Trinity graduate cuts study abroad short because of virus concerns


Leah Stuckwisch was spending the semester abroad in Nice, France, and enjoying spring break in Italy.

Suddenly, the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis junior realized everything around her was different.

In Milan, security was turning people away from the last fashion show, but she and her friend, Jillian Jerndt, didn’t think much of it.

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The next day, in Venice, there were few people along the canals and alleyways, and a touristy plaza was full of people wearing masks while celebrating Carnival, a festival event that serves as a final party before Ash Wednesday and Lent.

Stuckwisch, a 2017 Trinity Lutheran High School graduate, then read an article sent to Jerndt about coronavirus. She texted her father saying, “Call me when you can. It’s not urgent, but it’s kind of urgent.”

“Not knowing exactly how to move forward, we went into every pharmacy and store to look for masks and gloves. Every place was sold out, so we settled for a chocolate bar,” Stuckwisch said. “Both of our parents advised us that we were fine for the night and we should just lay low and evaluate the situation and see how we were feeling in the morning.”

They learned there were only two cases of coronavirus in the Venice region, but they woke up the next morning and agreed to leave.

“My study abroad program advised us that it was OK to continue traveling but to exercise increased hygiene precautions,” Stuckwisch said. “We traveled with hand sanitizer and wipes. We would wipe down everything when we got on a train, bus or plane. That night in Venice, we researched it a lot. Granted, there was not as much information about it then, but we were told that it wasn’t as big of a concern for people our age.”

They then traveled by train to Florence, where there were no coronavirus cases.

“Every morning, we would try to get an update on numbers, but we knew that it was something we should panic about but just exercise the caution we needed to,” Stuckwisch said. “We knew that being informed was the best way to keep us safe. I never felt unsafe abroad. It felt honestly like home.”

When they returned to France, though, they were advised not to travel outside the country.

“We watched many people in the Milan programs get sent home and places going on lockdown,” Stuckwisch said. “We saw the numbers rise from 200 to 500. Then the next thing we knew, the numbers were over 1,000. There were less than five cases in Nice, and they were all quarantined. I never felt unsafe in the fact that I was concerned about getting the virus. I was more concerned about borders closing.”

Stuckwisch and Jerndt received an email from Indiana University supporting their decision to cut the semester abroad eight weeks early.

“I struggled with this decision for several days,” Stuckwisch said. “At first, I had the attitude of ‘I am not going until they kick me out.’ It’s hard leaving something that you spend so much money on and a place you felt was home.”

Stuckwisch’s friend was supposed to come over to visit March 12, and her parents were to arrive March 16.

On March 11, she told her parents to cancel their trip because she felt she needed to come home to Seymour.

“This decision was the hardest to make,” she said. “I remember telling people I wish that someone could make the decision for me. I mean, who wants to leave someplace that’s always sunny and 60 degrees that’s on the Mediterranean? I made this choice on the fact that my roommates were going home, so I would be living by myself, my friends were all going home and all of my travel plans in the future had to be canceled.”

Her original plan was to fly into Indianapolis on March 17 so she could spend the weekend doing some last-minute exploring, eat at her favorite places and say goodbye to a place that stole her heart.

At 2 a.m. March 12, though, she learned about the new travel ban that would be in effect at midnight March 13.

As she searched for a flight home, nearly every major airport in the eastern United States had full flights or the prices rose dramatically, some as high as $3,000.

“I finally said, ‘What about Canada?’” she said. “I got on a flight into Toronto from Paris. My parents were absolutely incredible and said that they would drive up and get me from Toronto. I had less than four hours to pack up my apartment and say goodbye. Jillian and I took a seven-hour train to Paris on (March 12), spent the night and parted ways on (March 13).”

Having eight weeks of living abroad being taken from her, a last-minute plane ticket and all of her classes going online were big adjustments, Stuckwisch said.

“But I know that the Lord has guided me through all of this, and all I ever needed to do was trust in him to get me through, and that’s what I did,” she said. “Every morning I was abroad, I would wake up and say, ‘It’s you and me, God.’ By saying this, it helped through the culture shock, the homesickness and the everyday struggles.”

While she once questioned if this was the right choice, she’s now assured it was.

“I received an email from our program March 15 that our program is going all online and everyone needs to be out of their housing by the 21st. I also saw news articles of all schools are going online, and the only thing staying open in France is public transportation, gas stations and grocery stores,” she said. “These assured me that I made the right decision to come home. Also, some countries are shutting their borders, too.”

Once she returned home, she self-isolated.

Meanwhile, she continued taking the same classes: Beginner French, business ethics, intercultural management and international marketing. For the remainder of the semester, they will be virtual classrooms through Zoom.

“It will be interesting to see how these virtual classrooms work,” Stuckwisch said. “My classes were always under 20 students, so that is helpful. I am not typically one to like online classes, as I feel like I learn more in the classroom setting, but we are all just trying to make the most of it given the situation and remain positive.”

The time difference will be the biggest adjustment, she said.

“I have classmates all the way from California to the East Coast, so trying to make these classes during French times will be a struggle, but hey, we would not have studied abroad if we were not adventurous,” she said.

Studying abroad is not for the faint of heart, she said.

“I am not going to lie, these last eight weeks have challenged me in ways I never thought possible,” she said. “Culture shock is a very real thing. For most people, it lasts about two weeks.”

She said she spent hours in the grocery store Google translating everything, had to convert Celsius to Fahrenheit to cook, couldn’t run the oven and stove or washer, dishwasher and shower at the same time, had to hang clothes out to dry only during certain hours and struggled to communicate when ordering food.

“It was like a deep dive into the unknown,” Stuckwisch said. “We were all constantly tired because our bodies were processing everything going on. After this phase became normal, a lot of us hit the homesickness phase. It felt like we had two weeks after that to travel, and then midterms came. After that was spring break, and the whole virus concern started.”

The key to studying abroad is flexibility, she said.

“If you miss a bus or train, you have to figure it out by yourself. If a pandemic happens, you navigate that,” she said. “Life will throw you any curve it can, but you have to be flexible and adapt.”

Studying abroad also taught her independence.

“There’s just something about being in a different country where you do not know the language, your parents are a six-hour time difference and living with people you just met that will completely rock your world,” she said.

“I would be lying if I said I loved every minute. I can say that I appreciate every minute of it, though,” she said. “It made me learn to take care of myself when I was sick, navigate a whole other language when I was looking for food and come to completely love a new culture.”

Stuckwisch is double-majoring in marketing and international studies at IUPUI and plans to graduate in May 2021.

“I do not have any set plans for after college, but I have worked a lot with a nonprofit, EDGE Mentoring in Indianapolis, as an events coordinator, and I hope to continue working in the events sector,” she said. “I have been offered a part-time job from EDGE to continue working for them. Right now, I am trying to focus on adjusting back into the American culture and getting everything on track after a crazy eight weeks.”

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