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Christendom College student's study abroad experience ends abruptly

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Bridget Duffy thought she had months ahead of her to explore Rome (a college semester, to be exact) —  but just 19 days after her study abroad program started, she was in an airport packed with college students trying to return to the United States due to the outbreak of COVID-19 in Europe.

Duffy was just one of many college students vacating their study abroad programs to return home as the U.S. federal government increased travel advisories in response to the spreading virus. 

“We ran into so many students in the airport,” Duffy said, mentioning she and her friends asked many of the other young travelers around them what school they went to and where they were coming from.  

A junior studying literature, Duffy was excited to participate in Christendom College’s study abroad program in Rome. Almost every student in their junior year departs the Front Royal campus to spend either spring or fall semester in Rome, where they live in the Roman neighborhood of Balduina and take classes with Christendom faculty and staff near St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. 

Unfortunately, her time in the Eternal City was short lived.

“While we were still in Rome, it was kind of a sneaking rumor,” said Duffy, as she and her classmates heard reports about the new coronavirus spreading in the north of Italy while they settled into their new quarters farther to the south.

Before starting classes, the students went on a weeklong pilgrimage to Siena and Assisi, where they walked through the hometowns of some of Italy’s most famous saints, examined artwork, prayed — and received daily updates on the virus. During their pilgrimage, they learned a trip to Florence planned for later in the semester was canceled, and their classes were moved from the center of Rome to their residence in Balduina. 


“We knew it was coming but we really didn’t want to admit it,” said Duffy. “We felt we were going to get sent home, but no one wanted to say it.”

As the situation became more serious and the semester more uncertain, the students decided to soak in every moment. Lent started while they were on the pilgrimage, and the uncertainty added a new flavor to the spiritual season.

“It’s a really good spiritual practice to try to live every day like it’s your last,” said Duffy.

Finally, while returning home from Assisi, the students received word the program was ending, and they were being sent home. 

The same day, an email went out to parents informing them of the program’s end: “This decision was not made lightly, and it breaks our hearts that the students will not be able to experience the entire Rome semester,” said Amanda Graf, vice president of student affairs. “Ultimately it is our care and concern for the students that motivates us to make this decision.”

Two days later, Duffy was on a flight back home. While not yet required, the students were advised to self-quarantine and Duffy spent two weeks at home with family in Massachusetts. 

Other students took the opportunity to spend a little more time together, self-quarantining in a couple of Airbnb rentals in Virginia. As they transitioned back from Rome, some students thought “it would be good just to stay together for a little bit,” said Elizabeth Eller, one of the students who helped organize the accommodations.

For Duffy, one of the defining moments was after learning the semester was over. Boarding the bus to return to Rome, the students broke into “Roma, Roma, Roma” the city’s anthem. 

“It was weird and surreal but a powerful moment of bonding,” said Duffy.

Now attending classes online from her home in Massachusetts, she hopes to one day return to the Eternal City.

“I got the teaser version,” she said, “so I definitely want to go back.” 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020