Former YHS Students Studying Abroad Forced Home Amid Pandemic

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Courtesy of Ella McNamee

Maddie McNamee, a junior at University of Virginia, had her study-abroad cut short.

Ryan Cole, Sentry Staff Reporter

It was three in the morning on March 12 when Topher Wagner, YHS ’17, learned he had only 48 hours left in the country that had become like his second home. After two months in Lugano, Switzerland on a study abroad program, the Virginia Tech junior’s future plans for his time in Europe came crashing down with an announcement from his program leader: he had two days to pack up his belongings and prepare to return to the States. This was all, of course, a direct result of the rapidly spreading coronavirus.

According to Wagner, Lugano is just about 45 minutes by train from Italy, a country which has been hit harder than most by the virus. In the weeks leading up to the mass exodus of American students studying abroad from Europe, Wagner noted that the trains running through the city were eerily quiet.

“The trains that were usually bustling and packed full of people had a lot less people. Every single person on the train was wearing a mask. They were spraying down all the seats,” Wagner said.

He vividly recalls a conversation with a train attendant during a ride in which he was the only person in the car.

“I remember the train attendant was checking tickets and he walked by, and Lugano is one of the last stops before you hit Italy. I was literally the only person on the train and he said ‘hey, you are not going to Italy, right?’” Wagner said.

Wagner was not, in fact, headed into the lion’s den, but 383 kilometers away another former Yorktown student was having her semester in Florence, Italy cut short.

“Our school literally sent us a message saying ‘Florence is fine, it will all be fine.’ That same day we got [another] message basically being like … ‘You need to come home. You can’t be in Italy,’” University of Virginia junior Maddie McNamee said.

McNamee was actually on spring break in Portugal when she was told not to return to Florence due to the severity of the virus.

“When I was packing up for spring break, people were kind of starting to freak out, but our school and everyone in Florence was like ‘oh it’s not really in Tuscany, it’s not in Florence.’ They let us pack up for spring break and didn’t really give any precautions like ‘hey you might want to pack up your whole life because you might not come back here,’” McNamee said.

Fortunately, she had the foresight to bring some of her valuables with her to Portugal, a decision that would make her eventual return to America much simpler.

“I was kind of unsure what to do, and then one of my roommates was like ‘you might want to take some of your valuables because you might not be able to get back in,’” McNamee said.

A common thread between Wagner’s story and McNamee’s story was that the situation escalated quickly.

“It all changed so fast .… It was definitely a lot to adapt to because the last week or so we were there, we were still living our lives pretty normally other than using a lot of hand sanitizer,” Wagner said.

“People in Florence really weren’t freaking out until the very last week … Everything was open for so long,” McNamee said.

Wagner and McNamee were just starting to get comfortable with their surroundings in Europe when they were dragged home.

“I feel like I was really cheated out of my time there … Right as we were being kicked out was when I was finally getting accustomed to everything around me. I had found my favorite coffee shops, my favorite cafes, my favorite night spots. Everything had just really started to fall into place and it was taken away really fast,” McNamee said.

In addition to being stripped of time in the cities they were living in, they were also forced to cancel future travel plans.

“I had already planned, or been planning trips to go to Amsterdam, Budapest, Austria, a week and a half in Greece and I think we were going to try to go to the beaches in France our last weekend there,” Wagner said.

Despite all the coronavirus canceled and all the disappointment it caused, neither McNamee nor Wagner let it fester and both spoke positively about their experience as a student studying abroad.

“I was still [in Lugano] for a full two months, which was pretty amazing … I think when you go on vacations you are only there for a couple days and because of that you don’t always get a lot of culture .… After two months I really did feel like Lugano, Switzerland was my new home,” Wagner said.

Both also plan to return to their respective locations once the world returns to normal, whenever that may be.

“I really want to go back after graduation and I want to live [in Florence] for a month after I graduate college,” McNamee said.

It is apparent that both students have been able to maintain a glass-half-full disposition about their experience studying abroad, but how COVID-19 will impact their future educational pursuits remains unknown.

“Yeah, It really threw a wrench into things,” Wagner said.