Letter to the Editor: COVID-19 reveals shortcomings in IPO’s crisis preparedness

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COVID-19’s effect as a global pandemic extends far beyond fears of catching the highly contagious illness — economies have tanked, unemployment has risen and schools and businesses have shut down for an indeterminate amount of time. Among those impacted are study abroad students who have been forced home despite their excitement to learn in a new country for a whole semester. As a result of my program’s suspension (DIS Copenhagen), I was sent back to the U.S. after just two months in Copenhagen, Denmark.

As hard as it was to say goodbye to wonderful Copenhagen, I wish I could say that the process of going back was easier.

At the beginning of March, after hearing about emerging COVID-19 cases in Denmark, DIS advised all students to take precautionary measures including attendance of info sessions regarding safety and the usual advice to wash your hands, cough into your elbow, etc. The International Programs Office (IPO) was aware of the situation but did not force us to come back immediately, unlike many other universities who mandated that students go home. I thought that I was very lucky to have an option to stay. Then everything suddenly sped up. Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen cancelled all public activities for two weeks starting March 11, and soon after, DIS suspended its program. At the same time, I was already two days into a mandatory 14-day quarantine in Copenhagen after exposure to someone who tested positive. 

On that day, IPO checked up on me to see how I was doing. This was one of the only times they reached out. 

I began to search for flights back to the U.S. as soon as I was out of quarantine. The flight I booked for March 24 was canceled. I booked flights again, twice: both canceled. In all cases, I was unable to receive a refund nor was I able to rebook a flight. I called IPO to express my concern, and they advised me to contact the airline (an impossible feat because of the mass number of calls airlines were receiving). I ended up spending $2,000 with no actual booked flight. I was one of the last study abroad students in Europe with no way home.

Besides stressing over flights, I was worried about the large financial burden of plane tickets and the rapid spread of cases in the U.S. I quickly began thinking of other options, one being to stay in Denmark until it was feasible to go home. I again emailed IPO March 20 with concerns over my flight cancellations and asked whether it would be possible to stay in Denmark. However, a staff member at IPO notified me that I would be violating three different Oxy contracts if I were to do so and asked me to return home as soon as possible. This blunt email response was forwarded to the Dean of the College, three other IPO staff members and my parents. 

I felt an immense amount of pressure to return immediately to avoid violating contracts and possibly getting my credits revoked. I did not even consider the skyrocketing price of tickets at this point. I realized that IPO would not be able to help me book my flight home so I decided to do my own research with the help of DIS and my parents. My parents and I, out of urgency, almost impulsively paid for a $2,000 flight before switching to one for $600. Amazingly, this flight did not get cancelled and I was able to get back home March 23.

I am frustrated by how my situation was dealt with. I did not receive any advice from IPO, nor did I receive reassurance that I would even be able to get back home. Rather, I felt guilty and embarrassed for expressing my current concerns and suggesting that I stay in Denmark. 

After this stress-ridden journey back to the U.S., I decided to look into the details of the study abroad contracts to see which terms I would have violated. I noticed that some of the terms left students unprepared and with few options in case of an emergency (such as a global pandemic). Being aware of the terms in the contracts, instead of blindly signing away our names as most of us do, may help us as students be more aware of Oxy’s role in study abroad. 

Furthermore, I urge a revision of the Agreement to Participate form which states that “Occidental College cannot be responsible for additional travel costs or expenses that may result from airline schedule changes, delayed or changed arrival or departure times, flight cancellations, natural disasters, crime, weather, illness, or other unforeseen events.” This statement restricts Oxy’s role in helping students in order for the school to avoid liability for these finances. 

More importantly, communication with students abroad is essential, especially during an emergency. I am grateful that IPO reached out to me during my quarantine, but they did not contact me further about details of going home. I understand that there are 49 programs to coordinate and hundreds of students studying abroad every semester. However, this does not excuse inadequate support from Oxy. Although our current global situation could not have been foreseen, students should have maximum resources available in crisis situations, especially from their college — a place that most of us consider to be our second home and a place of comfort for four years.

Maybe it’s time to reconsider how Oxy can best support students abroad in times of crisis.

Chiaki Ma is a junior Urban & Environmental Policy (UEP) major. She can be reached at qma@oxy.edu.