In this series, the Messenger shares the stories of Oles who were abroad as the global coronavirus pandemic began. Imani Mosher ’21 describes her experience.
When did you leave for your semester abroad and which program were you on? When did you return to the U.S.?
I left on Jan. 18 for the Center for Global Education and Experience (CGEE) Southern Africa Program, and I returned on March 17.
When the COVID-19 outbreak began, was it something people were concerned about right away? Was there a specific moment where it became real for you?
Not at all. When the virus first broke out, I was not concerned, and I believe my peers felt the same way. It seemed so far away, and I never thought that it would reach me in Namibia. The first time I realized the coronavirus might be something I needed to worry about was when a friend of mine studying in Italy got recalled back to the U.S. But at that point, I still felt like it would never affect me. About two weeks later, my classmate received an email from her school recalling her back to the U.S. Then everything fell apart. Classes were paused, and everyone got really anxious waiting to receive the same email recalling them too. The staff worked hard to try to communicate with us, but it was very challenging to keep up with all of the new information. I did receive that email, and I had 72 hours to get back to the U.S.
How did your host school or program respond?
The response from my host school has been very disappointing. Throughout the entire process of being sent home, they did not do a great job communicating about what was going on or why they were making their decisions. I completely understand that nobody was prepared for this pandemic, but I wish they would have made it more of a conversation with us, the students, who were going to be the most impacted by their decisions. Instead, they sent me an email telling me I had 72 hours to get out of Namibia, with no support to find a flight or pay for it. Traveling home, internationally and alone, in the midst of a pandemic was the most stressful thing I have ever done.
What did your return home look like?
At first, I started to look online for direct flights from Namibia to the U.S. There were none. I began exploring flights from Johannesburg, South Africa to the U.S., and there were also none. At this point, I started to panic about how I was actually going to get home. I didn’t find a flight on the first or second day of looking, so I started to look at websites like Expedia which could kind of patch together a flight path for me. I booked a flight with three layovers through Expedia. After I booked, I started to have issues with the actual flight path and layovers and I could not find any correct information online. So I started to call the airlines, but of course, they were incredibly busy, and I couldn’t get a hold of anybody. I ended up going to a local travel agency to find out that after the next day, there would be no more international flights through any African airlines. I was getting one of the last flights out of the country.
My journey home started in Namibia waiting in very long lines for bag check and security. I was able to get on my flight on time, and to make it to Johannesburg safely. Once I arrived in Johannesburg, I went through a similar process with long lines and intense security, but no health checks, surprisingly. After leaving Johannesburg, I landed in Ghana. When we landed here I wasn’t prepared for all of the security that I was going to have to go through. After I went through regular security and re-checked my bags, I went through another security check before boarding, and I was given a plastic card to give to the flight attendants to verify I had a ticket and passport to be on this flight. Before any flight I was on took off, the flight attendants had a disinfectant aerosol that they would spray on the overhead bins. They just told us to close our eyes if we had contacts and to cover our mouths if we would be sensitive to the fumes. After I made it onto my flight in Ghana, I landed in Washington, D.C. and got on my connecting flight to Minnesota. Weirdly enough, on my entire way home I was never asked how I was feeling, and nobody ever took my temperature.
Have you felt supported by the office of International and Off-Campus Studies (IOS)?
St. Olaf offered me $500 upon returning back to the U.S., and they were also looking into getting more money back from insurance companies, which never amounted to anything. Other than that, I received plenty of emails from them, none of which contained any valuable information.
I just want to add that obviously coming home early from a once-in-a-lifetime study abroad opportunity is incredibly upsetting, and while the IOS Office sent me plenty of emails and gave me $500, that is just a drop in the bucket. Honestly, all the emails I get that are apologizing for the unprecedented circumstances, I don’t want them. I want real action. I want substantial financial support for all students. I want answers. I want to be part of the conversation.
How are you completing your classes? What is St. Olaf’s role in your academic transition?
All of my classes were moved online, and we still have weekly class meetings via Zoom. I’m grateful that my classes were able to continue, but with the significant time change, it was incredibly challenging to coordinate these meetings and maintain strong Wi-Fi.
Has being connected to two different countries impacted your understanding of the global pandemic?
Yes, yes, yes. First and foremost, the pandemic highlighted the privilege I have as an American traveler. Even while I had trouble booking my flight, I knew I would get home. And that’s not the case for everybody. I also knew that the U.S. would be far more prepared than Namibia ever could be for this pandemic. In conversations with professors who are native Namibians, they talked about how if, or when, the pandemic does come to Namibia, their hospitals would never be able to support the people that need help, so people will just start dying. So now, when I listen to and read the news about the numbers in the U.S., I’m always thinking about how our numbers will never compare to what will happen in Namibia.
This interview via email has been lightly edited for length and clarity.