By Shaun Robinson
I think the first time I realized how the coronavirus might change my study abroad experience in London this spring was when I went to a Brexit celebration.
It was, in fact, the Brexit celebration, organized and headlined by the Brexit politician, Nigel Farage, on the night of the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union. My friends and I were there among thousands standing before the Houses of Parliament as Farage counted down to 11 p.m. on Jan. 31, when the breakup officially took place.
I remember having a lot of thoughts that evening, not the least of which was,“Is it even a good idea to be in such a large group of people right now?”
For the first time in London and in my recent memory, I thought twice about spending time in public and around so many other people.
Fast forward a month and a half, though, and I’m sitting in New Jersey, several days into two weeks’ self-quarantine, with my study abroad program brought to a premature end at the hands of COVID-19. I can’t say I didn’t see this coming — because we all did — and ultimately, I think the university made the right decision to send its study abroad students home.
But it sucks. I didn’t want to come back so soon.
As February progressed and talk of Brexit (and Megxit!) died down, the virus rooted itself as the top story in every British newspaper (spare some headlines, briefly, about a controversial new high-speed rail project). Europe was quickly becoming the center of an increasingly global outbreak, and it was all anybody could talk about at any point in time.
Coronavirus-related posters started popping up everywhere, with questions like “what are the symptoms?” and “how do I protect myself?” Emails from Boston University London also became increasingly more concerned for our health. Bottles of medical-grade hand sanitizer appeared in our buildings, and that romantic, cheap weekend travel around Europe was becoming less realistic — even dangerous — as border closures became a possibility.
On March 4, BU told us we could leave London early if we wanted to. Most students chose to stay, but the fact this choice now existed made it clear how little time we probably had left. There was added uncertainty for the students on our program from other colleges and universities, whose time in London was also subject to the whim of their home institutions.
Exactly one week later, President Trump announced the government was going to suspend most travel between continental Europe and the U.S.; the UK and Ireland were added to that proclamation a few days later. Americans were excluded from the ban, but international travel was becoming more difficult.
From our dorms in London, we knew this had to be it.
Sure enough, that Friday (which just happened to be Friday the 13th), BU emailed us with “the difficult decision to cancel the residential component of Boston University’s Spring 2020 Study Abroad programs in London.” We were to vacate the country within a week under extenuating circumstances, and could not return to Boston.
The next few days were surreal. Some students packed up and left almost immediately, while others, like myself, took a few days to hang out. Some are still there milking every last second.
My feelings were a messy combination of stress and disappointment; there’s nothing fun about changing flights at the last minute. Plus, going home meant missing out on internship experiences, which was just starting out in the semester.
Then there was the disappointment of leaving a city and a neighborhood we were all remarkably privileged to call home for two months. On the day I left, life in London was definitely changing, but in many ways still felt normal. It’s difficult to notice the effects of a pandemic, one of my friends said, because disease itself is an invisible disaster.
I was fortunate to have an easy time flying out of the U.K., and even more so, fortunate to come home healthy. When I landed at Newark Airport, officials took my temperature and had me fill out a health form. Other than that, the process was fairly routine.
All is not said and done, though; just like other BU students, my London peers and I will be using Blackboard and Zoom to finish what’s left of our coursework. Since our professors are based on another continent, it’s going to make this more challenging, but we’ll see how it goes.
Yet, even if I could (and yes, this is going to sound cheesy), I would not change my decision to study in London this semester. I had a fantastic time. And if I’m being honest, the fact it took a pandemic to dampen my spirits is a testament to how fun it really was.
Shaun Robinson was the editor-in-chief of The Daily Free Press for the Spring 2019 semester.