Olivia Meyers was studying abroad in Moscow, Russia when the pandemic first hit in the Spring on 2020. She was excited for her experience, but was unlucky due to timing. We interviewed her to hear more about her experiences with being in another country during a pandemic and how she dealt with difficult decisions and more.
Q: Where and when did you study abroad? Why did you choose this location (academic program, outside motivation, etc) ?
A: I studied abroad in Moscow, Russia in the Spring of 2020. I am an International Studies major minoring in Russian, so I knew I would be studying somewhere in Russia since before I began freshman year. I was a part of the American Council’s Advanced Russian Language and Area Studies Program. I am really glad to have done my study abroad through American Councils because we went on weekly excursions around the city, were assigned Russian language partners, and were paired with amazing host families.
Q: Did the Covid-19 pandemic have a significant impact on your travels prior to departure from the US? What was your mindset at the time of departure?
A: Before I left for Russia, COVID-19 was the last thing on my mind. I left for Russia in late-January. It felt so out of reach, and there was little talk of it in the US and in Russia at the time. I truly thought I would be spending the entire semester in Russia and I mentally and physically prepared myself for four months abroad. I was actually planning to go to New York with my dad for a few days after I returned home from Russia. No one could have seen the chaos coming. Everything changed so quickly!
Q: How would you describe your host country’s pandemic response?
A: Russia shares a border with China and had closed the border before I arrived in Moscow. It seemed that Russians were worried about the pandemic a month or two before the United States based on their proximity to China and the large number of Chinese citizens visiting or living in the city. There was little talk of the virus among Russians during my time there and also as I was leaving. There were less than 100 confirmed cases in Moscow before I left, but I later figured out that many hospitals didn’t have COVID tests and were diagnosing possible cases as pneumonia or other diseases. There is a lack of transparency from the Russian government in general, so it was hard to gage how severe the situation actually was.
Q: How was your study abroad experience different than it would have been without the pandemic (ie what were your expectations)?
A: First, I had a lot of plans for the last two months in Moscow. I bought a ticket to go see a ballet at the world-famous Bolshoi Theater. I had plans to see a Russian band perform with some friends. We also had plans to spend a week in Stalingrad and also visit St. Petersburg for the weekend. It’s also definitely hard not to think about how much better I would at the language if I had two more months to practice. Second, once I arrived back to the US, my classes were all online and it was a pretty rough transition process. My professors are older and many of them didn’t understand how to use skype well or at all. At the end of the day though, we realized we couldn’t change the circumstances and we all learned to be patient and take it day-by-day.
Q: What was going through your mind when you made the decision to stay/leave your host country (reflect on outside forces and internal)? Would you have done anything differently in hindsight?
A: It was an extremely stressful decision. Ole Miss was telling students to come home, but technically my program in Moscow had not shut down yet. We were all very torn on what to do. My mom thought it was safer in Moscow and I should stay, but my dad begged me to come home. I was nervous that I would make the wrong decision. What if things blew over and I went home for nothing? What if Ole Miss and my dad were overreacting? But on the other hand, what if things got so bad that I couldn’t go home? Did I trust Russian healthcare to properly take care of me if I became sick? Did I want to be quarantined in an apartment with six other people if it came to that? Ultimately, I decided to go home and I am glad I did. A week later my host mom messaged me explaining how Moscow completely shut down due to COVID. All citizens were quarantined in their apartments and every public place was closed. They were only allowed to leave to go to grocery store or take out the trash. I went into study abroad planning to take advantage of everyday and I did. I was always exploring the city, discovering new restaurants and cafes, and meeting new people. I have so many fun stories and fond memories that I will never forget. I reflect on my time in Russia and realize that the skills and mindset I developed there prepared me to live with the uncertainty of COVID. I have learned to live in the present and accept the things I cannot control.
Q: Has your experience abroad during the pandemic affected your outlook on travel, healthcare, or anything else?
A: My experience abroad during the pandemic has changed my outlook on many things. For one, I was able to see how countries, other than the US, were handling the pandemic. While there were definitely things the US could have done differently, being in Russia during the beginning of the pandemic made me much more appreciative of the quality of healthcare we have the United States. Second, I became more appreciative of the experiences I did have while I was abroad. it was crazy to think that I was on the Red Square one day and the next I was in my bedroom in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I am able to look back at the experiences I had, the people I met, the places I saw before the pandemic and smile because I know that I took advantage of my time there. It also has shown me that no matter how hard we try to plan for the future, we simply can’t expect our plans to be set in stone. All we can do is live in the present and appreciate the time we have with the people and places we love.