Coronavirus outbreaks worry students studying abroad, while colleges suspend some overseas programs

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CHICAGO — Grace Palmeri of Aurora decided to study abroad in Florence this semester to learn more about her Italian heritage and immerse herself in the culture of her ancestral homeland.

But just as the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign student began acclimating to her new life and routine overseas, a recent spike in the number of coronavirus cases ignited anxiety and fear across her host country: Authorities reported 400 confirmed cases of the new virus in Italy earlier this week, a 25% increase in a period of about 24 hours.

“There aren’t as many tourists, and more and more people are wearing masks,” said 20-year-old Palmeri, describing the scene in Florence, the capital city of the Tuscany region in central Italy. “The local supermarkets are selling out of masks and hand sanitizer, and my roommates and I have stocked up on all cleaning supplies for at least the next few weeks. … I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little concerned about the recent outbreak of the coronavirus, but I am doing everything I can to stay safe and healthy.”

While Palmeri and her roommates have decided to forgo a planned trip this weekend to Milan — a northern Italian city that has born the brunt of the viral outbreak — she has no intent to return to the United States until her program ends as scheduled in late May.

Yet an increasing number of colleges and universities are canceling or suspending overseas programs in the wake of the recent coronavirus epidemic, which originated in Wuhan, China, and has sickened tens of thousands globally.

Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., announced early this week that it has suspended any university-related travel to China, South Korea, Iran, Italy and Japan, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified as nations where there’s a higher risk for contracting the virus.

“The university’s public health committee will continue to monitor CDC updates, will take additional steps if any countries are added to the list, and will notify the campus community of any changes to current practice,” the university said in a written statement.

Northwestern University officials said one of their students was studying abroad in Florence as part of a program out of Syracuse University in New York, which evacuated all students from Italy earlier this week citing the threat of coronavirus. The Northwestern student is returning to the United States to complete her coursework, said Sara Tully, director of the Global Learning Office at Northwestern.

She added that the vast majority of Northwestern students study abroad in fall and summer quarters.

“We haven’t made any decisions about our summer programs yet, and we do have three that take place in China,” she said.

The University of Chicago has temporarily closed its campus in Hong Kong and center in Beijing, with programming postponed or relocated, and the university has also relocated to London a spring quarter program that was originally based in Hong Kong.

“The paramount goal is maintaining the safety of faculty, students, staff and visitors,” said University of Chicago spokesman Gerald McSwiggan, adding that the university hopes to resume these programs as soon as conditions allow.

Palmeri is one of about 135 University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign students who are studying in Italy this semester. While the university canceled study-abroad programs in China earlier this year, administrators say they haven’t taken similar action on programs in Italy.

“We continue to monitor State Department and CDC guidelines, and we are prepared to respond if threat levels rise in any area of the world,” said university spokeswoman Robin Kaler.

Nationwide, a growing number of colleges and universities have recently pulled students out of higher-risk countries due to coronavirus fears.

New York University declared earlier this week that it would suspend operations at its campus in Florence and begin holding classes remotely on March 2, urging students to leave Florence, according to a university statement.

Florida International University earlier this week immediately restricted any university-related travel to Italy, Singapore, Japan and South Korea; any students or employees on university business in those nations were told to return to the U.S. immediately.

As for Palmeri, she says she plans to continue studying in Florence unless her university or host institution advises her to leave. Despite the viral outbreak, she says her time abroad has been “amazing,” from dining on pasta and gelato to visiting Renaissance churches and cathedrals.

“This isn’t the ideal situation and I, of course, wish it wasn’t happening the time we are all studying abroad,” she said. “I think the only thing we can do at this point is do whatever we can to prevent this virus and be as careful as possible.”


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