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Notes from Abroad: From one epicenter to another, Gabbie Holtzman returns to the U.S from Milan

Statue outside Catholic Parish Church Gran Madré Di Dio in Turin

When COVID-19 spread across the globe, many St. Olaf students were still studying abroad. In this series, The Messenger will share stories of Oles who were abroad as this global pandemic began. Gabbie Holtzman ’21 shares her experience of coming home from Milan, Italy, a previous epicenter of the outbreak. 

When did you leave for your semester abroad and which program were you on? When did you return back to the U.S.? 

I left to study abroad on Jan. 12 for the program in Milan, Italy. I studied with the IES (Institute for the International Education of Students) Voice, Composition & Instrumental program as a Voice student. I was expecting to be there until May 21, but left for the U.S. on March 3.

Italy has seen so much tragedy during this pandemic. What was it like to be there during this time and how has it been seeing Italy in the news since returning to the U.S.? 

The whole situation felt like different stages of grief. Myself, my friends and Italy seemed in denial of what this virus was capable of… I lived on one of the main shopping roads, to see it go from packed all of the time to the empty Piazza del Duomo was a shock. 

The first two weeks of being back to the United States were mainly filled with international news of COVID-19. How countries were failing to prepare — Italy being among the worst in Europe. This news was incredibly hypocritical seeing where the United States is in the rankings of death toll and infected [cases]. Italy was a lot calmer about COVID-19 than the United States. There was still toilet paper in the markets, and if a market ran out of pasta for a day, there would be a restock the next morning.

When the COVID-19 outbreak started, was it something people were concerned about right away? Was there a specific moment where it became real for you? 

I wasn’t very worried when I heard the outbreak had reached the suburbs of Milan, but when schools shut down I became anxious.

The moment it became real for me was in conversation with my host mom when she said Italy would not be experiencing normalcy for the next few months, and that the Italy that I’ve grown to know would not come back while I was supposed to live there… I had heard airlines canceled direct flights from Italy… starting on March 3rd. So, I took the last direct flight out of Milan to the U.S. 

As things progressed how did the culture, community and the country around you respond? How did your host school or program respond and was St. Olaf in contact right away? 

My host culture and program were very collected concerning the pandemic. IES was adamant about continuing some courses under the radar. … Voice professors and other advisors were meeting as normal with students to make sure not to get too far behind due to classes being canceled. 

St. Olaf was great about connecting right away. The emails from the IOS (International and Off-campus Studies) office checked in with academics and personal well-being to make sure we felt safe. 

There was a lot of miscommunication and lack of information in emails to the students in the IES program… we had no idea until about midnight the night before that class had been canceled. The burden was then placed on professors to cancel lessons or distribute homework online.

How was your experience working with the International and Off-Campus Studies (IOS) office? How much time did you have to return home? 

Working with the IOS office went mostly smoothly. I think that since Italy was the first of the abroad programs to return to the U.S., we had the advantage of having advisors and Jodi Malmgren at our full disposal. I had one week to decide if I would return home… I was given the ultimatum of returning home, or at least booking a flight, or staying and not receiving support. I was under the impression that they [IOS] would help me to seek money back from my program — since we had not even reached a halfway point yet, and none of the field trips through the program had commenced yet. However, now I am facing the possibility of maybe getting $500 back for the semester. I work hard to pay for my own schooling, so coming home and experiencing less than half of my stay in Italy was heart-wrenching and I felt betrayed by the idea that I wouldn’t receive any compensation for my financial loss either. 

What did your return home look like? 

I wore a breathing mask the majority of the trip — to protect those [within] breathing distance on my flights. Before we got on our flight to New York, our temperatures were taken. When I saw their red hazmat suits, I’m sure my temperature spiked. I became anxious that I was somehow infected — even though I had already essentially self-quarantined. When I landed in New York, there was no one there to ask where we had been. No one to take our temperatures. We went through customs as normal and I proceeded to my connecting flight to Minneapolis. I had been anxious for my last two weeks in Italy before leaving, but as soon as I landed in Minneapolis, I felt relieved. Little did I know that the anxiety would come back as COVID-19 spread even further across the globe.

How are you completing classes that you were planning to take abroad? How has this academic transition gone for you? What has St. Olaf’s role been in your academic transition? 

I am completing online classes. It’s difficult because a lot of my classes were centered around community engagement hours and voice lessons. Having a professor play piano on one end of a Skype call and you singing on the other end is almost humorous. St. Olaf checked in to see how my professors were adjusting to my schedule in Minnesota. They wanted to ensure that I would still graduate on time. 

Are there significant differences between the U.S. and Italy’s responses?  Has being in two different countries during this time impacted your view and understanding of the global pandemic?

I think both countries reacted firstly in one of the stages of grief: denial. The United States is having a much longer period of denial than Italy… I had adjusted to life back in Minnesota when people started to erupt against the pandemic and began to lose the world around them and their normalcy. It was concerning to see the differences in staying positive in Italy in the face of mass hysteria versus the negativity in the U.S.

I had to stop watching the news altogether and avoid social media…There isn’t one person who hasn’t been impacted in one way or another. You’d hope there would be some sort of solidarity in that, and I think there has been some, but the negativity is unavoidable. 

Is there anything else you would like to add? 

I am very privileged to have studied abroad in the first place, and to even have one day with my host family in Milan. I hope that I do not seem ungrateful because I am [grateful] for every minute I was able to immerse myself in another culture. 

This interview via email has been edited for length and clarity.