For exchange students, COVID-19 means more than missing school


Riley Unekis

COVID-19 has transformed life around the globe and particularly in Italy. Two foreign exchange students from Italy are concerned about being sent home.

By Daniel Davidson, Online Co-Editor in Chief

Like other students across Kansas, Michela Cane is being asked to stay home from school because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The only difference is that Cane’s home is thousands of miles away.

Talking to a friend over video call while hunkered down at home, Giorgia Barbagallo would soon learn the same news. Both Italian exchange students were notified by email only days ago by the Greenheart international exchange agency that their trips were to be cut short due to COVID-19.

“I was speechless and couldn’t breath for a few seconds,” Barbagallo said. “It was totally unexpected because my Italian agency told me that same day that my return home would always be my family’s choice.”

While Barbagallo was told her agency was asking for her return to avoid complications as the situation in the United States worsens, she fears returning could put her in as much danger.

“It makes absolutely no sense for me to go through airports and airplanes,” Barbagallo said. “It’s a very big risk, and they’re putting me and my family back in Italy in danger.”

In Italy, thousands of cases of COVID-19 have put the country into a quarantine. People are required to carry a permit with them at all times while outside, justifying their need to be in public.

“Knowing that my home country is going through such an awful and scary time has given me a lot of concerns,” Barbagallo said. “I’ve had this weird sensation of both closure and distance to all my Italian friends and relatives. Even though I’ve always kept in touch with them, it’s almost like I’m dividing myself in two pieces: the me that wants to stay in Kansas and get all she can from this experience and the me that wants to be close to my family and friends in this very hard time for Italy.”

For Cane, the sudden order to return home and closure of schools in Kansas means she won’t be able to perform in Showtime or attend prom.

“When I found out that they are sending me home, I could not believe that,” Cane said. “That’s crazy how my life changed with just an email. I didn’t expect that, and that’s what devastated me. I am not ready to leave Lawrence yet, but that’s just how things go.” 

While Cane won’t be able to finish many of the things she wished to do now that COVID-19 has cancelled public schools and events, she wants to stay optimistic about the experiences she has had.

“I decided that as long as I’ll stay here in America, I’ll not be pessimistic, sad or mad about the situation of my family and mine,” Cane said. “I want to be strong for them, for my country. It is very weird to stay home all day with a family that is not even your own family but it gave me time to appreciate them for everything they do for me. They are really my second family.”

While Cane and Barbagallo learned they would have to return home early first, German exchange student Philip Moryson and Swedish exchange student Jennifer Wiklund have also been asked to leave the United States this week.

“I’m leaving Monday,” Moryson said. “My plan is to do as much stuff with my friends and family as possible.”

Although her trip has come to an early end, Cane said she got out of this experience exactly what she had hoped for.

“I did this choice because I really wanted to study here in America and to live in a completely different world,” Cane said. “I was just very curious, I wanted to meet new people, try new food, learn a new language, see new places… experience the American lifestyle. This experience completely changed my life. I’ve grown up so much here. Lawrence will always have a special place in my heart like the amazing people that I’ve been so lucky to meet here.”

Although both Italian students have been asked to return home immediately, they said finding a return flight home has been a struggle. For now, Cane and Barbagallo are in a limbo, unsure of when they will be forced to leave.

“It could be a matter of a few days or two to three weeks, not more,” Barbagallo said. “But everything is a big question mark right now.”