah Jaworski)

Sarah Jaworski, a junior majoring in occupational therapy was extremely excited to study abroad, which was the main reason she chose to study at Saint Louis University. Going abroad is a big decision. Jaworski flew out from Chicago on Jan. 6, 2020, and arrived in Madrid, Spain on Jan. 7, 2020. 

Sarah Jaworski (she/her/hers), Mary Tallett (she/her/hers), Pilar (host mom), Delanie Dumanlang (she/her/hers) and Hannah Bennett (she/her/hers). (Photo Courtesy of Sarah Jaworski)

She and three of her friends lived with a host mom, Pilar, near the metro stop Alonso Martínez. Jaworski made sure that she had her classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, allowing her to have a four-day weekend to travel and leaving Wednesdays open to explore Madrid. She was so excited to travel, she went to eight different countries, including Spain. She traveled to Valencia, Sevilla, Switzerland, Dublin, Galway, Morocco, Milian, Florence, Vernazza, Monteresso Al Mer, Pisa, Barcelona, Paris and London.

Delanie Dumanland (she/her/hers), Sarah Jaworski (she/her/hers), Mary Tallett (she/her/hers) and Hannah Bennett (she/her/hers) hiking in Italy on Monteresso Al Mer. (Photo Courtesy of Sarah Jaworski)

A couple of days after her trip to Italy, word began to spread about the new coronavirus. Many people didn’t know much about the virus due to a lack of information at the time, even though Italy would come to be an infamous hotspot. SLU students who were studying in Rome or any other places in Italy were sent home at the end of February. This left students who were studying in Madrid concerned. Anxieties and questions were raised: “are we going to be sent home?”, “is the coronavirus going to spread to Madrid?”, “what is happening?” Not much information was given by the government of Spain and both SLU Madrid and SLU main campus administration, so many students were going on with their lives and traveling. 

As mid-March arrived, many were planning for their spring break trips since students were able to get a whole week to travel! SLU Madrid sent an email stating that the university was not going to close. If students wanted to leave they could, but as of right now and for the future, SLU Madrid was not going to close campus down. Jaworski’s mom came to visit her during spring break and they planned to go to London! 

On March 9, SLU Madrid sent out an email stating that classes will be canceled for 15 days due to the coronavirus. All the students were excited to have more time off, but nervous about what this might mean for their future plans. Another email was sent out stating that we may not be able to travel outside of Madrid. Jaworski and her friends talked and agreed that they wanted to stay and planned to get an Airbnb around Madrid and stay if the school were too close. They were okay with not being able to travel outside of Madrid. 

On March 12, Wednesday night in America but early Thursday morning in Madrid, is when chaos rose. Jaworski remembers, “heading home from a night out”…”my best friend from home texted me that President Trump was going to close the borders (on Friday, March 13.) I thought she was joking.” On Thursday, March 12—the same day Jaworski got an email, SLU Madrid specified that they highly recommend all study abroad students go home. She stammered, “I thought that I could stay and keep living my life in Europe. I really didn’t think that we would have to go home because SLU Madrid kept saying that they were never going to close the school. No one is going to force us (students) to leave.” She was conflicted on whether to stay or not. So she texted her host mom, “If I were to stay do you really think that everything will be fine in two weeks? Her host mom expressed that Madrid is a safe place and that they have everything under control, there was no reason to freak out. As time went on Jaworski decided to book a flight home. For many students, flying home at the onset of the pandemic was chaotic. Everyone was trying to book their flight home and paid a hefty amount of money to be able to get home as quickly as possible before Trump closed the border. Luckily for Jaworski, it was easy for her to get a plane ticket home. She was able to pay a $150 modification fee to change the date of her departure to March 16 out of London. 

Since she and her mom already planned a trip to London they both flew to London on March 14 and Jaworski’s mom flew back to the United States that day. Jaworski decided to make the most of it and explored the city until she had to leave. On March 16, her departure date, she got to the airport four hours early. At the airport, since everyone was leaving and trying to get back to where they lived, the airport was asking questions before boarding the plane.

Jaworski in tears at Madrid-Barajas Adolfo Suárez Airport about having to leave Madrid. (Photo Courtesy of Sarah Jaworski)

Jaworski states that looking back, She was shocked that she was not wearing a mask on her eight-hour flight home. As students were flying home some airports such as Chicago were packed and it took hours to get through customs if you were flying in from Europe. Thankfully, Jaworski’s experience was not like that. Since she flew home on March 16, things were a lot calmer due to flying out a few days later than everyone else. She only waited in the customs line for about 30 minutes. Upon deboarding the flight she was asked numerous questions due to the virus.

As she arrived home she was not relieved to be back. Jaworski urged, “I was holding on to her (her host mom) words and I was going to hate myself if in two weeks everything went back to normal and that school would be back in session and I would be the only student back in the United States doing school online.” That feeling of thinking of the “what ifs” went away after she saw the news about Madrid and how Spain was handling coronavirus. Madrid was very strict, they weren’t letting anyone out of the house. Only one family member was allowed out and only to go to work, get groceries, to get gas, only the essentials were allowed. If you were seen out, you would get fined. She soon realized, “wow I’m glad I am home, I’m glad I had the privilege of and the resources to be able to afford a ticket home on such short notice, I’m glad that I have a family to come home to and to be protected by during this pandemic.” Jaworski and her family quarainted together after she and her mom arrived home.

Jaworski says that since she was sent home she feels that it sparked something in her. She wants to travel Europe again and she feels that she missed out on a lot and it’s been devastating to her. She states that she would love to ideally do a workaway program next summer after graduation, but as of now, she will not be able to go abroad during her time here at Saint Louis University-Main campus. She states, “it’s a lot of planning and it’s like a pause in your life, so ideally yes (going back abroad), but who knows.” 

“If someone is reading this and wondering if they should do it, if the spark is in you, you just have to do it. So many people say ‘I’ll travel after graduation,’ but I mean, after graduation you will be getting a job and other things that are going to tie you down, so there is no better time.”


Junior Catlin Clemmons wanted to go abroad for as long as she could remember, but her plans kept getting set back. After two semesters with COVID-19-related cancellations, she was finally able to go this spring. She is currently studying at Saint Louis University-Madrid Campus, majoring in health management with a minor in Spanish.

Traveling during a pandemic is stressful enough, but moving to another country is a whole different ballpark. Clemmons mentioned, “I think that the only thing I was nervous about was ‘would I get the same experience?’ and ‘what would this experience look like for me?’” The application process was a lot stricter and detailed than the previous semesters due to the pandemic. Students were getting numerous emails every week with documents they needed to read. They also had to register for various websites that would give them details about the current restrictions in Madrid. She said that students had to do a lot of work in preparation for the spring semester so that “the people that wanted to be here, wanted to be here.”

Risk and safety are big factors when it comes to traveling during a pandemic. An hour prior to students’ flight to Madrid, they had to provide a negative PCR test in order to board the plane. Clemmons’ roommate was a couple of hours off and had to pay almost $300 as she scrambled to get another test and flight for the next day. On Clemmons’ first flight, every passenger had a row to themselves and she said it felt very clean and safe. Whereas on her second and final flight to Madrid, they were “packed like sardines.”

Clemmons’ host family lives on Grand Via, right in the city. For this semester housing protocols are different. Only two students are allowed to live with a host family and each host family also has its own COVID-19-related rules that the students must respect and abide by. “When we come in the house, she would always ask for us to put hand sanitizer on our hands. We keep the windows open, sometimes when we’re not here, or if we can during the day. She also would like us to respect the curfew and if we’re going to stay out we do need to let her know. This is something that she stresses heavily.”

Going abroad during a pandemic brings new restrictions and protocols than in previous years. For example, “if you’re out past curfew, or if you’re out and you weren’t supposed to be, there is a €600 fine. The curfew and restrictions change every week.” Clemmons mentioned that it is recommended that you check COVID-related websites frequently because they give detailed protocols to follow. “There’s also the mask mandate all the time unless you’re eating or drinking. There are no large groups of more than 4-6.” These rules are for the overall country of Spain, but there are protocols the students must follow within the university as well as their host family homes.

Clemmons has mentioned numerous times that Spain is big on windows and airflow. At SLU Madrid, “the windows in the classes have to be open”…“But, the thing is here, they like a lot of ventilation, they think that that helps. So that’s one thing that they’re doing that SLU did not do at all.” On-campus, the mask mandate is also required unless you are actively eating or drinking. Clemmons indicated that SLU Madrid students are not getting randomized COVID-19 tests as American SLU students are, but before entering the school there are random daily temperature checks. There is a doctor on campus that the students can easily reach to get a free test, which makes it easy to get a test if you want it.

When it comes to exploring outside of Madrid, students are somewhat on their own. Students are allowed to leave Madrid and travel to other places and countries but, “if at any point the border in that place closes down, for any reason, it’s on you.” Researching the places you want to go and their restrictions and protocols is extremely important. “It does get tricky because yes, they may be open now but they may close within three weeks for whatever the reason may be”…“But, you can still take day trips to the little villages, you can plan to go other places, you’re totally at free will, it’s just you have to look at the fine print and hope that the border doesn’t close on you.”

Clemmons advises future generations of study abroad students to take the opportunity because there is still so much to do when in Spain. “There’s so many day trips you can take and the borders are opening and closing every second so you may not be able to go right away or have those big planned trips but if you look into it and do your research you can.” She beamed, stating “I am very thankful for the experience and I think that if somebody can take it now during the pandemic or without the pandemic, they totally should. It’s very eye-opening.”


As the spring 2020 abroad program came to an end, this left questions for future study abroad students; “am I going to be able to go abroad?”, “what’s going to happen now?”, “it’s my only chance to study abroad, what do I do?”. 

Sophomore student Peyton Marinelli, studying nursing, wanted to study at Saint Louis University-Madrid. She started the application process late February of 2020 and completed everything before the March deadline. She has always wanted to study abroad and explained, “I wanted to see how different countries do clinicals and how they do their health care system to see the difference between different countries.” As nursing students they were allowed to go abroad only during their sophomore year. Marinelli chose to study abroad during the fall semester of 2020. 

On March 27, 2020, The Office of International Services sent out an announcement regarding COVID-19 and Fall 2020 Study Abroad. The announcement included, “SLU is proceeding as planned for Fall 2020 study abroad.  We will evaluate all programs by June 15th.  Although we are hopeful that these programs will run in the Fall, we cannot predict if this global pandemic will have subsided by then.” As students were holding on to the hope of being able to go back abroad many were unsure whether or not they wanted to go or not. Marinelli was one of those students who was debating on if she was still going to go abroad or not. She is diabetic so that played a huge factor as she is more susceptible to COVID-19. Marinelli declared, “this is a once in a lifetime experience, and I really wanted to go.” There were a lot of factors to consider if you were a student who wanted to go abroad during a pandemic. She knew that if she were to go abroad in the fall, she wasn’t going to get the full experience. She wasn’t going to be able to travel to other countries and not be able to do the typical study abroad activities that past students were able to do. With the uncertainty of not knowing what the decision was going to be, all SLU fall 2020 abroad students were given approval to sign up for both SLU Madrid class as well as SLU main campus classes.

On July 17, 2020, Rebecca Bahan, Director of International Services sent an email update stating, “It is with a heavy heart that we must announce that Saint Louis University is canceling all SLU-approved international short-term and semester study-abroad experiences for the Fall 2020 semester.” 

As Marinelli read the email that was sent to students, she was upset and was looking forward to studying abroad. She was lost for words, she emphasized that studying abroad at SLU Madrid was one of the main reasons she came to SLU. She indicated, “it is really hard to study abroad in nursing anyways, anywhere, usually you have to do it over the summer.” Coming to SLU it gave Marinelli the opportunity to study abroad during the academic year rather than during summer. She was upset but understood that this was a huge decision to make, she knew that SLU was doing their part and making sure everyone was kept safe. 

Marinelli ultimately decided to not go abroad during the spring semester due to having a full workload. If she were to go abroad during spring she knew that she wouldn’t be able to enjoy herself and get the full experience. The only other option would be if she went in the summer. She is not certain she would like to do that because she was looking forward to doing the skills lab which she took in the fall here on SLU main campus. She wanted to be able to get the experience and learn how other countries like Madrid do their skills lab. If she were to go in the summer she would only be able to take Gen Ed’s.