Studying Abroad During COVID

My study abroad experience was certainly atypical, considering the COVID-19 pandemic was unfolding during the early weeks of my program, which was supposed to last three and a half months in total. The situation with the virus has been changing rapidly, and my life in Costa Rica feels unrecognizable compared to my life in quarantine now. 


I remember anxiously arriving at the Seattle-Tacoma airport in early February where my flight for Costa Rica was set to depart at midnight. At first glance, the airport seemed normal. Admittedly, in my last-minute scramble to get my life together for my program, I had not been paying much attention to the news. I, of course, had heard of the virus, but like many, never imagined it could come to play such a huge part in my life in just weeks. I first learned that the first known case of the coronavirus had been confirmed in a man who had just days before me traveled through the Sea-Tac airport when my interest was piqued after noticing a couple of news stations filming and some people sporting facemasks and did a quick search from my phone while waiting at my gate. In the excitement of everything, I didn’t think much other than “thank goodness I didn’t travel that day,” and “ I wonder if I should have worn a mask”.


I kept an eye on my health for the next few days, and then quickly the thought of the coronavirus entering my home country, and my home state seemed to dissolve as I became immersed in my classes, the culture, and my new home.


Monteverde, the area I stayed in, is a tourist hotspot known for its biodiversity, sustainability, and opportunities for adventure tourism. Down a steep hill from the main tourist area is the town of San Luis, a rural farming town in which my campus was located, tucked away into the cloud forest. Life in this area continued on normally for the first month of my program with no confirmed cases in Costa Rica. I kept in touch with my family and looked at news about the virus during my rare free moments. While I worried about my family in Washington where the cases were increasing, I felt very removed from the situation. Progressively though, I started to get concerned, as I watched through social media as my friends in Europe got sent home from their programs. Next, there was a case of COVID-19 confirmed in San Jose, Costa Rica, hours from Monteverde. When we would visit Santa Elena, the main tourist area in Monteverde, all concerns we had about the virus seemed to be soothed by the normalcy of the area bustling with tourists. 


Then came the emails from colleges and universities. A couple of my friends were notified by their schools that they were being asked to return to the United States. While there were still under 10 cases in Costa Rica at that time, the gravity of this pandemic began to sink in for many of us on my close-knit 12-person program. We all rallied around our three friends asked to come home while our program director talked with their home universities, trying to figure out if they could stay, as our program had not yet been canceled. It was at this time where we all started to consider the possibility of having to leave. Who would be asked to come home next? Would our program be canceled? What was going to happen to this long-anticipated transformational experience that we had been anticipating for months? And most importantly, was it best to return home? What was the safest thing to do? In these conjuring times, it was hard to know.


It was at this time that our director started having meetings with us discussing the status of our program. Every couple of days we would walk into our open-air classroom in the middle of the beautiful cloud forest wondering if that day was the day we were being sent home.


The first day she told us our classes would go online, but we were allowed to stay on campus. The next meeting was about the statues of our planned one-month homestay and internship period, coming up in just a couple days. Those were determined to be safe, and we were to continue on with the program as normal, moving in with our families. Our internships were up in the air. 


As two of the three students asked to return home signed a waiver to stay, we prepared to say goodbye to our one friend who left to go home. We moved in with our host families. It was strange being separated from the other 11 people that I had gotten so close to while integrating into a family where I could only communicate through my broken Spanish. My peers and I stayed in touch through Whatsapp texting. As the first two days of our homestays went on, many informed our group chat that their universities had emailed them requesting that they return home. Confused by the lack of panic in our immediate surroundings and our perceived safety in Monteverde, combined with our friends who had been able to find a way around their college’s requests, we considered these emails mainly to be an extra thing to work out. At the same time, it was clear to me that concern was setting in ever so slowly. 


We all met up in town to use wifi at a local eatery to finish an assignment for our internships, a sign we took to mean that we would likely remain in Monteverde for the immediate future. During breaks between working we talked about how much safer we felt in Monteverde on a secluded campus than we would feel in our hometowns, trying to convince ourselves that we were in no danger of being sent home. We finished our assignments and started to part ways to return to our second dinner with our homestay family when my classmate Fayoni checked his email and told us the news. Our program was canceled, we were to leave Monteverde within a week. I can’t describe the feelings among the group that night as we texted our host families the news and that we would be going out for a last dinner in town together. We went to the beloved Bar Amigos, a Monteverde staple, where we had only gotten to enjoy one visit previously. Thoughts of everything I had wanted to do cycled through my head throughout the night. We all vowed to stay for the entire next week and check off items on our bucket list.


Our last week was a whirlwind. The next morning we were asked to return to campus without being able to say bye to our host families. This move was for logistical reasons. There were still few confirmed cases in Costa Rica, mainly within one family, and none were closer than a three-hour drive away from us. As the week went on, panic rose about the potential of flights to stop flying back to the United States and possible border closures. Many people’s flights were changed to shorten their remaining time in the country from one week to just days. Each day we did things that those having their last day wanted to do. While panic was rising, I was not so eager to be packed into an airplane in the current case. My life and the life of those around me had not yet been impacted by COVID-19 and I felt as though I was stepping into the real world and that mine had been false. Those of us who stayed the entire week did experience Monteverde as it changed due to the virus. Hours before a stay at home order was announced, my friend and I took our last trip from campus into town for some flight necessities. What we experienced was a stark contrast to the Monteverde we had known. The streets were empty with the occasional car, and many businesses shut down. 


The reality of the impacts of COVID-19 on Monteverde is drastic. The majority of employment in Monteverde is in the tourism sector, meaning the economy there is more drastically hit than many. Far from other towns, Monteverde is concerned about their food security. This combination has prompted many to begin to garden or farm their land, something once common in Monteverde that has seen a decrease in popularity as small scale farming could not compete with increasingly industrialized agriculture. Many people are learning traditional farming practices and planting native food crops. In my continued online environmental studies classes we talk about this pandemic as a hard hit to the economy, but one with the power to diversify it, and to improve food security, sustainability, and soil with the new farming practices. 


While this pandemic shortened my study abroad experience, I am left with numerous things to be thankful for. My online courses allow me to maintain my connection with a place I fell in love with and look critically at the social, environmental, and economic impacts of this pandemic on Monteverde. My host family and I, although together for only two days, continue to stay in touch. I have returned safely from my time in Costa Rica and I left dreaming of a future where it is safe for me to return.


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