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The City Journals

COVID-19 affects stay for foreign exchange students studying abroad in Utah

May 18, 2020 12:49PM ● By Drew Crawford

Rebecca Symes poses with foreign exchange students participating in the CASE program. (Photo courtesy Rebecca Symes)

By Drew Crawford | [email protected]

As COVID-19 continues to cause much uncertainty around the world and in Utah, it can be easy to forget the virus affects everyone in some form. 

Foreign exchange students coming to Utah to participate in the CASE (Cultural Academic Student Exchange) program on a J-1 Cultural Exchange Visa have found their stays impacted by changes to travel and governmental policy. 

Rebecca Symes, coordinator of the CASE program, who expresses a passionate enthusiasm for the students and treats them as though they are her own children, has found her job more chaotic than usual as she has helped her students during the crisis. 

During a typical year the students who come from all over the world are placed with qualifying host families to enjoy a year in the United States studying at school.

“The whole purpose is to really experience American culture and for the kids to share their culture,” Symes explained.

However, due to the outbreak of the coronavirus this school year, governmental agents from the host countries are implementing emergency policies to address the potential threat of the virus. 

“The different kids come from different agents all around the world,” Symes said. “So sometimes those agencies will make policies that ‘all of our kids are flying home, that’s how we’re going to deal with it.’” 

“So, I had two of my kids that ended up having to leave even though the parents said we’d rather they stay and avoid airports and that.”

Other students studying abroad preferred to be with their families during the crisis

“I did have two or three kids who really did want to go home, and they were like, ‘I feel like I should be with my family and I want to go home,’ and so their agents at home helped them arrange their flights and get them home,” Symes said. 

In total, out of the 21 kids in the program, 13 are staying in Utah and eight returned to their countries of origin. 

 “So there was an agency out of Belgium and France that absolutely insisted that their kids go home, so my French student and my Belgian student both ended up having to go,” Symes said.

“It’s got to be incredibly hard on them to be far away with all of the uncertainty with knowing what’s going on. And then there’s other kids from the same country that are like ‘I’ve got to stay here’” It’s been really eye opening.

The French girl that returned home and her host mom, Andrea Gritton, had originally discussed and decided it would be in her best interest to remain in Utah and finish up the school year in May. 

However, quick changes by the French government quickly ended the student’s American experience. 

“A couple of weeks later we received an email from her agency in France saying that they have to come home and that they were arranging the flights. We didn’t really have a choice at that point,’ Gritton said.

The return flight organized by the agency was very abrupt and did not give the family a lot of time to come to terms parting with their student. 

“The next day they contacted us with her flight info, which we were hoping was at least a week or so out, but it was two days later,” Gritton said. 

“It just sounded like the French government wanted all of their citizens back home.”

Going home involved potential exposure to the virus for the student, as her flights connected to three different cities in total. 

“She ended up having to make three transfers between planes. Chicago to Detroit to Newark to Brussels. And from Brussels she had to take a train to Paris, because there’s no flights going into France right now,” Gritton related. 

“So, all of that was done on her own and she’s just a 16-year-old taking flights on her own.” 

Once arriving in Paris, only her Dad could pick her up because of governmental restrictions. 

It’s been difficult for Gritton with her student having to leave so abruptly. 

“There’s been a lot of tears on both ends, but we have been contacting her every day. Mostly we use Whatsapp, or even live talking,” Gritton said. “She had a birthday and we still celebrated it. We took lots of videos and sent them to her and sang happy birthday to her over Whatsapp and made a special video of her. 

Gritton’s kids have also stayed in close contact with her through the popular video game Animal Crossing. 

For other host families, the student’s government of origin offered more leeway when making the decision. 

The host family for one of the boys from Spain wanted him to stay so he could finish out the academic year and receive credit for his work. 

“It was really important for me to understand what they wanted and what the family wanted,” said Susan Bielfeldt, the host mom of a Spanish boy. 

 “I know it’s important to him that he wanted to make sure that he could finish the school year, because when you’re a junior you don’t want to discover that you’re going to have to redo your junior year.” 

At this point, the family had important conversations with the student and his family in order to determine the best course of action going forward. 

“The first thing that I did is checked with (him) and what he wants. It was pretty bad in Spain at that point and the numbers were climbing,” Bielfeldt said. “Once it was clear to me what he wanted I reached out to parents, and the agency kept contacting the parents.”

Throughout the discussions, everyone decided it was in the student’s best interest for him to stay. 

“They wanted to do what he wanted. I think they recognized that the surge particularly around Barcelona, Madrid, it was really on the upward trajectory,” Bielfeldt recalled. 

“I think they thought it was safer for him as well. And the fact that he wanted to stay and could guarantee that he didn’t have to redo his junior year, I think that all of it kind of came together to help encourage them to accept the idea of having him stay here.”

As a result of all of this, the student, whose Visa is set to expire at the end of June, will return to Spain as soon as travel restrictions are lifted.

“I think that the world will start to dictate what we all need to do,” Bielfeldt said.

Overall, even with the disruptions to the program this year, Symes knows the opportunities for the foreign exchange students have still been life changing and that the host families have offered incredible support to their students despite the complications from the coronavirus.

“My own personal belief is that (crisis) really brings out who you are at your core. I feel like you either become very self-centered and worried, drawn into yourself, or you realize that everyone is interconnected,” Symes said. 

For Symes, she has been able to see this come true for her students who have created connections that will last for a lifetime.