Liberty University has called home students participating in the spring 2020 Rome with Purpose study abroad program because of the spread of the coronavirus in Italy.
Rome with Purpose is a three-month study abroad program offered to students at Liberty and other universities in the fall and spring semesters. This semester, nine of the 12 students in the Christian program were Liberty students, with others from Cairn University in Pennsylvania and Lee University in Tennessee.
Randolph College, Sweet Briar College and the University of Lynchburg offer study abroad programs, but officials at those institutions said students currently participating in those programs have not been affected by the virus. Randolph College has students currently in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and the University of Lynchburg has five students studying internationally this semester, but none of them have been called home yet.
Those Lynchburg-area colleges and universities said they are monitoring the virus and are directing students to avoid unnecessary travel.
Debbie Peck, who runs the Rome with Purpose program with her husband, Larry, said they spoke to staff at Liberty’s study abroad office, LU Send, at the end of February about the virus’ presence in Italy.
“We told them that there hadn’t really been that many cases in Rome itself and that we were keeping an eye on things and they seemed to be pretty good,” Peck said.
But on Saturday, just as many of the students were ready to make their way to the train station for a weekend trip to Abruzzo, a region in eastern Rome, they received the upsetting news their adventure in Rome was being cut short.
Lynchburg native Austin Gaebe is a senior at Liberty double-majoring in history and journalism and one of the nine Liberty students participating in the program.
Gaebe said he and the other students had discussed the possibility of having to come back to the states a few days earlier, but more as a hypothetical situation. With northern Italy more affected than Rome at the time, Gaebe said he thought they would be okay to stay.
Gaebe said when he learned they would be returning to the states, he had mixed emotions.
“I can’t say I was shocked,” Gaebe said. “But I was extremely disappointed.”
By Saturday afternoon, Gaebe said, he had changed his return flight originally booked for the end of April to Monday morning.
“Sunday morning I wake up, I’m going on a weekend trip, having a normal day in Rome,” Gaebe said. “And then by Monday night, I’m home, I’m in Virginia.”
Gaebe said while none of them were showing symptoms of the coronavirus, he and several of the other students are following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s advice to self-quarantine for the next 14 days in case symptoms develop. Gaebe said the university has not asked students to be tested for the virus or remain under quarantine. The Virginia Department of Health is directing Virginians returning from travel to follow the CDC’s recommendations to monitor their health for 14 days after travel, avoid contact with sick people and clean their hands often.
Peck said there only had been three reported cases of the coronavirus in Rome at that time, and all three individuals had been released from the hospital. She said she felt the problem was more severe in northern Italy, but didn’t disagree with the university’s decision to call students home.
Keith Anderson, executive director of the Department of Student Health and Wellness at Liberty, said the university has been monitoring the effect of the virus as it moves to various locations. When they saw it begin to affect Italy, university administration made the decision to call those students back home.
“Right now, the physical wellness of our campus is on the highest alert,” Anderson said.
And that “campus” extends further than the physical one in Lynchburg. Anderson said the university is concerned with the wellness of each of its students, whether they’re online students in other states or studying abroad in Rome.
“We thought it would be best if we were providing that opportunity for our students to return to their homes and complete their studies,” Anderson said. “It was never intended to interrupt their studies but create the best possible way for them to complete their studies while keeping them safe.”
Gaebe said he has not been told whether or not the university will refund any part of the $16,500 program. That cost includes tuition and room and board. Students were responsible for some living expenses and airfare, Gaebe said. Anderson said he has not heard how the university plans to work with students on the financial effect.
“I’m not involved in financial aspect, but we are committed as an institution to ensure that students have the best education experience,” Anderson said. “So I’m sure that our university is going to do whatever it can to ensure that our students are taken care of.”
Peck said the students in the program live and learn together in a convent in Rome, and are taught by both Italian and American Christian professors. During a typical semester, the students would take five courses and earn 15 credits during their time in Rome.
Students already have completed one of the courses, which was worth three credits. They’re currently taking three courses, which they will continue when they return to Lynchburg, Peck said. The professors will record their lectures and allow the students to continue earning those credits over the next three weeks. At this time, Peck said, the three non-Liberty students in the program are planning to head home in about three weeks when those courses wrap up. The final course, which students haven’t started yet, will be cancelled, Peck said.
Gaebe said his time in the program was rewarding, despite being cut short.
“Being able to take classes and go to those sites the same day we talked about it, you can’t replicate that,” Gaebe said. “I loved it.”
Anderson said the university is continuing to monitor the effect and spread of the virus and will continue to make these difficult decisions if students are affected.
“We don’t want to interrupt the educational experience, but we do have the obligation of keeping our students safe,” Anderson said.