Whitman’s Off-Campus Studies programs struggle with coronavirus threat


Illustration by Anika Vucicevic

Abby Malzewski, News Reporter

The outbreak of coronavirus has impacted study abroad programs taking place this spring. This semester, 82 Whitman students are/were studying in 26 different countries.

The director of Off-Campus Studies (OCS) at Whitman, Susan Holme, gave some insight into the impact the coronavirus outbreak has had on Whitman-specific programs.

Fortunately, most study abroad programs our students are attending have been able to continue operations as usual due to their location,” Holme said. “We did not have any students studying in China this semester, for example.”

Two programs attended by Whitman students were suspended the week of Feb. 24 because of the outbreak of coronavirus in northern Italy – the Syracuse University Florence and the Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies program in Rome. 

The Italian outbreak is the worst one in Europe as of March 9, according to The New York Times. The United States Department of State elevated the Travel Advisory level for Italy on Feb. 29 to a Level 4 warning. The levels of travel warnings span from 1 (exercise normal precautions) to 4, the highest level (do not travel in this area). 

Claire Collins, a junior psychology major, was enrolled in the Syracuse University program in Florence, Italy. In an email correspondence with The Wire, Collins described how her program was shut down because of the many cases throughout Italy. It closed down even when there was only one known case of coronavirus in Florence.

“They gave us five days to find a flight home (or out of Italy) before we were no longer allowed to stay in our homestays,” Collins said. “I believe most, if not all, of the programs in Florence have been shut down and students have been sent home.” 

Additionally, the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) program in Seoul, South Korea, was delayed and then canceled before it began this spring semester. OCS was able to assist the one student who was planning to study in Seoul. With assistance from CIEE, the student was switched to a study abroad program in London, instead. 

Frenzy surrounding the outbreak has had an effect on most programs. The outbreak has even affected programs taking place in locations where coronavirus cases are not evidently present.

Delaney Harader is a junior film and media studies major studying abroad on the CIEE Prague program at the Prague Film and Television School of the Academy of Performing Arts (FAMU). In an email correspondence with The Wire, Harader explained how her program has been impacted by the mentality around the outbreak.

“The coronavirus has not affected my program at all, but the hysteria surrounding it has definitely taken a toll on some students and has made many people very anxious about it,” Harader said. “Because of the coronavirus we are not allowed to travel to Italy, and if you do travel to Italy you have to call a doctor’s office in Prague to receive testing.” 

Holme reported that financial assistance for flight changes is being provided by the specific programs that are being canceled or changed in some form due to the outbreak. These programs are also offering online courses so that the students do not lose credit.  

“The OCS office and the Whitman Registrar are supporting those efforts to help make a smooth transition for our students back home during these unfortunate and unusual circumstances,” Holme said.

Harader reported a different reaction when asked about how her study abroad program and Whitman have handled the situation.

“I think that my school in Prague has handled the situation relatively well. They have held multiple information and Q&A sessions about it and they send updates to everyone very regularly,” Harader said. “However, I don’t think that OCS has handled it well at all. They have sent OCS students one email, I think, and my parents were also not sent any information which worried them.”

The email Harader received from Holme on behalf of the OCS contained broad information and precautions about the outbreak.

“The main reason for this email is to give you important guidance about independent travel under these challenging conditions. The outbreak of the virus may or may not currently be present in your host country or locale but we believe it is important for all students, regardless of where you are studying, to practice preventative steps,” the email from Holme said.

Holme clarified that two emails were sent out to all spring 2020 OCS students, one on Jan. 31 and another on Feb. 27 (cited above). Additionally, students attending programs suspended in Italy were contacted more frequently. 

Collins shared how OCS has guided students in Italy through this process.

“Whitman and OCS have been pretty solid through all this. We, the other students in the Florence program and I, have received several personal emails from the OCS office about next steps,” Collins said. “They advised us to come home, but were pretty understanding about wanting to stay if we had arrangements. They were also very understanding about getting enough credits to graduate, and accepting whatever option Syracuse gave us.” 

OCS is still busy assisting students abroad and updating solutions as the outbreak continues.