The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, more commonly referred to as the Duomo, stands in the center of Florence. Photo by Milan Loiacono
Pepperdine students abroad in Florence, Italy, must promptly return home to the United States as the university suspends the international program for the remainder of the semester.
Pepperdine sent a university-wide email Feb. 26, announcing administrators are scheduling flights for Florence program participants to travel back to their respective homes as health officials confirm over 400 cases of coronavirus in Italy.
The students will complete their courses remotely through online technology instead of returning to the Malibu campus, according to the press release. The email also contained updates related to the London, Heidelberg and Lausanne programs.
Students in Florence received a separate email from International Programs about the university’s decision at 3 a.m., their time.
Sophomore Emily Lucente, who has been in Florence since the start of the school year, said her roommate woke her up immediately when the news broke.
“I was shaking because it was like, ‘This isn’t true — there’s no way that this could possibly be happening,’” Lucente said.
The announcement came as a shock to Lucente and other students because they were told the possibility of leaving Florence was slim just two days ago during the program’s weekly convo.
“[Program staff] said while there have been cases in Italy, it’s more north than Florence,” Lucente said.
Hannah Coates, another Florence program participant, said she also did not expect the suspension of the program to come so suddenly.
“My director assured us we wouldn’t need to [come home] on Tuesday,” Coates said.
The Graphic spoke with Florence Program Director Elizabeth Whatley on Feb. 25, one day before the suspension of the program was announced, to ask what preparations were being made as confirmed cases of the coronavirus surged in Italy this week. Whatley expressed in the interview she did not foresee the program coming to an end.
“I did say to my students that things can change from one minute to the next, but for as far as I can see, I feel like we’re going to be able to complete our journey as scheduled,” Whatley said. “I think that we’ll be able to stay together here in Florence until the end of our semester.”
University administrators say suspending the program was not a decision made lightly.
“This is not an outcome that we wanted for students,” Seaver College Dean Michael Feltner said. “We know it’s not the outcome students wanted. It’s disappointing for us to make this decision.”
Feltner said university administrators considered a multitude of factors when weighing whether the 54 Florence program participants could return to the Malibu campus to complete their courses.
“It was not only bed space — it was classroom space, it was getting faculty for a short term period to deliver [the classes],” Feltner said. “Based on our consideration of all of those factors, we determined that continuing with the Florence faculty delivering online is the best solution we can implement in a timely fashion.”
Beth M. Laux, executive director of International Programs, said this was a collaborative decision from upper management.
“It involved a lot of levels of university leadership, but more specifically, it included [International Programs], Seaver College, members of our emergency operations committee and the Infectious Disease Task Force,” Laux said.
Feltner said the university is purchasing the students’ flights home from Italy, but administrators have not reached a decision regarding reimbursing students for abroad fees.
“They sent us an email with our address that they have on file,” Lucente said. “[The email says] confirm this is your address by noon today so we can get you a flight,” Lucente said.
Now that her abroad experience is cut short, Lucente is trying to see if she can possibly stay somewhere in Europe to take her remote classes, instead of returning home to Oregon.
“Currently, it’s a lot of emotionally processing all of this, but also seeing what my options are — I’m definitely not ready to go home,” Lucente said.
The last day of classes in Florence is Thursday, Feb. 27, and students will begin leaving Italy on Friday, Feb. 28 and Saturday, Feb. 29.
Students say the quick turnaround to leave is heartbreaking.
“I don’t know how much time we’re even gonna have to walk around for one last time because we have class until 6 o’clock,” Florence program participant and sophomore Camryn Moss said.
Since the announcement was sent to students in Florence overnight, Moss said she woke up to texts from her friends in Malibu before reading the university’s email.
“It’s like everyone knew everything before me,” Moss said.
Moss and Lucente said they would have preferred to hear the news in person rather than through digital means.
“It feels like there was no emotion with it from Pepperdine,” Lucente said.
These are the same students who experienced traumatic events during their first semester of college last year when the Pepperdine community faced the back-to-back tragedies of the Borderline Bar & Grill shooting and Woolsey Fire in Nov. 2018.
“The running joke is that our class is cursed,” Lucente said. “Mostly because each year there’s always something, as of right now. For me, I take it day to day.”
With only one day left, students in Florence are feeling the pressure to make their final moments count.
Moss said she will spend her final day packing her room and washing her clothes after going to class, but she really hopes she can go to some of her favorite places in Florence one last time.
“Me and my friend Sarah would go to this store that’s really close by the house — we call it ‘The Little Man Store’ just because it’s literally a tiny store with a man in it,” Moss said. “Then I would go to my favorite restaurant, eat spaghetti carbonara with truffle. It’s my favorite.”
Although the coronavirus outbreak continues to sweep the globe, students are not ready to return home.
“I don’t think we’ll really get a goodbye,” Moss said.
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