Teen Spotlight: Studying abroad in China at the start of the novel coronavirus pandemic | AspenTimes.com
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Teen Spotlight: Studying abroad in China at the start of the novel coronavirus pandemic

Aja Schiller
Snowmass Sun
Aja Schiller and her friends celebrating a birthday on Jan. 22, 2020, the last day study abroad students were all together before being sent back to the United States due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Aja Schiller/courtesy photo

This year, Chun Jie or Chinese New Year was Jan. 25, coincidentally when the COVID-19 outbreak began to run its course. Chun Jie is one of the most important Chinese holidays when families go back to their hometowns and reconnect with loved ones.

I was studying abroad in Beijing over the Chinese New Year and was at my host family’s grandfather’s house when the outbreak worsened. It was the day after Chun Jie when students began to wonder if they would be sent home and within three days of chaos, my classmates and I were back in our respective hometowns in the United States.

Carly Nabinger, one of the two sophomores participating in the study abroad with me, hadn’t gone to visit her extended host family and was in the center of Beijing when the news that we had to go home broke.

“My first reaction to being sent home all of a sudden was just pure shock because everything was happening too fast to process. At the time, all we knew about COVID-19 was that it was ‘like the flu,’” Nabinger said.

“What hurt the most is that we felt a sense of false hope. Selfishly, I couldn’t stop thinking about how unfair the world around us was while it spun out of control. Why us? Why this year? What now?”

Most kids felt like leaving China was like leaving unfinished business behind. None of us were able to say goodbye since we were dispersed around the country to learn as part of the School Year Abroad program. We had built up five months of strong friendships and familial love through daily struggles and inside jokes during our time abroad. The concept of leaving was so far away in my mind that rushing out of the country away from the memories and the people attached to them was really difficult.

Our mantra quickly became “Be good. Be strong,” after our resident director signed off an email with the four empowering words. Zoe Feldshon, a junior from Minnesota, was particularly impacted by the rushed departure.

“I feel like we were hit harder by culture shock (of returning to America) which made the move a lot harder. We weren’t mentally ready to come back and so coming back hurt a whole lot more,” Feldshon said. “I personally feel like if we had been even given a week notice it would have changed how I came back home because I came back home not really knowing what to do with myself because I had had no warning.”

MaryQuinn Mills, a senior from Georgia, had made particularly strong connections with locals in Beijing, as well as students from the school that our program was attached to.

“I’m not trying to belittle the experiences of regular seniors in America,” Mills said. “But it’s a different thing when you unexpectedly can’t see your classmate that lives 15 minutes away for the rest of the year versus unexpectedly being sent home on a plane hundreds and thousands of miles away from your classmates, teachers, friends and second family for maybe your whole life. … Both are hurtful, but ours has a different impact.”

After coming home late January and two weeks of quarantine, our school gave students the option to continue with the program online in hopes of going to the Italy campus, or return to school in America. A little over half of the kids opted to stay with the program and completed a month of online school.

Obviously, due to COVID-19 migrating to Italy, students weren’t allowed to switch campuses but the program left it to the last minute to cancel their plans. I had flown to New York to get on the administrative lead group flight to Italy, which was supposed to depart March 5. Anneka Le, a senior from Hershey, Pennsylvania, also had flown to New York to catch the group flight.

“I was mostly disappointed and was immediately thinking, ‘What now?’” Le said after finding out our studies in Italy were canceled. “In a single email, I saw not only an experience taken away but also a very enriching education.”

Once Italy was canceled, the program was full of uncertain teenagers who were faced with yet another decision: Online school through the abroad program or return to the American school that sent them abroad?

Most kids chose to go back to their American schools, myself included, but the decision was almost meaningless since COVID-19 soon came to Aspen as well and schools closed down anyway.

At first, coming back to Aspen and re-enrolling into Aspen High School was exciting for me. On March 12, I had spoken with the school counselor and met my new teachers. I was only going to be taking four classes for the rest of the year to make sure I have enough credits to graduate. I had already been self isolating for two months doing online courses, and I was enthusiastic to go back to a real school. The past two months I had been waking up at 10 in the morning, attending online class in my pajamas, and then staying awake all night to talk with friends or watch YouTube videos. A normal routine was seriously needed, and I had my eye set on AHS to give me that.

But the schools announced their closures the next day and I was deeply disappointed. I understood why but it seemed so unfair. It’s been a long few months for my classmates and me, but some of us have chosen to continue with Chinese language classes, which helps keep a weak connection to Beijing. My friends from my year abroad agreed that we all chose the wrong year to study abroad, but then we wouldn’t have met each other. I’ve maintained a positive mindset about my situation, knowing that if I had the chance to go back in time, I would still do it all again.

Now, it’s April and I’ve been in self isolation for about three months. A lot of my classes, with AHS and my Chinese class that I’m continuing, have done lesson units on COVID-19. It feels like a topic that I can’t escape and the only thing people want to do is talk about the virus.

I’ve been spending my days doing work and catching up with my parents. As much as COVID-19 feels like it’s taken over everything, I hold my friends and family dear to my heart and acknowledge the love I have in my life.

To anyone struggling particularly with this: we’ll get through it. We’ll grow. We’ll move on. Be good. Be strong.

Aja Schiller is a junior at Aspen High School and has been writing for the Skier Scribbler for the past three years.


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