Sophomores Melanie Tadros and Elija Gatling smile at the top of La Cattedrale Metropolitana di Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, Italy on Jan. 10. Tadros said she spent her first weekend abroad exploring tourist sites in the city of Florence. Photo courtesy of Melanie Tadros
Due to the Omicron surge, Pepperdine’s International Programs are operating differently from what many students said they expected. Still, as 2022 commenced, students packed their bags — complete with masks and vaccine cards — and made their way to their programs around the world.
Pepperdine is known for IP, but the winter surge in COVID-19 cases left a cloud of uncertainty hovering over students hoping to study in Lausanne, London, Florence, Heidelberg and Washington, D.C.
The spring semester abroad kicked off for all programs as of Jan. 16, besides Buenos Aires, which is set to begin Jan. 19. When it comes to weekend travel and mask-wearing, Dean of International Programs Beth Laux said the semester will be unlike any other. Still, students, like sophomore Florence participant Elija Gatling, said they are determined to not let the restrictions take away from making the most of their experience.
“We’re just super excited to make more connections and travel and explore,” Gatling said. “I still can’t believe we’re living here. For the past week we have been doing tourist things so in the back of my mind it’s like, ‘Oh, I’ll be home soon,’ but I won’t be for four months.”
Universal Guidelines for all International Programs
All students studying abroad and in Washington, D.C., are fully vaccinated — but are not required to be boosted except in Florence — Laux said. Still, positive cases are currently high, so Laux said the University implemented a plan for restrictions to be lifted as the Omicron surge slows down.
The first stage of the University’s COVID-19 safety plan limits students to their host city, where an orientation and local field trips take place. Stage two opens student access to the host country, giving the program directors an idea of how travel will affect case numbers and academic success, Laux said. The third stage allows students to travel to a list of countries tailored to the guidelines in their host country — meaning each program will have varying lists.
“That is a gradual process that we will hopefully roll out throughout the semester,” Laux said. “Obviously, we’re watching the COVID-19 cases very carefully right now, and we won’t actually be publishing a list of countries until February anyway. So right now, students are aware of the timelines.”
Testing practices vary from city to city, but the University is still providing tests for all students that exhibit symptoms or are determined to be in close contact with positive cases. Laux said testing depends on the city students are in. Some programs test regularly, such as in Heidelberg, London, and D.C., while Florence and Lausanne students test only when there is reason to believe someone could have COVID-19 due to a recent exposure or symptoms.
Students in the London program are at the campus, but taking classes on Zoom for the first week. All other active programs were able to start in-person, but throughout the semester virtual classes will be facilitated for those who need it for COVID-19 related reasons, Laux said.
“I would say there’s typically at least a student or two that is accessing a class online,” Laux said. “Most IP programs started their classes primarily in person, but we are offering online access to students in quarantine and isolation.”
Safety protocols in Italy have been the most surprising element of being abroad so far, sophomore Melanie Tadros said. Tadros traveled to Siena her first weekend and said the said most of the shops were closed and the city wasn’t crowded.
“Even Elizabeth [Whatley], our director, when she took us to some of the tourist spots, she was shocked at the fact that there was nobody else there,” Tadros said.
Florence is the only abroad program where all students must be fully vaccinated and boosted, Tadros said.
Once in Florence, they are not tested unless exposed to COVID-19 or experiencing symptoms. Students are also given their own room and bathroom in case of isolation or quarantine, Tadros said.
“I can tell that people here in Italy are very cautious about COVID — you rarely see anyone walking without a mask,” Tadros said. “Everyone is wearing a mask and particularly N95 masks.”
The fall 2021 Florence program was suspended due to low enrollment, so students who did not drop out remained in Malibu. Gatling said he was disappointed not to be able to spend the whole year in Florence and was worried about whether he would be able to go in the spring.
“I was planning on going for the full year, and I was committed the whole way through,” Gatling said. “A lot of people dropped so it got canceled for the first semester, but being here now feels surreal.”
The Villa no longer has an in-house chef but provides meals in a grab-and-go format, something Tadros was disappointed to learn, she said. The group is also smaller than a typical academic semester, but Tadros said that has allowed them all to form deeper bonds.
“There’s only 20 of us here, which is insane compared to the normal 50 or 60,” Tadros said. “So everyone’s just close. All of us are getting to know each other a lot better, and it’s great. We’re really having a good time.”
Sophomore Isabelle Lindstrom said studying in Lausanne was always at the top of her list because she is studying French as part of her International Studies major.
Although she never imagined being abroad during a pandemic, Lindstrom said this is her first time out of the United States, and she is grateful to be there regardless of the circumstances.
Entry testing to the country revealed six positive student COVID-19 cases, but since arriving, Lindstrom said no one has gotten sick. Lindstrom said students can only travel within Switzerland for January, and when traveling, they scan their virtual vaccine code in all public places. Still, she said she is finding plenty to do in her free time.
The program has fewer student numbers than usual, Lindstrom said, and she was surprised when her largest class had only eight people in it. Because of the size, however, Lindstrom said she has already built meaningful connections.
“It is completely different from my first semester in Malibu in a sense,” Lindstrom said. “In Malibu, you’re very independent — everything’s on your own. You don’t know who you’re going to eat lunch with, you don’t know who you’re going to see on your way to class. Here, you know everyone and you know you’re never going to sit alone.”
After hearing stories from family members who studied in Heidelberg during their time at Pepperdine, sophomore Maeve Mueller said she decided to apply there, too.
Going into the semester, Mueller said she was nervous she would feel lost and isolated. Her expectations, however, were defied once she arrived, she said.
“Once you get here and you’re situated, there’s a ton of resources to help with [the language barrier] and everything,” Mueller said. “The city is absolutely beautiful and the buildings and the people are all just incredible. I’m so happy to be here.”
Originally, Mueller said there was no testing requirement, but as cases rose, weekly tests were required. While there is no mask requirement and the kitchen is open for student use, Mueller said she was surprised at the restrictions in public places.
“Whenever you try to go into a store or if you sit down at a restaurant, they have you show your vaccine card, and you have to wear FFP2 [KN95] masks,” Mueller said. “If you do have your booster or you have had the vaccine in the past three months, then you’re fine, but otherwise they literally will kick you out.”
Mueller said she looks forward to venturing out of the country, but she sees the positives in exploring parts of Germany she never would have otherwise.
“I would love to be able to go to other countries and everything, but at the same time, having that amount of time where you can just be in Germany traveling is nice,” Mueller said. “You get to experience Germany for what it is and actually get to know the country that you’re living in.”
London has the most restrictions out of all IP locations. Classes are online due to an outbreak of COVID-19 in the house, and masks are required in in public, indoor places, sophomore Zach Tapp said. He was in London for the fall 2021 semester, and he said returning was an entirely different experience.
“I think we’re in the thick of the restrictions, right now,” Tapp said.”They said it would be the opposite effects of last semester, where it got gradually more restrictive, and this semester it’ll probably get gradually less restrictive, which is the glass half full side of things.”
The United Kingdom requires students to be tested twice a week and daily if in close contact with COVID-19. Tapp said he is hoping conditions improve soon so he is able to travel to Barcelona this semester.
During his first semester in London, Tapp said his most cherished memories came from time spent with his friends. Going into the spring, Tapp said he hopes to build more lifelong friendships through weekend trips and group dinners.
“Three days out of the week we have this thing called group dinner,” Tapp said. “So we just all go out to a restaurant or just some place and [the program] pays for our dinner, which is really nice. We have a 16 pound limit, so we can just order whatever we want and eat dinner together.”
The Buenos Aires program is set to begin Jan. 19, but until mid-January, some students, such as sophomores Nayeli Castillo and Courtney Wisniewski, said they felt uncertain if the trip was going to happen.
Both Wisniewski and Castillo said Pepperdine told them consulate interviews would take place in October 2021, but they never did. Throughout December and January, Wisniewski said the University began repeatedly changing the interview date, and the closer her departure got, the more concerned she grew.
“Two weeks ago when we still didn’t have our passports and visas, we all literally banded together and talked about how we’re going to go regardless because we already bought our flights — they’re non refundable flights,” Wisniewski said. “We all started looking into apartments together and finding apartments in BA just in case they canceled it.”
Jan. 10, Wisniewski said she finally had her consulate interview, and her passport came in the mail shortly after. Castillo said she missed Christmas with her family in Mexico because her passport arrived late, so she was worried it might not come in time to leave for Argentina.
Sophomore Madilyn Henshaw said she was supposed to study abroad the entire year, so she has been excited to be in Buenos Aires for the semester. On Jan. 15, however, she received an email from Pepperdine informing her that her passport would not arrive in time for the planned Jan. 19 departure.
“I will now miss out getting there with the rest of my abroad classmates after I was supposed to go abroad all year and it was cancelled,” Henshaw said. “It is very disappointing.”
Henshaw said finding out she has to change her flight last minute after not having her consulate meeting until Jan. 10 — three months past when she was expecting — has been stressful. She said she hopes she makes it to Buenos Aires and enjoys most of the semester abroad.
As part of the Global Fellows Program, senior Isabella Yeager has looked forward to studying in Washington, D.C., during her final semester at Pepperdine. Due to COVID, however, Yeager said her D.C. internship with Portland Square Group is virtual.
Currently, travel outside of D.C. is not permitted, and because the program’s trip to Spain is scheduled for the first week in February, Yeager said students are anxious it will be canceled. While students test weekly and use medical-grade masks, the Omicron variant is spreading rapidly around the city, Yeager said.
“Because we’re so small, with 19 people, if somebody gets it, we have to be much more careful,” Yeager said. “Since we only have two real staff members, if they both get sick, that’s something that we’ve all been really worried about. If that happens, how would the program run?”
The in-house kitchen is closed for the semester to prevent interactions without masks, and students are required to show proof of vaccination in public places.
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