Gabby Pardo is a former Opinions Editor at The Statesman. She studied abroad in Florence, Italy through Stony Brook University, but came back to the U.S. due to COVID-19 spreading rapidly in Italy.
When I hopped on my flight from New York to Milan on Jan. 26, I was hopeful and ready to explore a whole new world. While riding the train from Milan to Florence, I was eager to discover and learn more about Italian culture and life in general. But what was supposed to last a whole semester lasted only five and a half weeks.
Instead of watching the sunset at the hilltop of the Piazzale Michelangelo and tasting the fluffiness of homemade gnocchi, I am now writing this on my fourth day of self-quarantine in my Staten Island home, because of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Stony Brook University gave me the option to stay in Italy after Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s announcement to send students in Level 3 countries home on charter flights. We were one of the last schools to leave Florence. When I left, the city was only filled with locals. I saw no tourists like I usually do cramming in stores on the Ponte Vecchio bridge. I visited a handbag shop that had everything 75% off due to a lack of tourists. The clubs were closed as well. My favorite small bar, Borgo 20, was losing business. You can visually see the Italian economy collapsing.
Still, I will always recommend that students study abroad. For the first three weeks of my experience, I was completely stress-free about the virus. I was exploring new places, getting closer with my roommates who are now some of my best friends — and, of course, absorbing information about Italian history and food culture.
On Feb. 20, a man went to a hospital in the Lombardy region of Italy, where Milan is, after displaying coronavirus-like symptoms. He tested positive — marking the first case in Italy. Two days later, National Public Radio (NPR) stated how the cases went up to 229 in Italy. I was scared and I had my doubts about being sent home, but I had to keep living my life in Florence.
That following Monday on Feb. 24, I got an email from Florence University of the Arts – American University of Florence (FUA-AUF) stating: “Tuscany is not one of the regions affected by the virus. The region is providing updated information on prevention according to worldwide standards as well as public resources for topics and/or any necessary aid related to COVID-19. All schools, institutions, and public services are running as scheduled.”
Stony Brook also sent an email the following day for us to listen to FUA’s instructions.
When I got these emails, I felt assured that Stony Brook was putting our safety first. I still went out to clubs, attended my classes and lived like I have been since I arrived.
On Wed., Feb. 26, I went to a club that I usually went to, called Space Club Firenze. It was usually packed with Americans and locals, but this day was different. The dance floor was empty, and the club closed early at 2 a.m as opposed to 4 a.m. A majority of the people at the club were students from Fairfield University in CT., who were going home that week. My worries increased.
It wasn’t until Thursday, Feb. 27 when Stony Brook gave us the option to return to our homes. “FUA-AUF will remain open in compliance with government authorities and classes and academic activities will run as regularly scheduled. Should students make the individual and personal decision to return to their home country at this time,” Stony Brook wrote in an email.
I chose to stay for a few reasons. One, I was going to Switzerland that weekend to explore and didn’t want to lose the money spent. Two, if I had the option to stay, it still felt safe for me to continue my studies abroad.
Although Switzerland was the most adventurous weekend of my life because I got to go skiing and paragliding, the worst happened — Italy reached Level 3, which means people should avoid non-essential travel to the area. For people who traveled to a Level 3 country are recommended that they self-quarantine for 14 days.
Coming back from Switzerland after this was stressful — I canceled my spring break trip to Sicily, Amalfi Coast and Rome with my boyfriend out of cautiousness before he even got to arrive. I had to drag myself to go to my class that day. We all knew that this week would be our last, even without the confirmation.
I still went out every night and explored. It wasn’t until Wednesday, March 4, when Gov. Cuomo officially announced that he wanted to send study abroad students in Level 3 countries home. However, SUNY either gave us the option to take the flight and be in quarantine in dorms for 14 days or decline. My heart broke, and I was ready to pack my bags.
I was confused because I did not want to be in a dorm that I did not know the location of yet. I wanted to be quarantined in my home instead. However, the decline also meant students were allowed to stay.
While packing, I was devastated. I was scared to understand what quarantine was like. I didn’t know how I was going to adapt to online classes as I am more of a hands-on learner. I just never knew when I would be able to come back to what seemed like a fairy tale.
To wrap up what seems like the script of a future science fiction movie, I can finally say I am now safe and less stressed.
Now, hearing about Stony Brook’s classes going online is giving me déjà vu. I am still receiving my credits by taking my classes online. There is no actual interaction, but I have homework assignments due once a week and have 24 hours to take my midterms which will be administered next week.
I do not regret coming home. I do miss Florence, but it’s safer to be here than there. I’m lucky I got to spend over a month in Florence and have the most eye-opening experience. Not only because of the sight-seeing and the wine and food tasting but also for dealing and coping with such a historic time in our world.