A study abroad dream ends as borders close due to COVID-19

By Colton Hartzheim

A volcano erupted. Ash filled the air, shut down the airports and trapped Jordyn Verzera in Europe for a couple of weeks. She was there for a fourth-grade class trip. With no way back home, Jordyn and her classmates stayed and explored several different countries.

Jordyn, now fresh out of college, said this aspect of traveling is why she is so passionate about it. She never knows what will happen.

Her fervor for travel had always tempted her to study abroad. After years of rejections, Jordyn was finally able to during her last year of college.

It went smoothly until COVID-19 nearly trapped her and her boyfriend in Europe with no means of getting home.


 A poorly-timed visit

In March 2020, Jordyn had been studying in Luxembourg for two months. Her boyfriend, J.T. Mocarski, was back home in Arizona. It was near the end of Northern Arizona University’s spring break, and J.T. was packing. Jordyn made him get a passport a few months into dating, and he was about to use it for his first time overseas to see her.

J.T. left on Friday morning, only a few hours before the U.S. banned nonessential travel. He texted Jordyn before boarding his flight to Frankfurt that he did not know if he could enter the country.

Jordyn stared at her phone. The first case of COVID-19 in Germany was in January. Earlier in March, she and thousands of others went to the Cologne Carnival. How could it be such a threat now?

J.T. made it into the country. It took five trains to make up for missing her bus, but Jordyn made it to the airport to meet him. After the airport employees’ rude glances that seemed to ask, “Why are you here?” J.T. felt more at ease amid the uncertainty when he saw Jordyn.

After one day in Luxembourg together, the “new normal” of the pandemic began to show. The couple’s trips to restaurants became trips to grocery stores. Exploring iconic landmarks became exploring abandoned buildings. Countries began to close their borders. First, a country far away, then a neighboring one and then Germany’s, the country from which J.T. was supposed to leave.

“We might as well stay put and figure this out until travel picks up a little more and gets everyone out,” J.T. said.

Jordyn agreed until she pulled out her phone to check her email. A message from her school stared at her.

“If you are not on or in transit to U.S. soil in 48 hours, you will be dropped from all of your courses, and your tuition will not be reimbursed.”

The school sent the email the day before, but she had missed it. Now, Jordyn had only 24 hours. Airports were canceling flights. Train stations were canceling trips. Taxis were out of service.


The race home

Jordyn called her mom, each of them exchanging their panic from over 5,000 miles away.

Jordyn’s sister Kalli was not as concerned when her mom told her the news. While her mom lay restless in bed for the next two days, Kalli laid back and watched TV.

“Jordyn always figures her way out of whatever the situation is,” Kalli told herself. “She’ll be fine.”

Kalli remembers when her family moved to Arizona and her mom went out of town for a few days. Jordyn did not crumble under the pressure of having to balance classwork, navigate a new city or take care of her two sisters. Instead, she sat her sisters down and immediately figured it out, giving them their whole schedules for the week in five minutes.

Kalli knew her sister would be just as quick on her feet now.

Jordyn stormed the U.S. embassy with phone calls, demanding they told her how to bypass the closed borders.

“If you want to get out of Luxembourg, you have to go through Paris or London.”

She whipped out her laptop and booked a flight to Paris that left in six hours. Jordyn and J.T. rushed to pack. Jordyn called her friends one by one until she found someone who could drive them to the airport. A friend of a friend of a friend Jordyn had never met came to the rescue.

They crammed their bags and some stuff Jordyn’s friends left behind into the Kia. No traffic stood between them and their flight.

The airport boomed with anxiety. A woman argued with staff because they would not let her on the plane. Jordyn and J.T. sat and observed the chaos in silence. They watched the board as it passed out the dreaded “Canceled” to unsuspecting flights. The flight to Paris before theirs fell victim.

They only knew they were safe when they boarded the plane.

The plane was less than stellar: propellers on the wings, only about 30 seats, and a carry-on space so small that the flight attendant had to strap Jordyn’s bag into an empty seat. At least the flight attendants gave out beer.

The propellers revved up, and the plane took off. They were one step closer to home.

As they flew into Paris, they saw the Eiffel Tower lit up against the sunset.

“We should go —,” Jordyn began to say. The glow of the city mocked her.


Leaving a life behind

They landed and explored their second airport of the day, going to the gift shop and getting the most filling meal they could find: ladyfingers.

They knew they would have to spend the night in the airport. They tried to go to the part of the airport with chairs, but security stopped them.

“Your flight is in the morning. You can’t come through.”

“What are we supposed to do?”

“Figure it out.”

The two scavenged the room and found an empty corner to spend the night. Jordyn laid down her blanket and got as comfortable as she could. The room was silent except for the sound of a guitar. The guitarist played for a circle of people, their heads lying limp in each other’s laps.

Jordyn and J.T. woke up with stiff limbs as the sun entered the windows. They got up and passed the terminal for the plane that would take them back to America. As they waited, they bought a sandwich to share.

“I spent the past two months eating the best food of my life, and now I’m eating this,” Jordyn thought as she ate her first real meal in 24 hours.

At last, the speakers announced their flight. The couple hurried to the plane that would take them away from the continent. It was the last plane leaving the airport that day.

For every breath of relief Jordyn took, she took another of distress. She would make it home in time, but she was leaving behind the home she made in Europe.

She turned her attention to the in-flight movie, “Chinese Puzzle,” to distract herself. Jordyn was familiar with the film. It was the third in a trilogy about studying abroad. The first movie made her want to study abroad. The second fueled her excitement. The third ended her trip.

Edited by Isabella Sherk