Pandemic scrambles plans of students abroad

Apr 6, 2020 by and

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As COVID-19 precautions transformed life around the world, college students studying and serving abroad worked to return to the U.S.

Eastern Mennonite University’s spring cross-cultural group in Colombia and Guatemala experienced rapidly changing plans and two border closures, leaving them unable to leave Guatemala on a commercial flight.

Fourteen students, two children and group leaders professors Laura Yoder and Peyton Erb spent a week waiting at Seminario Anabautista Latinamerica (SEMILLA), which was empty due to staff being sent home.

A U.S. government-sponsored flight returned the group and other U.S. citizens to Miami on March 24, and most of the EMU participants returned to the Harrisonburg, Va., campus that evening, while a few others took flight connections directly home.

Canadian Mennonite University

Participants in Canadian Mennonite University’s Outtatown Discipleship School faced a similar situation in Guatemala. The group was unable to return to Winnipeg, Man., when Guate­mala banned all flights from North America.

The 36 students, six leaders and two program staff had been studying and serving in Guate­mala since early January and were initially scheduled to return on April 2.

When the virus pandemic began to escalate, the group booked flights home for March 18 so that they would not contribute to a strained healthcare system in an outbreak scenario.

However, those flights were canceled by the airline a few days before they were to leave. Students passed the time in a large house in San Pedro Las Huertas.

Many students “are more capable and willing to put others before themselves now than at the start of program,” wrote site leader Luke Wahl in a CMU release. “Many came into this year looking to grow, to be challenged, to leave their comfort zones, and this is a perfect experience to further that learning.”

CMU worked with the Canadian government to develop a re­patriation plan, and the group returned March 27 on a chartered commercial flight for Canadian citizens.

Goshen College

Goshen (Ind.) College study service term students in eight Ecuadorian provinces found themselves clustered at the appropriately named El Refugio retreat center near Quito after that country imposed travel restrictions and closed airports the weekend of March 14.

Goshen College students in Ecuador relax at “El Refugio.” — Goshen College

Goshen College students in Ecuador relax at “El Refugio.” — Goshen College

“As we all process here the reality of our lack of control . . . we have again been reminded of the need to put into practice the training for uncertainty we have been walking through together on SST,” wrote group leader Andrew Hartzler on March 19 on the group’s blog. “. . . God has been good to us, and we have seen the work of the Holy Spirit guiding, carrying and shepherding us through.”

Six students were able to leave March 20 with seats on a charter flight to Miami offered by Mara­natha Internacional. Three European students were repatriated individually to their countries. By March 21, airline tickets were booked for the remaining 12 students and their leaders.

A group of 16 Goshen students studying in Tanzania returned to their home countries of the United States and Germany the weekend of March 21.

“We praise God for the grace and mercy we have been shown throughout this week and for all the support so many have given us,” said Jan Shetler, director of international education.

After a 14-day self-quarantine, the students plan to return to online Go­shen classes. In a situation playing out in similar fashion on other campuses, a number of international students are also continuing to live on campus because they are not able to return to their home countries.

Bluffton University

Most Bluffton (Ohio) University international travel takes place in cross-cultural experiences during May and August. May trips to Germany, Arizona and Kentucky have been moved to later in the summer, and Greece has been canceled.

An August experience in Guatemala is still scheduled.

Two Bluffton students were studying abroad in programs separate from the university in the Netherlands and New Zea­land. Both returned to the U.S. by March 20.


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