Culture shock and COVID-19: My experience studying abroad in Italy during the outbreak

View from Brunelleschi's Dome in Florence, Italy. (Emma Witter | Collegian Media Group)

“The air just feels like apocalypse.”

That was how my roommates and I chose to describe the energy in Florence, Italy, during the last week we were there.

We’d been living in Florence for just over a month of our semester-long study abroad program, and it was becoming increasingly clear that our time out of the U.S. could be ending very soon.

Of course, I’d heard of COVID-19 before leaving to study abroad. People were talking about it, but all I ever heard was a joke here and there warning me not to bring it back to the U.S. It just wasn’t something I was worried about.

When I got to Italy, I was too busy to worry too much about it — I had classes to go to, museums to visit, pasta to eat and more international trips to book.

I saw the growing concern. People were talking more about the virus, and one of my friends from home seemed to be retweeting every coronavirus related statistic that showed up on his timeline. But I had done my research, and I decided I had no reason to be worried.

I was having the time of my life, and as I understood it, the epidemic only impacted the elderly and had similar, minor consequences for my health as the flu might. As such, it had no business ruining my fun.

One weekend, two of my roommates visited Milan for Fashion Week. It just so happened that their trip took place the exact weekend the coronavirus outbreak made its way to the fashion capital of Italy.

The scene that my roommates described when they returned was straight out of a contagion movie: masked tourists and locals everywhere they looked, fashion shows cancelled last minute and a general feeling of anxiousness in the air with no one sure of what to do.

One of my roommates described how eerie it was to stand on a packed train, surrounded by travelers in masks.

The Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Italy.
The Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Italy. (Emma Witter | Collegian Media Group) Photo credit: Emma Witter

The morning after they made it back, we heard news of the first confirmed COVID-19 case in Florence. Every time I checked the news, it seemed like the numbers were growing.

My daily walk to class involved passing a local hospital, and the emergency tents that eventually went up outside did nothing to ease my rapidly growing nervousness. Masks were sold out, our hands were dry and cracking from constant disinfecting and every class began with professors asking how everyone was handling the stress of the outbreak.

After that weekend, everything happened pretty fast.

That Tuesday, at the beginning of my photography class, I heard someone say that New York University had pulled its students from Florence. It was crazy, but surely I didn’t have to worry about leaving, right?

As I sat at my desk editing a photo during the same class, I got a text from a friend that his program had been suspended. He’d be gone by Thursday. Suddenly, it was real.

Walking home from class to share the news with my roommates that night, the city was emptier than I’d ever seen it. Cafes that were normally full of patrons were closing early. Everyone seemed on edge.

Within days of the first case hitting Florence, some of the friends I’d made were already on flights home.

The Piazza del Republica in Florence, Italy. The carousel has been closed for the recent lock-down.
The Piazza del Republica in Florence, Italy. The carousel has been closed for the recent lockdown. (Emma Witter | Collegian Media Group)

This initial wave of panic subsided as things calmed down for a day or two. My professors didn’t seem at all concerned, people were out and about again and Kansas State Study Abroad sent me an email saying I was alright to stay in Florence if wanted to.

That made it all the more shocking when I woke up to a message one morning from two other friends whose schools had called them home. When I woke my roommate up to share the news, she told me she was leaving as well.

Exhausted and terrified of the looming threat of travel bans, I booked my flight home. Days after I made the decision, K-State notified me of its recommendation for all study abroad students to leave Italy.

I was sure no one in the U.S. would understand what I was dealing with. One friend was even shocked that the outbreak was “that serious” when I told her I was heading home as a result.

Back in my hometown outside of St. Louis, Missouri, another girl who was living in Italy tested positive for the virus, launching my area into a grocery store ransacking panic similar to the one I had left behind in Europe. I came across an ocean to escape the stress and uncertainty of the virus only to find it waiting for me upon arrival.

For all the panic that led to me coming home prematurely, I was beyond underwhelmed by the response I was met with back in the U.S. No one seemed to be paying any attention.

“Where’s that?” a customs agent asked me when I told him I was traveling from Florence.

Oh, no worries, I thought. Just some random city in one of a handful of countries currently on lockdown.

So, for now, I’m at home, mourning the loss of my semester in Italy under a self-imposed quarantine, which I broke the other day to go vote. Don’t worry— I wore a scarf over my face, washed my hands, brought my own pen and didn’t cough or sneeze on the ballot. Democracy waits for no virus.

I’m not convinced anyone really knows what they’re doing or how to handle all that’s going on, but I do understand that this outbreak is more serious than many originally thought. I’d also like to point out that though it primarily affects the elderly and immunocompromised, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned. I’m not judging you if aren’t concerned — that was me a few weeks ago.

The air still feels like apocalypse if you ask me, and people all over the globe are feeling it too.

With schools all over the U.S., including K-State, suspending in-person classes, it’s clearly time to take this seriously, if you weren’t already. I’ll admit, I do feel weirdly lucky to have already been exposed to the panic that is just starting to hit the U.S.

This pandemic has given birth to an entirely new breed of study abroad girl. You thought your friend who lived in London for a semester and now won’t stop calling her apartment a “flat” was annoying? Hold my pasta, and let me tell you all about how strong my immune system is after traveling around Italy without a mask for the past month.

Also, wash your hands.

Emma Witter is a writer for the Collegian and a junior in mass communications. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Collegian. Please send comments to