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Lessons From an Interrupted Semester Abroad

Photos by: Ingrid Brioso Rieumont; Carmen Chen ’21; Roger Chen ’21; Risa Gelles-Watnick ’21; Emma Harlan ’22; Sydney Johnson ’21; Julie Kim ’21; Grace Masback ’21; Marissa Michaels ’22; Hristo Papazov ’21; Leonela Serrano ’22; Robert Shi ’21; and William Svoboda ’22.

By Mary Cate Connors, Office of International Programs

In early 2020, 160 undergraduates — the largest number in recent memory, according to Gisella Gisolo, director of the Study Abroad Program — left Princeton, New Jersey for destinations across the globe. As students began classes at institutions in 25 countries, they met new friends and classmates, joined clubs and sports teams, and settled into a daily routine. Just weeks later, with coronavirus hotspots emerging globally, host universities suspending campus operations and countries starting to enforce nation-wide lockdowns, the University asked students to return home. 

“When we realized that we were no longer facing a localized emergency, but rather a global crisis situation, we had to act accordingly,” says Gisolo. 

The team in the Office of International Programs, in close collaboration with the Global Safety and Security unit — who were all working remotely from their own homes — worked to facilitate return plans, financial assistance, and logistical and academic support for the students, who were facing significant disruption. “Our team communicated with host programs, providers and campus partners to ensure that students would be able to complete their coursework as best as possible and would receive academic support and logistical assistance during and after the abrupt departure,” says Gisolo. 

Despite the challenges, students were swift and resilient with their actions. “We cannot but commend our students for their cooperation during what was a difficult experience,” says Gisolo. “For all of their understandable disappointment, students manifested incredible maturity and fortitude throughout the process.” 

Although their long-planned semesters abroad were cut short, students still found ways to reflect on and appreciate their time overseas. From adapting to new social and academic situations to pursuing their true passions and learning to live with the unknown, undergraduates recounted the lessons they learned during an unprecedented semester abroad.

“I learned about my priorities while traveling and pushed myself out of my comfort zone, especially with all the new friends I made. It put into perspective the breadth of experiences available for life beyond Princeton, and made me excited to explore the world, meet new friends and chase that feeling of awe that I studied abroad to find. When I’m back in Europe — and Budapest — I will appreciate the opportunity to be there even more.”

– Kyle Barnes ’21, AIT Budapest

“I came out of study abroad better than I came in… I learned how to put myself out there. At first, I was scared I wouldn’t be able to adapt to a new school where I had never been and only knew one person. But I decided to just go for it: I became an active member of the lacrosse, volleyball, and Catholic societies and befriended my classmates. Making friends improved my confidence and resulted in memories that I will never forget.”

–  Gabbie Acot ’21, University College Dublin

“Just the fact that I studied abroad amidst all this craziness in the world and was able to return back just fine [was] a learning experience in itself! I learned how to calmly deal with all of this and be an independent adult. I also found that I was able to adapt quickly, and loved learning about new subjects.”

– Yedoh Kang ’22, Queen Mary University of London

“I am a far more flexible person that I imagined. Even before being recalled, study abroad required me to give myself grace and adapt to a new culture and style of living which was quite different from home. Studying abroad has gifted me with more compassion, grace and flexibility for myself and others. Especially with all the stress and tensions surrounding the coronavirus, I found myself reacting by holding space for myself and others, and emphasizing being in the present.”

– Leonela Serrano ’22, UPCES Study Abroad in Prague

“I really enjoyed the short time I had abroad. While it was definitely difficult at first, I was able to come out of the program more confident in myself socially and academically. The tutorial system really helped me to be more autonomous in my studies. I was able to teach myself the material before coming into tutorials, and that’ll be very useful to me in the future.”

– Julie Kim ’21, University of Oxford, Worcester College

“Don’t be afraid to pursue the things that make you happy, even if they don’t always go your way.”

– Wesley Wiggins ’21, University of Cape Town