This year I had the opportunity to study abroad for an entire semester in the United Kingdom at London Southbank University (LSBU). Through the Knowledge Exchange Institute (KEI) study abroad program, I was able to travel across the ocean and begin my journey living alone in a city and country where everything was new and exciting. I was to be there for nearly five months, taking classes with students from England and other surrounding countries, and taking my free time to travel around Europe with the friends I made in my program and loved ones that flew out to visit me. It was my dream, but it was more than that.
This semester abroad was something I have planned for and worked towards for as long as I can remember. In high school, while I was touring prospective colleges and universities, one of the main factors I considered was the strength of their study abroad student programs. I worked tirelessly in school and in various jobs throughout the years in order to finish my degree early and to earn enough scholarships through the school to nearly cover the cost of my schooling abroad and enough of my own money to make up the difference.
When I finally arrived at LSBU in mid-January, I was unbelievably excited to see where this experience would take me. Though I, and many other students in my position, struggled with loneliness and the difficulties that come with starting a new school, once classes began, we were able to create meaningful friendships. I, for one, became very close with many people in my group that I would end up travelling with in my time in Europe.
In fact, within my first week there, I was able to fly to Paris, France, with another student to fix an issue with our visas. Over the following months, I traveled around the UK with KEI and a partnering tour company, Somewhere New, exploring England, the Scottish Highlands, Wales and even Spain with the new friends I had made.
I had plans to travel to the Netherlands, Hungary, Ireland, Greece and several other countries over my spring break and towards the end of the semester with friends and family that spent their time and money to come and visit me. Two of my friends were able to stay with me for a few days in London, but the night before our trip out of the UK, President Trump announced a travel ban on all European countries due to the spread of the coronavirus.
Fortunately, at that time, the UK was exempt from the ban, but fearing it would be much more difficult to return back to the United States, my companions and I canceled our flights and chose to spend their remaining time in London.
At this time, I was disappointed that our trip had been canceled and that many students in my group were being told to return home and even had their plane tickets paid for by their home universities, but I had no plans to leave London. All of that changed after a press conference by Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister of the UK, on March 12.
Johnson announced that, rather than promptly close schools and businesses like China, Europe and many other countries had done as a precaution, everything would remain open as long as possible in the hopes of cultivating a herd immunity. Shortly after, Trump announced that he would be extending the travel ban to encompass the UK as well. Though the ban did not include American citizens traveling back to the United States, I was warned by the directors of KEI and the study abroad department at EKU that the situation could escalate quickly, and I may be confined to London for the foreseeable future if I did not return home within a few days. With LSBU and EKU still open and no one directly requiring me to return home, I was faced with immense pressure of going back on my own dime and risking all the money I personally put into tours, plane tickets, room and board and the costs of attending LSBU.
Eventually, I made a last-minute decision to purchase yet another plane ticket and quickly packed up to return home. Thankfully, I was able to board the same plane as my friends and I did not have to deal with this difficult situation all on my own as many other study abroad students did.
As of right now, my financial situation is very unclear and I am still emailing and being put on hold for hours trying to contact people from the school, KEI, airlines, tour companies etc. in an attempt to get any money back that I can. As a college student about to graduate with no job and no financial security, this has been a big blow. Not only was my time abroad cut in more than half, but I have seemingly lost all of the money I put into this venture.
In my opinion, both Johnson and Trump responded poorly to the initial spread of the virus, although, I admit, I did not consider the situation as serious as it was right away either. By keeping travel, schools and businesses open as long as they did, I believe it not only gave the virus a greater platform to spread in these countries, but also caused a large amount of red tape and financial strain to be put on those from other countries looking to return home. I think that if Johnson closed schools initially and made more definite decisions, not only would less people be exposed in the UK, but the process of returning and still carrying on with my classes would have been much simpler.
This strain was only made worse by the ineffectiveness and uncommunicativeness of LSBU and KEI. In fact, when I left, LSBU was still open and refusing to allow study abroad students who left the country to finish their semester at home, although it has since moved to online. I had no idea whether or not I would have to withdraw from my classes or fail them. There was even talk of the possibility I could have to pay back my financial aid to the school for the entire semester if the situation did not resolve although the EKU study abroad department assured me they would do everything in their power to make sure it wouldn’t come to that.
The staff at EKU was by far the most communicative during this ever-changing process. I had several email interactions and ZOOM meetings with Jennifer White, the education abroad director, and Sarah Zeigler, the dean of the College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences, along with a few academic advisors to better understand the situation at hand and what my options were moving forward. I really appreciate their efforts in this, because for me and most other students in my program, KEI was not as helpful.
All 19 students in the KEI program at LSBU created a group message to share what we learned about KEI and the process of getting at least a portion of the money we put into the program back. We discovered that important information was only being shared with students that directly asked the program director or went around her to talk to other people in the program. Several students in the program were not attached to important emails regarding the virus and it was rumored that the money we paid for our dorms would not be refunded and was being used to house other students at LSBU.
KEI had also offered to cover the cost of students’ return flights, but only after many had already booked them or left the UK, and the refund process was confusing and ill-explained. Personally, I was on hold for over four hours with the insurance company through KEI on two different occasions and finally figured out how to fill out the online form myself. When I contacted the program director, she advised me to check her innumerable previous emails for the information, none of which contained the correct link, instead of sending me the information herself. It was a very frustrating process and I am still unsure that the flight cost will be refunded.
Only after one student’s father, who is a lawyer, directly contacted the president and managing director of KEI did we receive any concrete answer. The student shared the email with our group which explained that our $500 security deposits would be refunded directly to our home universities and it was up to them whether or not we would receive that money, and that any other refund for housing or anything else through KEI would be very little if any. This was not exactly encouraging.
Currently, I and the other KEI students remain in a state of ambiguity over any future developments over refunds. Right now, we are focused on finishing what is left of the semester online like in schools across America. Although this trip has come to an unbelievably maddening conclusion, I would still say the two months I was able to spend in Europe was one of the best experiences of my life. I don’t think anyone could have predicted the magnitude of the effects the coronavirus has had around the world although I do wish that many in power had been more prompt with their response.
I hope to travel to Europe again one day once the effects of the virus and my personal bank account have recovered.