56 Days in London: A Tale of Change, Absurdity, and Possibly, Hope
As one of the most exciting parts of the St. Lawrence experience, studying abroad is something that nearly every Laurentian looks forward to as soon as they arrive on campus. Most expect cultural shocks, language barriers, or academic challenges during off-campus studies. The universe, on the other hand, had other plans for us.
On January 17th, 2020, I arrived at London Heathrow Airport to begin the semester-long program in one of the most exciting cities in the world. Like thousands of Laurentians who have experienced the European metropolis before me, the first few weeks were filled with anticipation, excitement, and a bit of anxiety. Something as simple as the daily commute felt thrilling and the great unknown that was the city of London drove us to explore every chance we got. The courses, led by both American professors and European professors, were centered around the city of London and its great historical heritage, which helped us better understand and experience this unique culture. The city’s diversity, demonstrated by the languages, cuisines, cultures, and attitudes, affected each one of us tremendously. After a few weeks, as we overcame the challenges that living in a foreign country posed, we were able to settle into a routine. At the beginning of the month of February, it seemed as if we had overcome the most challenging part of the studying abroad experience and the rest of my time in London would be nothing but smooth-sailing.
Boy was I wrong.
It all started when we were introduced to the term “coronavirus” at some point in January. The message was simple: It started in China. It might spread. It could kill. Yet, as a group of college students with limited attention spans, it was quickly buried in the depth of our consciousness. As time went on, more news started coming in. Cases were popping up in Europe and North America and, at some point in early March, the Italy program was canceled.
(As I am writing this blog post on July 23rd, 2020, it is surprising how little details I remember from between January and March. On the other hand, nothing is that surprising in 2020 anymore)
As soon as Italy fell, it seemed as an evacuation for those of us in London was imminent. In the days leading up to our eventual departure from the UK, we received daily emails from both CISS as well as the administration updating us on what was happening on campus. The University did a tremendous job communicating with those of us who were caught in this storm of confusion and uncertainty. The faculty and staff who were with us on the other side of the Atlantic did everything they could to help us navigate through these unprecedented times. The program director, Ronnie Olesker, and the staff at 81 Gower Street, who were experiencing the once-in-a-lifetime pandemic like the rest of us, stepped into the spotlight and offered us some comfort by providing accurate information and mental health support.
So on March 13th, 2020, I was on an Air Canada flight back to Philadelphia via Toronto. I also need to mention that I am an international student from China so my return to the United States was just the beginning of a new chapter for my COVID odyssey. But that’s a story for another day.
So what did I learn from all these? Well, St. Lawrence University did its duty diligently as we had all expected and I am more than appreciative. Even after our return to the U.S., the university, as well as the faculty in London, provided support through zoom and the travel grant offered by the administration helped many of us financially during these unprecedented times.
“Any major life lessons?” Some might ask.
Well, I guess Jack Kerouac puts it quietly nicely in his book On the Road:
“I had nothing to offer anybody, except my own confusion”