Macias: Lost at sea with immediate assistance available…in 6-8 hours

Hannah Macias, Contributing Columnist

I have been looking forward to going abroad since I was in high school; although, I didn’t think the majority of that time would be spent sitting at home, barely allowed to go outside. I began my spring semester in the Netherlands, attending Maastricht University’s Psychology and Neuroscience program. I now find myself stuck in Rochester, NY, writing about how awful my experience this semester has been.

I feel as though I was thrown overboard, propelled by the request to return to the U.S. Case Western Reserve University’s Office of Education Abroad (OEA) threw me a life preserver, but it only kept me afloat for a few minutes. After which, I quickly found myself sinking under ticket expenses, a mandatory 15-day quarantine, jet lag, final essays, worry for my financial aid/scholarships, inability to receive credits and mental distress. 

My time abroad was some of the best in my life; however, returning to the U.S.—not even halfway through my program—was absolutely horrible. I reached out to other students who were abroad this semester to hear about their experiences. Among the students surveyed, there was an emerging theme that Case Western Reserve University left their students abroad to fend for themselves.

The U.S. called for a travel ban starting at midnight on March 13. I received an email from OEA at 6:50 a.m. Central European Time (CET)—the email had been sent at 12:50 a.m. Eastern Standard Time (EST), on March 12. OEA strongly requested all students abroad to return before the travel ban was enacted, giving us less than 2 days to find flights back home, pack up our rooms and notify our abroad university of our early departure. OEA informed us they would be available to help us manage the costs and change flights in case we had issues. 

I called my mom for help, telling her that I needed to be back in the U.S. by Friday night; however, she had not received an email about  study abroad students being recalled. In fact, no families were contacted that their students were being recalled, nor were some abroad universities. 

Lori Chan, a third-year at CWRU, was abroad at the National University of Singapore and stated: “I spoke to my university and they said that CWRU did not contact them; my university only knew about the recall because I reached out to them … CWRU did absolutely nothing.” In third-year Olivia Samson’s case, she was not even able to go abroad, as her program was set to start March 9, but was consequently canceled a few days prior. Samson was told by CWRU that they would reach out to her university for refunds, but she later learned CWRU did not contact her university abroad and put all the responsibility on her. “The study abroad office, in the end, provided no help with my situation except to inform me that my program was canceled,” said Samson, who is now faced with figuring out how to graduate on time as a result of her program’s cancellation. 

In hopes that OEA could answer my immediate questions, I asked my mom to call their office, as I was unable to with my Dutch SIM card. They were not available. There wasn’t even a recorded message on what study abroad students should do to return back, just a message saying their office opened at 8 a.m. EST. How can the university tell all their students abroad they must return home but force us to wait six hours until their office opens for assistance, despite stating only a few minutes earlier that they would be available to help us?

It did not take long for flight prices to skyrocket. My round trip price for four flights was originally approximately $1,000 when I purchased my tickets in November. However, changing these flights meant students were faced with paying $2,000 or more just to fly into the U.S., excluding any necessary connecting flights once in the country. I heard of some costs up to $6,000, for just two flights. Many families are unable to afford these costs, and having to wait six hours for OEA to open to ask for financial assistance only made matters worse.

Katlyn Baron, a third-year at CWRU, was abroad at the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid and worked hard to receive a refund for her ticket. She stated: “When I emailed Cami from the study abroad office, she told me that there were no resources available to help pay for a flight home.” After looking into the Student Emergency Fund, the Student Activities Fee COVID-19 Emergency Fund and sending email after email, Student Affairs responded “saying that they would only be able to cover the difference between my original ticket home cost and what I had paid to come home earlier … they were acting like there was a protocol for this situation (as if it would apply to everyone who studied abroad)”. Baron is the only study abroad student I know who was able to receive any sort of refund for plane tickets—a service that should be available to all students who cannot afford these expenditures. “Absolutely no aid was available for students who needed to book a flight home and didn’t have the funds to do so in the pandemic. CWRU emphasizes that everyone should have the opportunity to study abroad independent of financial situation but offered students no support,” Baron said.

The university further complicated the process of booking new flights by requesting students only take specific flights. Chan experienced this firsthand, as she endured a lot of pressure from OEA: “Dr. Miller continuously texted and called me until I changed my flight. I changed it to 12:30 March 24, but she still was not okay with this, and continued to call us until I changed my flight to 12:30 a.m. March 23.” Chan understood the urgency of the situation, but she experienced a great amount of stress and anxiety. Not only did the stress of changing flights impact Chan’s experience, but Dr. Miller “gave [her] a lot of false information and unwarranted pressure which [Chan felt] like she crossed the line with … [as] much of her ‘advice’ ended up being false and she created a panic, which during a pandemic, is the worst thing to do”. And again, these extra flights were not refunded. 

We were told that CWRU couldn’t provide financial assistance to us, and I tried to accept this as their fixed decision. Perhaps CWRU really didn’t have the money to pay for all emergency return flights. But of course they have the money, evident through Baron’s work to receive her refund. I am frustrated that students are seemingly expected to jump through all these hoops to receive refunds while other universities paid for their students to return home. Additionally, I learned that CWRU is still paying their undergraduate workers “regardless of their ability to perform their tasks.” I appreciate the university’s concern for students who normally work because they likely needed to work to be able to pay to attend CWRU; however, the fact that CWRU has the resources to pay their undergraduate working population but supposedly cannot afford to pay for their study abroad student’s tickets is, quite frankly, disrespectful. Fall semester, I worked four jobs on campus because I was saving money for my semester abroad as well as for my future at CWRU. If I were not abroad this semester, I would have benefitted from this payment. I didn’t take on all those jobs because I thought it would be fun to work so much, I needed the money to pay for my future. 

Another area of major concern for all CWRU students is qualifications for tuition refunds. Samson was unable to attend any classes this semester and should be entitled to a complete refund; however, she was faced with much opposition. As she was not in the same situation as other students abroad, when asking OEA about her refund, she was told that her “refund wasn’t as important as other students who were still trying to figure out how to come home. [OEA] implied [she] was being greedy and selfish … it’s completely inappropriate to assume all students at [CWRU] have the funds to just wait for massive loads of money (our tuition) to be refunded.” 

This cannot be overstated. CWRU treats its students disproportionately, pitting certain students’ situations over the importance of others. While there is understanding and empathy towards the employees at CWRU at this time, students should not be put in a position where they feel ashamed for wanting to know if they will qualify to receive refunds. Furthermore, CWRU is not aiding students who may not be able to receive enough credits to be deemed “full-time students,” which the university has stated will impact their aid packages and scholarships. Students should not have to suffer financially as a result of events out of their control. 

I found it incredibly interesting to hear about other students’ experiences abroad during the pandemic. Specifically, many students who were abroad in England had a different experience when having to return home. Instead of only having a couple of days to return home, students were given a week or longer to find flights and pack. Even with this extended time, students expressed much stress, stating: “It was an incredibly stressful time to not feel supported.” And, “It was an extremely stressful few days.” I appreciate CWRU’s concern for our safety abroad; however, they seemed to be more concerned with their liability to our safety than the actual safety of the students. Many students feared for their safety and their family’s safety upon returning to the U.S., due to the likelihood of contracting the virus while traveling. Additionally, some worried they were returning to a location less safe than the country they were leaving. One student stated: “CWRU threatened to have me withdrawn from CWRU while I was trying to figure out where the safest place to be was.” Students should not have to decide between their safety and their ability to remain enrolled at their university. Furthermore, many places in the U.S. were more dangerous for students than their host country, but students were still forced to leave. 

Now having adjusted back to life at home, it is only on April 9—almost a month after many study abroad students have returned home—that I received a follow-up email from OEA, inquiring about any support I may need. At this point, I feel as though it is too late to check-in with me. I truly do appreciate them reaching out to the study abroad students, but where was this support when our lives were turned upside down? Like all other students at CWRU, I received an email from my navigator on March 12 stating that they are available to talk; but it was obviously automated and impersonal as it focused mainly on transitioning to online classes, not about my transition back to the U.S., nor transitioning to online classes for my abroad university. Personally, I don’t feel support from these emails. I understand that writing an email one by one for each student is impractical, but the blanket emails about measures adopted by the university during the pandemic feel as though they’re just a requirement, not that the university actually cares for my—or anyone else’s—mental health or safety. The majority of the support I received during this transition came from my university abroad, my family and friends. 

While I am upset I had to leave the Netherlands earlier than planned, I am frustrated that CWRU’s reasoning for the recall is for the safety of its students. Now, New York has almost seven times more COVID-19 cases than the Netherlands. I am happy to be home, but I cannot help but feel I would’ve been better off staying in Maastricht. This entire ordeal has really brought light to how the university feels about its students. 

I was shocked to hear that I was one of the first CWRU-affiliated people to reach out to some study abroad students about their experiences—especially because I only sought to find out whether others’ experiences were as frustrating as mine, not on behalf of the university. I completely understand that CWRU was put in an extremely hard situation and most likely did not have measures prepared in case of a pandemic. That being said, CWRU has not treated its students with respect and has shown that they care more about the money we provide them with than the students themselves.