Italy Study Abroad Experience Halted by COVID-19


Junior Colleen Wright stands in front of the Colosseum in Rome, Italy. Photo submitted by Colleen Wright

Written by Annelia Nixon, Reporter


  Some students, like junior Colleen Wright, who were supposed to be studying abroad last semester, ended up attending zoom meetings at 3:00 a.m. instead.

  At the start of last semester, Wright was studying at the American University of Rome in Italy, and she was supposed to be there from Jan. 20 to May 12. However, it was early March when she found herself back home in the United States.

  Although Italy was one of the first COVID-19 hot spots, Wright said she wasn’t worried about being sent home when the virus first hit the country.

  “About a week and a half before leaving, the Lombardy region in Italy started seeing a few cases popping up,” Wright said. “At that time, we did not have any concerns in southern Italy, and we were assured by everyone our professors, classmates, and our advisors that it was not going to affect our semester.”

  She also contacted the director of the Study Abroad Program at UCM, Matthew Chiesi, after hearing rumors that international and exchange students would be sent home. She was once again assured everything would be okay. She followed the instructions of her International Studies Abroad advisor and went about her days as normal.


Photo by Victoria Cimerman

Italy reached a level 3 advisory at midnight, Feb. 29. Wright said she was still not worried. Three hours later, she was woken up by a phone call from her mother telling her that her program had been canceled and she needed to return home. She immediately burst into tears. Wright then received an email from her host school, alerting her she had four days to leave the country and that non-residents would be denied healthcare if they stayed. 

  The next day, Wright spent time shopping and visiting landmarks with her friends. She wanted to make the most of her last day in Italy. Then, on March 1, she was back in the United States.

  “Around 5:30 a.m. with an hour of sleep, I got a taxi to the airport,” Wright said. “I flew from Rome to London, to Chicago, to KC, where I was greeted by my mom and again immediately broke into tears.”

  Wright’s family had planned to meet up with her in Rome once her program ended in May. They were going to travel together until June 3. However, those plans were also canceled, leaving Wright even more disappointed. 

  “It was hard to be around my family because all I could think about is how the next time I was supposed to see them was when I would be picking them up from the airport in Rome,” Wright said.

  Wright’s mother Christine Opatrny-Yazell said, “I was also very sad that we would not have our planned shared travel at the end of her study abroad. We’d spent months planning it together along with her step-father. It is travel we will probably never be able to do together.”

  Leaving Italy so suddenly created a new challenge of transitioning back to life in the United States.

  “Overall, and I know this may sound dramatic, but I am still not over getting sent home,” Wright said. “I do not regret going to study abroad because I met amazing people and got to live in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. However, it was a really hard adjustment to come home, especially because I was not anticipating it for another 3 months.”

  Wright explained she had already adjusted to Italy. She knew how to get around and how to communicate with the locals. Italy is where she had met some of her best friends. 

  “When I came home, it seemed like that all was taken away from me, literally in a day,” Wright said.

  On March 3, a few days after returning to the states, Wright wanted to visit her boyfriend because of her high emotions. That served as another challenge. She said during the first 12 hours of being with him at his school in Indiana, she had to leave because his university sent out an email telling students who had been in contact with anyone who had traveled to certain foreign countries, including Italy, within the last fourteen days to quarantine.

  “I knew it was vital for her to have social support as she mourned the loss of her experience, so I insisted she visit,” Wright’s boyfriend, a student at Earlham College, Austin Burt, said. “She was grieving over the loss of opportunity.”

  Since returning home, she said she has received an outpour of support from the Study Abroad Office at UCM and is extremely grateful for having visited Italy even though her trip was cut short. As far as classes go, Wright’s host school had an extended spring break, and when classes resumed, she took them online. She said it was tough because of the time difference between Missouri and Rome. Her experience has not discouraged her, and she is looking forward to studying abroad again, hopefully in summer 2021, if allowed. She doesn’t know where she wants to go yet, but she’s thinking somewhere in Europe.