March 4, 2020

GUEST ROOM | Arrivederci, Roma

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As one of my professors put it, “Italy is always great love or great sadness.” This past week was one of the craziest weeks of my life. I had been studying abroad at John Cabot University in Rome, Italy through Academic Programs International (a Cornell affiliated program) since Jan. 13, yet everything was about to change.

Landing in Rome from a weekend trip in Zurich, Switzerland on Feb. 23, my phone turned on to a New York Times notification that there was a COVID-19 outbreak in Northern Italy: 50,000 people in 11 towns were in quarantine with over 100 infections. Trying to keep my friends calm so their temperatures wouldn’t rise for the airport’s exit screening, I kept quiet until we got in a taxi home.

Going to school the next morning, my first professor was very upset by the hysteria around the whole situation. He emphasized that aging people and those with weakened immune systems were the ones at risk. He also spoke about the economic implications the panic would have for Italy and the country’s lack of preparation. Milan is Italy’s second largest city and is the business hub of the country. Lombardy is also an industrial hub, and quarantined “red-zone” towns have turned into ghost towns. Many companies would have to shut down operations due to the outbreak, ultimately devastating Italy’s economy. One New York Times article stated that “[e]very day of quarantine results in a loss of 50 million euros for the local economy.”

On Feb. 25 at 10 a.m. we found out that our program’s excursion to Siena — only two hours north of Rome and four hours south of the infected areas — had been canceled “out of an abundance of caution.” My roommates and I had planned to leave for Siena a day early for one of their birthdays. We contacted the hotel that we booked to ask for a refund.  Their answer was simple: they were not in the infected area and “Italians love to make a fuss of everything.” The hotel implied that Italians were overreacting and had over-tested by testing those in healthy condition with no symptoms.

The same morning, we found out that on the night of Feb. 24 all New York University Milan and Florence students were told to return to the United States immediately.  Syracuse University and Fairfield University students in Florence followed. Then, on Feb. 26, we learned that Sacred Heart and Stonehill College students had to leave our university in Rome immediately, despite the lack of cases in Rome.

Luckily for us, our study abroad program (not home university) seemed committed to keeping us in Rome and at our university. They said three conditions would send us home, whether in isolation or together:

  • An elevation in the Centers for Disease Control alert level from a 2 to 3 for Italy;
  • An elevation in the U.S. State Department advisory level for the country to a 4 (“do not travel” status);
  • A recommendation from the Italian or U.S. governments for an evacuation or immediate departure for foreign visitors or U.S. citizens.

We were excited to hear the news and very hopeful that we would stay in Rome.

The night of Feb. 27, we learned that Cornell in Rome, the Architecture, Art, and Planning program, was shut down and students were to return to classes in Ithaca. We still hadn’t heard from Cornell, as we were in Rome through an independent study abroad program.

At any second, though, anything could happen to us: Our school could be shut down, our home university could force us on a plane home, the borders to Italy could be closed or, like the towns in the North, we could be put into quarantine. On Feb. 24 and 25, we prepared, stocking up on frozen food and pasta in case we were told not to leave our apartment. The grocery store was eerie; hand sanitizer and wipes were gone and food sections were depleted. A friend studying abroad in Florence sent me photos of completely empty pasta shelves in a grocery store — unheard of in Italy. You could not travel north of Rome without passing through an abundance of guards. Quarantined towns in Lombardy and Veneto’s “red-zones” were surrounded by policemen, not allowing anyone to enter or exit.

Surprisingly, though, life did go on. Cafés were still bustling, classes were still happening and we were trying to soak in every last second of our abroad experience. There was no emergency in Rome — not yet, at least. The Italian students in my classes were shocked to hear that people were being sent home from Italy due to the circumstances.

On Friday at 11:36 p.m., my friends and I learned that Italy’s risk rate had increased to a level 3. We knew this was one of the conditions that would force our program to suspend operations, and we were devastated. At 2:51 a.m., the news was official: Our program was temporarily suspended, and we had to evacuate the country by March 6.

Absolutely heartbroken, we began packing the next day.  My roommates and I weighed our options as we awaited the answers to many questions. How would we get credits? Should we study for our midterms that week? Did we have to return to the U.S. or could we move somewhere else in Europe?

Ultimately, the decision to return to the U.S. was made for us. Saturday night, we enjoyed our last Italian pizza as our parents watched an update from President Donald Trump back in the U.S.  My parents — who have always been very adamant that my next move was completely my decision — texted me, “Get a flight out of Italy, tonight.” It was 9 p.m. and I had not finished packing a semester’s worth of things.

Trump had raised the risk level to a 4 in Northern Italy, meaning the borders to the U.S. could close any second, and the entire country could become a level 4 at any time. We quickly paid for our pizza and scrambled to book flights home. I was the first to leave, flying home from Rome at 9 a.m. the next morning, three months early — not the ending I had imagined for my semester abroad.

Back in the U.S., Cornell informed us to self-isolate for 14 days before returning to campus. Although the University originally said they would work with us if we wished to return to classes, on Tuesday I was informed that if my program failed to offer online classes I would have to take a leave of absence from the university. You can only imagine the added stress this put on me.

By Wednesday, all of Italy was deemed a level 4 by the U.S. The Italian government announced plans to close all schools from March 5 to 15, and John Cabot University announced they would be offering online classes, which Cornell would accept for academic credit.

Our university in Rome was still open for Italian students and other four-year students until March 5. Ideally, Italy’s risk level will go down and my program will be reinstated, but for now, I sit at home, completely healthy but in self-isolation.

Thank you, Italy, for the best 50 days of my life. I do not regret my choice to study abroad in Italy for a single second. I will never forget the memories I made and the people I met.

Emily Addis is a junior in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management. Comments may be sent to [email protected].