An inside look on studying abroad during COVID

Isabella Parish

Junior Maria Harmon discusses her journey to studying abroad during COVID. Harmon is pictured to the right of a photo of a Dublin, Ireland street.

With the pandemic still a part of everyday life, many IWU students had to rearrange their plans for study abroad including junior Maria Harmon. Upon arrival to campus three years ago, Harmon wanted study abroad to be part of her college experience, but with COVID she was unsure that it would be a possibility. 

Harmon, an English major at IWU, is studying in Dublin, Ireland through the IES Abroad Dublin Writers Program. Meant to celebrate the likes of authors like W.B. Yeats and James Joyce, students are encouraged to take a deep dive into Irish literature during their semester, and for Harmon, that sounded perfect. 

As she filled out the application, IWU’s Study Abroad Office prepared her with the information they had. 

“Myself and the Study Abroad Office approached it to fill out this application, make sure this is the right choice for your academic career, and keep an eye on COVID because it’s out of our control,” Harmon said. 

IWU approved travel to countries labeled “high risk”. The CDC listed Ireland as a “very  high” risk country on August 3, which means that US citizens are advised not to travel to the country, regardless of infection rates. For her trip to be possible, Harmon had to sign a form stating that she understood the risk. 

Harmon’s choice to study abroad in a time where COVID is such an unsure thing may strike some as odd, but it’s a decision many students have had to make in the past year. She said that, when it came down to it, she did not have plans to cancel her study abroad trip beforehand. 

Dr. Lucy McBride told NPR on All Things Considered when discussing the phenomenon of “COVID anxiety,” that there’s a certain level of exhaustion that everyone is dealing with as we return to a more vigilant world and decide what is right for us. 

“We’re wired, we’re hypervigilant and we’re tired; so many decisions, so much information. We need to realize that this is normal and that we need to give ourselves a little latitude and grace as we navigate these complex times,” Dr. McBride said on the podcast. 

Harmon said that she couldn’t sit around and wait for COVID to go away when she wasn’t sure it was ever going to. She believed that COVID would be around for a while so if the travel was approved and safe she did not see a point to wait until her senior year. Harmon decided to fill out the application over Christmas break last year, when she found the whole year was challenging and weird. So Harmon channeled her energy into something that would enhance her college experience.  

Even though Ireland has the highest uptake of the vaccine in Europe, COVID is still a big worry for Harmon and it is constantly on her mind. Ireland had one of the longest lockdowns in the world, which, at its completion, will have lasted around eighteen months. The Irish government has announced plans to loosen restrictions on October 22. Businesses and restaurants in the country have slowly begun to reopen their doors again, and Harmon has a front row seat to Ireland’s attempt to begin the return of normalcy.

Image by Isabel Sperry

In the days since she’s arrived, Harmon has realized a lot of differences between America and Ireland and how the countries approach the pandemic. Vaccination cards and ID are checked at the door of most establishments. 

“At one cafe, my friend and I had to fill out contact tracing forms with the time and date we were there,” Harmon said. The culture of mask wearing is almost opposite to what it is in America. 

“If you are inside, you are wearing a mask. Everyone does it. Even walking around outside, about half the people still wear their masks,” said Harmon. Back on the other side of the world, Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker announced August 30 that a mask mandate would be reinstated. The mandate, which had been eradicated during the summer months when COVID seemed to be less of a threat, will require masks in all indoor public settings, on public transportation and in schools. Illinois is one of seven states that currently have a mask mandate, and Harmon wasn’t even here when it was put back into place. The culture shock in how citizens adhere to mask-wearing is something she said that she noticed immediately. 

In March of 2020, study abroad students had the world’s eyes on them as they scrambled to get home before countries shut their borders. When asked if she was nervous about the possibility of this happening again, Harmon said she wasn’t too concerned. To return back home Harmon has to produce a negative PCR test within 72 hours of flying back. 

“Fingers crossed that Ireland does not restrict travel back to the states,” Harmon said. With the pandemic taking away a lot of experiences from so many people Harmon tried not to get her hopes up for this trip. She took the process day by day in the months leading up to Dublin.

 “I’m here and I’m a bit in awe of the fact that it’s actually happening. I’ve been treating it as a dream and now it’s a reality that I’m a little skeptical of,” Harmon said.