Fulbright Program Suspended as Bates Alums Scramble to Return Home

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Vanessa Paolella, Managing Editor

As the COVID-19 pandemic escalated two weeks ago, daily life in America and in many countries around the world abruptly changed. In a matter of days, sporting events were cancelled, colleges and universities closed, and stringent travel bans put into place. As challenging as these changes may have been for students at Bates forced to move off-campus with little notice, for many Fulbrighters abroad, it was overwhelming.

In the 2019-20 grant periods, 24 Bates alums were spread out over 17 different countries and regions teaching English and conducting research. Even as COVID-19 began spreading globally, all except for a few of these grantees were able to continue in their positions until early March.   

Between March 12-13, many Fulbrighters in Europe and other countries received an email in which the State Department strongly urged grantees to begin making arrangements to return to the U.S. Days later on March 19, the Fulbright program was officially suspended and the few remaining grantees abroad were left with little choice but to leave.

“Due to the time difference, for the last few weeks, I’ve woken up in the morning to increasingly distressing, saddening, and gut wrenching news,” Lucy Faust ‘19 wrote in an email. “Then I sit on that news while most of the United States sleeps, and then it repeats again. It is hard at this moment to balance the commitment I made to my community, my school, and to Indonesia with my personal safety, and the best choice for my family.”

The first warning emails arrived just hours after President Trump announced a travel ban on Europe which was set to begin Saturday, March 14.

However, Trump’s nationwide address failed to clarify that this would not bar U.S. citizens from re-entering the country, creating confusion and panic for some U.S. citizens abroad. Additionally, at this time numerous nations within Europe were beginning to close schools and enact stringent travel restrictions.

Sarah Rothmann ‘19 was teaching English in a small city in the east of the Czech Republic during her Fulbright. Her school closed on March 14, and there was talk that the country’s borders would be next.  

“I was trying to convince my mom that it was safe to stay, because I really, really wanted to stay and finish out the Fulbright, but as [the news] on Saturday morning unfolded, it became clear that traveling home was the safest option” she said.

Originally, on Saturday she booked a flight from the nearest airport across the border in Poland. However, almost immediately afterward, the Czech Republic announced that it would be closing its borders on Sunday evening; that same night, Poland also said it would close its borders, making it impossible to catch her flight.

Quickly, she booked a second flight on Sunday from Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic to the United Kingdom, then to New York City. 

“From Friday to Saturday, hour by hour there just was more and more news,” she said. “Borders closing, schools shutting down, new restrictions and in my head, I just didn’t know how much longer my mental health [could take it].”

This was a common experience shared by numerous Fulbrighters interviewed for this article. Flights were scheduled, then rescheduled as new travel restrictions were imposed and commercial flights were shutting down. 

These difficulties were not exclusive to Fulbrighters in European countries. Christopher Hassan ‘19 was in the Ivory Coast teaching English just a few weeks ago before his school was closed on March 16. While COVID-19 had only just begun to reach the Ivory Coast, Hassan said that the day after schools were closed there was a palpable panic in the community.

“You can’t be germaphobic in this country, people are really casual with greetings, handshakes, where they throw their garbage away,” he said. Yet, the day after the schools had closed, Hassan noticed vendors on the street selling masks and gloves, and the soap section in his local grocery store was cleaned out.

Even more jarring, Hassan said that he noticed a shift in the way people regarded him and his fellow Fulbrighters. 

“I didn’t experience it as much, but to my friends especially, little kids would shout ‘corona, corona,’ at us because we were white foreigners,” he said. “It was really hard for us, because our home didn’t feel like home [anymore] within a day.”

To be called out as a white foreigner happens all the time and is to be expected, Hassan said. But the genuine “malice and fear” he and his fellow Fulbrighters felt from locals was jarring.

He left the Ivory Coast on March 19, after rescheduling his flight to be a few days earlier over concerns that commercial air travel would soon be suspended. While he was traveling, his connecting flight with Delta was cancelled, and he quickly had to find a replacement flight.  

Yet, despite the warnings and growing concern for the COVID-19 pandemic, some Fulbrighters didn’t leave their countries until they no longer had any choice. Helene Sudac ‘19 taught English in Spain during her Fulbright. She said that while other Fulbrighters immediately choose to travel home after the initial announcement, she was determined to stay.

“I didn’t see a necessity to leave originally because my status was still valid, I still had months until I had to leave. And I said to myself, ‘So what? I’m in quarantine here or I’m in quarantine there.’”

Sudac was still questioning why she would have to come home until, she recognized that her vista would be invalid after June 30. This means that she would either need to apply for a new vista before then, or leave the country. As the coronavirus situation continued to worsen and travel restrictions continued to become stricter, she realized that if she stayed any longer she had no way of knowing when she would be able to leave. 

By the time she left on March 25, nine out of the 11 grantees in her state had already departed. 

Although none of the Fulbright alums interviewed for this article personally expressed this concern, numerous people said that health care coverage was a major consideration for other grantees when deciding to stay or return to the States. Some grantees had healthcare in Europe as Fulbrighters, but did not have it back in the United States.  

Other Fulbrighters worried that traveling would put themselves and their families at a greater risk of contracting COVID-19.