Contributor News Writer
With college programs canceled, students struggled to get home during the COVID-19 crisis.
“I just needed to get back to the U.S.,” said Hannah Blackburn, an ISA travel-abroad student. “It’s one thing to be in Spain, it’s a whole other thing to know that you can’t get back out of a place once you’re there.”
Blackburn, a 20-year-old student from UNC at Wilmington, was in Spain for almost three months before her study abroad trip with ISA was cut short. She visited Seville, Madrid, Granada and Cordova while she studied Spanish and taught children English as a second language.
“I didn’t think it was that bad when I first heard about it,” Blackburn said. “The first time I heard about it was the day before I left.”
Blackburn said she wasn’t worried about the virus because she thought it wouldn’t spread. When things got worse in her area, she said no one was really doing anything about it. Restaurants didn’t have soap dispensers or soap, and some didn’t even have toilet paper.
“For me, it was like, we’re so worried about Coronavirus here, yet we can’t even implement the correct hand-washing procedures,” Blackburn said.
The weekend before she left, Blackburn was in a mandatory lockdown. Residents couldn’t leave unless they needed medicine, food or to go to work. Blackburn said she and her host mother spent the days walking around the apartment to get exercise.
“In my opinion, I think my school and my ISA program that I was with should have let us out earlier,” Blackburn said. “They should have sent us home earlier because the flights back home, a lot were canceled.”
Apart from the issues at the end of her trip home, Blackburn said her flights went as planned. Her friends dealt with canceled or delayed flights and difficulties getting home.
Katya Grebenyuk, a 22-year-old student from UNC Asheville, traveled to South Korea in mid-January to be a teacher for the next year in a boarding school. Grebenyuk said when she arrived, the virus was at its peak.
“We aren’t supposed to travel, eat out or leave campus for anything except necessity,” Grebenyuk said. “During lunch, we have to sit in every other seat, and we aren’t even supposed to sit next to each other in the teacher’s lounge.”
The school where she works took serious precautions and had strict health regulations, such as delaying the beginning of classes until April. She and all the teachers were required to have a health exam.
“The atmosphere is different for sure,” Grebenyuk said. “Here, people kind of look out for others. They don’t go out, not because they aren’t scared of the virus, but because of other people that would suffer if they get it.”
Compared to the states, Grebenyuk said the people are reacting differently to the regulations and restrictions. She said they respect the government rules and they truly want to stay healthy.
“It didn’t immediately affect any of my plans,” Grebenyuk said. “I had a one-way ticket, and I took my opportunity.”
Grebenyuk said she saw it like the flu and it wasn’t serious in the U.S., yet. She said her only concern was getting into South Korea because travel was so restricted. Grebenyuk plans to stay in South Korea and finish her year of teaching.
“Basically we just heard that we were going to be out of work for two weeks, and then they made the decision to cut all the college program people, all the international people, and all the people with professional internships,” said Emily Pettit, a Liberty University student working in Walt Disney World’s college program.
Pettit, an Asheville resident, said that guests found out about the parks closing before employees due to someone leaking the information on social media.
“They basically just said, ‘You have 72 hours to pack up all your stuff and get out,’” Pettit said. “Which for me wasn’t too hard, but it was really sad for people who were from China and Australia and Japan because first off, it’s not even that easy to get a plane ticket, and a lot of them couldn’t even get back into their own country.”
Pettit worked in the costume department and had a backstage role. She didn’t come into contact with as many guests as some of the other employees there, who interacted with thousands of guests every day.
“They had a lot of hand sanitizer stations,” Pettit said. “I feel like they had some signs in the bathrooms about washing your hands. Other than that, there were no precautions.”
Pettit said she thinks the CDC had the final say in the decision to cancel these programs, not Disney. She said because of the housing the employees lived in, there was no way to keep the virus from spreading from the workers into the parks.
“Literally, people took off a full semester of school,” Pettit said. Some of them were doing online school, but some of them took off full semesters.”
Between the four parks and the resorts, Pettit said there are more than 75,000 employees now without jobs. For her program, all the international students and internships, she said Disney cut around 10,000 students.
“If we can stop it and we can prevent it so it doesn’t get as bad as it did in Spain, so it doesn’t get as bad as it is in Italy, like all these really bad places, and we can do our part, then I understand it now,” Blackburn said.
After getting home from Spain, Blackburn said she and her friends didn’t initially understand why the U.S. was canceling school or restricting group activities. They thought the precautions made sense while in Spain because conditions seemed worse.
“I think this is a time for families to kind of grow and be what they were,” Blackburn said. “I think it’s a good time to also reflect and see what we have, rather than what we’re missing out on.”