In March 2020, Julia P. (IES Abroad Siena, Spring 2020 | George Washington University) found her study abroad experience abruptly cut short due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Between waves of new Covid variants, she returned to Siena in December 2021 to reunite with her host family and IES Abroad staff. In the following Q&A, Julia describes her emotional return, her deep connection to Italy, and her newfound sense of closure.
IES ABROAD: You studied abroad during one of the most unprecedented semesters in our history. What was that like?
Julia P: It was heartbreaking, but now after a lot of reflection, I’ve come to grasp how lucky I was. I was living out my biggest dream for myself in college, I made amazing connections, but it was all cut short in a traumatic and terrifying way. We all had a matter of days to pack up and leave the place we thought we would call home for the next two+ months and watched as the news reported thousands of deaths and increasing case numbers throughout Italy. It was hard, it was scary, and no one had any idea what our lives would become for the next year and beyond. I have great lasting memories and a sense of a deeper connection with anyone whose life was uprooted by Covid around that time.
IES ABROAD: Even though your time was cut short, were you still able to make friends and form connections during your time abroad? In what ways do you still feel like study abroad changed you/your life/your perspective?
JP: Definitely! Despite a shorter semester than expected, we were fortunate to get to experience at least part of a semester abroad and I would not have changed it at all. I think the most important connection I made was my host mom. She went above and beyond to accommodate me and my Celiac disease and was more than generous. I talk to her regularly and even my parents have gotten to know her. I am still in contact with a few of the other American students that were on my trip and it was nice to have them to talk through the tough times together. We are now all making the journey out of college which is exciting!
I was also super close with the student resident assistants in the Erasmus program. They helped plan great bonding events for us with other Erasmus students and other local students which allowed me to practice my Italian and for us to hang out with people our age from all over the world. Everyone was very kind and interested in hearing about what we were doing there. The IES Abroad team also have become friends of mine who I will visit for the rest of my life. (Pictured at right: Julia and IES Abroad staff during her recent trip back to Siena)
Lastly, I had my regular coffee bar, lunch spot, aperitivo bar, boutique store, and grocery store clerks who were essential to the whole experience. It was great to be able to revisit these places this past winter. My time in Siena really contributed to some of the decisions I’ve made now that I am graduating and I could not be more thankful for the time that I did get to spend there. Getting cut short is what has inspired me to just go do what my heart wants and take some time to myself. It showed my how to take time to do the things that bring me joy and I learned from others and their experiences.
IES ABROAD: Why did you choose to return to Siena to visit, and what was it like to go back?
JP: I needed to see my host mom. When I left her I said I would be back in three weeks. Instead, three days later, Italy entered a complete lockdown and as my host mom was over 60, I was concerned about her health. I had never given her goodbye and needed to see everything in person because for over a year and a half, I was unable to look back at pictures without crying and being sad for how things ended. Between her, my IES Abroad office, and my ‘usual’ stops around Siena, there was a lot that felt unfinished and after such a scary year, it was only right that I went back when it was safe.
Finally, in December 2021, I was fortunate enough to go back to Italy for about two weeks, four days of which I spent in Siena seeing my host mom, the directors from the office, and other friends I had made around the city. This trip was so incredibly emotional for me because it was in a sense the only ‘therapy’ that worked to fix the trauma we experienced when we left. I cried the entire hour-long bus ride from Florence to Siena because I was so happy to be back, and cried many more times when I reunited with everyone there. I got to go back to where we had our classes which was an incredible feeling, walked to all the places we would go out with friends, saw my waiter at my favorite daily lunch spot, and in a way, got to re-experience my time abroad at my own pace. It was all so familiar, it was hard to believe nearly two years had passed but it was so necessary. The way I felt being back was so intense and fulfilling that it’s difficult for me to express, so for anyone else that got sent home due to Covid, do yourself a favor, go back, and reset your memories. It was truly a way for me to finish that chapter of my life and prepared me to go on to the next.
IES ABROAD: Do you plan to travel abroad again in the near future, whether to Siena/Italy or another location?
JP: Yes! I am actually going on vacation to Italy, including Siena, in June! After I graduate this spring, I am also moving to Torino to volunteer with refugees and continue working on my Italian fluency while applying for dual citizenship. I have always had a deep connection to the country and language as it’s a major part of my heritage and I have family there. I stay in touch with my host mom, IES Abroad staff, and other friends throughout Europe so I hope to get to visit all of them. Travel has been a passion of mine and I can’t wait to experience even more places and cultures.
IES ABROAD: What would you say to students who are nervous about health and safety risks while studying abroad during a pandemic?
JP: Well, I’d say be smart and safe, but do it. Make sure that cases aren’t surging where you are going to or coming from, listen to experts’ recommendations, and be mindful of those around you. I am immunocompromised so I’ve taken health measures extremely seriously and I think that there are small things everyone can do to protect themselves and others. Prioritize those around you and their safety, and as long as you do that, you should be able to enjoy your time abroad.
"After I graduate this spring, I am also moving to Torino to volunteer with refugees and continue working on my Italian fluency while applying for dual citizenship." - Julia P., (IES Abroad Siena , Spring 2020)
IES ABROAD: Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?
JP: I truly cannot thank the IES Abroad team in Siena enough. They were incredible from the start of our time there before the chaos and were always so helpful and kind. We had such fun trips outside of Siena and great activities they organized for us. Even when things started to get crazy as Covid cases rose, they adapted our plans and did everything in their power to keep us safe and accommodate the uncertainty. They cared for us like they were our family and certainly will be in my life forever moving forward.
Learn more about IES Abroad's commitment to Health & Safety and check out our programs in Siena and Italy.