UM Junior Describes Study-Abroad Students Fleeing Italy en Masse

The small Florence-Peretola airport could not seem to handle the influx of international students trying to leave the country.
The small Florence-Peretola airport could not seem to handle the influx of international students trying to leave the country. Photo by Fernando Lozano / Flickr
Before I even started college, I always knew I wanted to study abroad. Going into my junior year at the University of Miami, I decided I would spend a semester in Florence, Italy. Although I was no doubt influenced by its seemingly endless supply of pasta, pizza, and gelato, I was convinced, above all else, that the small, richly artistic city would be a safe place for me to call home away from home.

Although UM offers a number of study-abroad opportunities, I was set on Florence. Unfortunately, the university offers a program only in Rome. After exploring my options, I enrolled in Syracuse, which has the oldest program in Florence. I would be living in a homestay with an Italian family, which would no doubt make for an enriching and unique opportunity. The program was great from the onset and proved to be a truly immersive experience.

There were 342 students from more than 100 universities around the United States, including Bucknell, Colgate, and Harvard. I lived in a beautiful apartment with an Italian woman and her partner, who served us fabulous meals as we discussed the differences in our respective cultures.

Last fall, I spoke with friends who were forced to go home early from their own study-abroad program in Hong Kong because of the ongoing protests. Other acquaintances later altered their Sydney itineraries as a result of the tragic Australian wildfires. But when I arrived in Florence with my group in January, we had no reason to believe our program in Italy would be similarly interrupted. 

Shortly after arriving, I heard about coronavirus, but we students were constantly reassured that the virus was only in Southeast Asia. We were told Italy was proactive in prohibiting travelers from Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the outbreak. But our illusion of safety was shattered in late February during the celebrations marking the end of Venice Carnival.

After a wonderful weekend visiting Budapest, my friends and I were on the train back from Rome on Sunday, February 23, when we began to receive New York Times alerts about more than 150 cases of coronavirus erupting in the Northern Lombardy region of Italy, where Venice and Milan are located. Three days earlier, before the Venice Carnival and Milan Fashion Week, there had been only five cases throughout the country.

We heard stories about students in Milan locking themselves in their apartments — the schools had closed, and their city was a ghost town. Some were scrambling to get out before the city went under lockdown and barred people from traveling. But in Florence, we were not affected. Everything still appeared normal.

That night, after arriving home on the train, I received a text from my friend. Scouring Twitter for information, she learned people in hazmat suits were transporting a symptomatic individual from the Santa Maria Novella train station in Florence. We woke up the next morning to articles confirming the first case in the Tuscany region. Still, life went on as usual. I attended my classes for the day, learning Italian and art history. But more cases began appearing throughout the region.

On the evening of Monday, February 24, the students began frantically texting one another about NYU suspending its program in Florence. Initially, it was just a rumor, but around midnight, it was confirmed: NYU Florence was suspending classes until March 30. Students were told to be out of their apartments within two days and instructed to head home.

We woke up the next morning fearing we would receive an email from Syracuse with similar news. Instead, we were told the university would hold an optional informational meeting about the coronavirus outbreak at 12:40 p.m. During my Italian class, the teacher gave up on trying to hold a lesson; all we could talk about was the outbreak and whether our program was going to be canceled.

Before the meeting, we received another email pushing it back to 5 p.m. My first thought was that the program's directors needed more time to prepare and assess the situation.

The cobblestone streets emptied, and we heard the roar of sirens as morning turned into afternoon. Hospital employees in hazmat suits transported patients to a tent outside the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova. Everywhere I looked, I saw people in facemasks. Coronavirus was the only thing on people's minds. I went to my favorite salad-and-panini place, the Oil Shoppe, shortly after noon expecting a long wait. I was the only customer there — it was clear the virus had placed a stranglehold on Italy.

After much anticipation, it was finally time for our 5 p.m. meeting. Although it was optional, every student seemed to be in attendance. Because the small classroom couldn't accommodate such a large number of students, we moved to the campus courtyard. We gathered outside around a speaker system, initially laughing about the absurdity of what was happening. However, two minutes later, we were informed Syracuse was canceling the program after a brief six weeks. We would have to leave the country in the next five days or risk being quarantined in Florence for the foreseeable future. The students were dumbfounded. One even blurted out, "How am I supposed to fly home so last-minute... I can't afford that!"

People soon began crying as they tried to grasp they were being forced to leave Italy, where they had anticipated staying for four months. While attempting to find flights home and pack our suitcases, many of us started to worry about whether we would receive academic credit for the semester.

Though many people travel abroad for new experiences and cultural immersion, academic credit is just as important in order to graduate on time. We were assured we could complete the semester via online classes and assignments. University representatives also presented the idea of students returning to Syracuse's main campus in New York if they so chose, but many scoffed at that option.

I thought of flying to another country before returning home, but the fear of being quarantined ultimately crushed my dreams of traveling. I bought the cheapest ticket to New York City I could find, but just as I was boarding, the flight was canceled. I was stuck in Florence.

The small Florence-Peretola airport could not seem to handle the influx of international students trying to leave the country. Lines were not moving — it seemed every flight out was canceled without explanation. Without many viable options, I ultimately decided to fly to London and hoped to return to the States from there. Finally, after a long day of waiting, I departed Florence around 8:30 p.m. I rejoiced that I had made it out.

By now, it seems as though the majority of students in my program have made it home. Back in Florida, I am waiting until March 16 to begin online classes to finish the semester. Though Syracuse's decision to cancel our program seemed premature at first, I now believe the university made the right decision.

I thought I would be living in Florence until the beginning of May, but I am grateful for the small taste of Italy I was able to experience. More important, the other students and I worry about the future of Florence. We fell in love with the city and grew to appreciate its stores and restaurants that we could call our favorites. We just hope those places don't go out of business while the whole country is on lockdown, just as we hope Miami can endure whatever comes next.
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Naomi Feinstein is a contributor for Miami New Times. She is a rising senior at the University of Miami, where she is double-majoring in journalism and political science. She is also the managing editor of the UM student newspaper, the Miami Hurricane.
Contact: Naomi Feinstein