Italy, interrupted: One Smith student’s journey from Florence to self-quarantine  

  • Sadie Wiese at a restaurant in Venice with the other first semester Smith College students. SUBMITTED PHOTO/SADIE WIESE

  • Overlooking the city of Florence and surrounding Tuscan hills from the Boboli Gardens behind the Palazzo Medici. SUBMITTED PHOTO/SADIE WIESE

  • View of the city of Florence and the river Arno, taken the day before students got the news they were being sent home. SUBMITTED PHOTO/SADIE WIESE

  • A typical house in a Florence suburb, which Smith student Sadie Wiese walked through daily on the way to class.  SUBMITTED PHOTO/SADIE WIESE

  • View of iconic Florence landmarks: Ponte Vecchio, the Uffizi and Brunelleschi’s Dome. SUBMITTED PHOTO/SADIE WIESE

For the Gazette
Published: 3/12/2020 1:24:02 PM

Smith College student Sadie Wiese, 19, was gearing up for the second semester of her junior year abroad in Florence, Italy, when the new coronavirus began to surface in Wuhan, China. Wiese, who had committed to the yearlong Smith Program in Florence, had just begun to pick her classes for the upcoming semester, along with the eight other students enrolled in the program. Three of her courses were scheduled to be taught at the Smith Center — where three full-time faculty have offices and classrooms — while her final course would be offered through the University of Florence.

Amid an uptick in COVID-19 cases in Italy last month, Wiese said she received an email from her program’s director on Feb. 24 saying that all visits to museums and churches, as well as other field trips, would be canceled over the next few weeks. In the following days, after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) declared a Level 3 travel alert for Italy, Smith College decided to pull the program.

Wiese returned home to Santa Fe, New Mexico on March 2 to self-quarantine, as the college coordinated online courses for affected students. Her 14-day quarantine ends on March 16.

As of Thursday, according to WHO, there were over 12,462 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Italy, second only to China with 80,981. The number of deaths from the virus has risen to 827 in Italy, according to its civil protection service, and extreme travel and social restrictions have been implemented across the country.

Gazette intern Sophie Guthrie, also a Smith College student, recently interviewed Wiese via FaceTime to learn more about her experience. Since then, Smith joined a wave of colleges sending students home and moving instruction online, amid concerns over the virus, which World Health Organization officials declared a pandemic Wednesday.

How much warning did you get regarding Smith’s decision to pull the program?

[The full-time program faculty] were pretty much just as much in the dark as we were because no one really knew what was happening. And they were talking about how it was getting closer to Level 3, so just be prepared in case something happens, but they still weren’t that worried.

The whole week before [our departure], because the students had been talking so much about the possibility of us leaving, we had sort of all been prepped for it, and so by the time we got the email, it was like “Yeah, OK, this makes sense, it would be very weird for Smith to let us stay.” And all the American programs were basically leaving that weekend as well, so it wasn’t like we were the only ones being pulled.

Were you discussing your potential removal with your Italian host mom?

My host mom really thought the virus wasn’t that bad yet. She was like, “I don’t understand why everyone’s being pulled,” and she was like, “It’s an overreaction — you should just stay here,” and then the cases got a lot worse, and we were basically like, “We have to leave in two days.”

How did you and other Smithies react to the initial email?

Everyone ended up doing their own individual thing that day. I know some people went up to the top of the Duomo [cathedral]. I went up to a church that looks over the whole city — my favorite spot in Florence. We all got gelato and pizza because food was a big part of our experience. We walked down our favorite streets and tried to see our favorite parts of the city, as much as possible. We couldn’t really go inside many places — you could go into churches, but you couldn’t go into museums unless you were a Florence resident.

We were like, “OK, guess we’re going home, got to figure out all the stuff I want to see in the next 24 hours,” and trying to condense our whole study abroad experience as we were all just sitting in the Smith kitchen waiting to figure out our flight info.

I think I was much more, “I got to pack, I got to figure out what is happening, I got to find all my flight details so I know when to tell my mom to pick me up, got to get masks for the plane.”

Were there any perceptible changes in Florence after the announcement that the country had reached Level 3?

Saturday [Feb. 29], it felt pretty normal. There weren’t nearly as many study abroad students, but the locals weren’t concerned. There were definitely less people out — less people using the buses and stuff, but it didn’t feel that weird. And then Sunday, the city felt really empty, like there was practically no one out. On my way to the Smith Center that day, I didn’t really see anyone, and it’s a 20-minute walk through the city, so usually I see a lot of people; I saw 10 or 12 people.

Monday at the airport was insanely hectic. There were super-long lines, it was packed, mostly Americans and foreigners, there weren’t really any Italians there — that I saw — and people panicking about getting out.

Has Smith covered the cost of flights and offered to pay for testing?

They paid for our tickets home, which was very helpful. I think most of the flights were close to $1,000 in order to get back to the U.S. So, very lucky that Smith paid for that, but they did not pay for testing [for me]. There was no testing at all when I went through the airport.

What was screening like as you entered the U.S.?

On the flight from Florence to Frankfurt, Germany, we had to fill out a public health form that said, “Have you been to this area of Italy? Have you had these symptoms?” But it was very vague and basic, didn’t really have a lot of information. And then they gave everyone on the flight a pamphlet of the general CDC stuff to be aware of. When I got to Germany, there was no screening. When I got to Houston, because that’s where I initially came back into the U.S., the customs person looked through my passport and saw the Italy stamp and asked where I’d been coming from, and I said I had been coming back from Italy, and I had been sent home, and she was like, “Oh, sorry, that sucks,” and then just let me through. So, there was really no testing at all.

What does self-quarantine look like?

Right now, I’m in quarantine for two weeks. It’s very boring. Because New Mexico is so small, and they don’t have to monitor a lot of people, I call the health department every day and report my temperature that I take twice a day. My mom made the personal decision to avoid going to work mainly because she interacts with so many kids. She’s an elementary school librarian, so she sees all of the kids that go to the school. I’ve been going on walks outside but can’t really interact with anyone, in case I’m a carrier.

The only reason I am in contact with the health department is because my grandpa worked really closely with them, and so I was obviously talking with my grandparents about coming home, and he was talking to his friends at the health department, and then they decided to monitor me. So, if I hadn’t had that connection, no one would have been monitoring if I had it or not.

The first week of quarantine was very quiet; I was just waiting to hear from the Florence program as to what our classes were going to look like. I spent my time either watching movies to distract myself or looking into potential summer internships and work. I felt pretty confused and frustrated, especially since I was part of such a small percentage of people who were facing quarantine in the U.S. This week, classes have started up again so I am spending more time doing schoolwork and talking with friends who are being sent home from their various schools and programs. It feels even more uncertain this week since the virus has become more apparent in the U.S., and all of Smith has been sent home. I feel quite helpless seeing schools and parts of the country shut down as I watch from my own personal lockdown.

Are you worried about contracting the virus?

I think initially I was kind of nervous about it, and I’m still hesitant to interact with people in case I am a carrier. At this point, I don’t feel I’m going to get sick because I haven’t shown any symptoms whatsoever, and I don’t feel sick at all. I’m more worried about getting other people sick in case I am a carrier, so obviously I haven’t seen my grandparents yet.

How are you completing your coursework now that you are back in the U.S.?

They’re doing an online version of all the [Florence] Smith classes. The program got an email with a big survey about seeing what each person’s technological abilities are.

Smith has promised that they’d give us full credit for the semester so that no one is in a shortage of anything. The only thing I have to figure out now is major requirements for next year (Wiese is double majoring in Italian and environmental science and policy) because I was kind of counting on the [University of Florence] class to count towards my major, so I have to reorganize a bit.

What are your takeaways from this experience?

As crazy as the whole situation is, I’m really grateful for the way Smith has been handling it. They have been relatively organized compared to a lot of other programs; they paid for our tickets, they’ve been working really hard. I think it helps that we were a really small program because some of the others were hundreds of people.

It’s made me want to take advantage of my education more and not have those days where I’m just laying around the house doing nothing, which is what I’m doing now during quarantine.


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