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Study Abroad Turns to Study at Home

By: Katelyn Diaz

Retiro Park on March 7. (Photo courtesy of Katelyn Diaz)

March 7 marked the day I would stop being a teenager forever, it was my 20th birthday and I was in Europe. I think back to my years of being enchanted with the fashion from Paris, the food from Italy, the dancing from Spain, the boys from England and now here I was closer to my childhood dreams than ever before. That day also signified another event, the last day that things felt remotely normal for all of us studying abroad.

Over the next couple of days, we had to pack away all of the memories and come to terms with losing out on the memories we had yet to make.

I woke up every morning with the sun peeking through the large window beside me and would have breakfast in the cafeteria if our 3 a.m. talks did not force us to sleep in. We took daily walks, made coffee runs and wrote amateur poetry in one of the many neighborhood parks.

I still remember the first time we went out with another international student from our residence and felt that we had just made a friendship for life within moments of talking. Henrique from Brazil, Sydney from Jamaica, Eduarda, Tiago and Bruna from Portugal, people with different experiences who told jokes I did not quite understand. There was never a dull moment as we learned from each other and spent nights laughing together.

San Miguel Market in Madrid. (Photo by: Katelyn Diaz)

We were all meant to be in Milan the weekend of my birthday, but angry phone calls from our parents convinced us it was not safe.

“At least Spain is still fine” is all we continued to repeat. I think it’s important to note that although we were all aware of the severity of the coronavirus in Italy, in Spain things still felt calm.

The following Wednesday we went to see a movie and about half way through it, because of my excessive habit of checking my email, I saw a message recalling all SUNY study abroad students. Although, it didn’t come as a total surprise to us, leaving a city we had fallen in love with was still devastating.

The tears came quickly, partly because of the animated movie in front of us, but mostly because of the sad news we had just received. After that everything changed at the flip of a switch and the panic set in.

We had to change our flights as quickly as possible, but the website was crashing constantly. We had to pack up our rooms while continuing online classes that we didn’t even know if we would be able to continue taking back home. On top of all that Trump announced the US would suspend all flights from Europe into the United States. It didn’t help that our residence was left with only 4 girls, the ones whose homes were more than an hour away.

The more girls that left the residence, the more precautions they began to take. Common rooms were locked now and utensils were given to us in plastic bags. The smell of hand sanitizer filled all the rooms and we were constantly advised to avoid going outside. There was something more and more fearful to face as the days went on. This wasn’t the spontaneity we signed up for.

As quickly as we had arrived in Spain, we were back in New York. Our new friends made sure to message us asking if we landed and what it was like here. I didn’t know how to explain to them that it was a side of New York I had never seen. I remember them telling me how their dream was to come to New York and at least we were going back to a safe place.

It was far from recognizable.

The empty streets of Time Square and the empty store shelves instilled a sense of panic in a place I’ve always admired and found strength in.

I got the freedom that I craved and a new college experience after 2 years of just studying, but they were stripped away. A piece of me still remains in Spain because I couldn’t finish what I had started, but it’s better to “Stay Safe and Stay Home.”

Toledo, Spain Link to a video of our last few days in Madrid, Spain:


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