Coronavirus, Penn Pandemic Diary

Penn Pandemic Diary, Entry #7: How COVID-19 Taught Me Humility As A College Student Abroad

April 6, 2020
By Caroline Riise | Penn Pandemic Diary

Caroline Riise is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, majoring in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics.

It is currently 11:30am. If all was normal in the world I would be in the midst of a busy morning as an intern at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, perhaps drafting a research briefing on educational reforms or finalizing a speech for my parliament member to read during First Minister’s Question Time. Most likely, I would be planning a trip to my flatmate’s farm in the Highlands of Scotland, or maybe texting the other interns in my program about which pub or club we would be going to that night. 

Of course, all is not normal in the world. Not for me, and not for anyone else. Because of the rapid international development of the coronavirus pandemic, I am no longer abroad in Edinburgh, Scotland. I am instead in self isolation at home in Chicago, much like the majority of the United States population and many others around the world. 

The contrast between the old normal and the new normal could not be starker. For me and many of my peers, the semester abroad experience represented an opportunity to expand our independence, curiosity, and international exposure. Meanwhile, my return to Chicago marked the beginning of a period of indefinite physical and personal limitations. However, there are two truths that this experience has forced me to recognize are far more valuable than anything I would have gained through an extra two months in Europe.

The first truth is that my proverbial cross to carry was essentially nonexistent relative to most. I admittedly felt sorry for myself when the email from Penn’s Provost Wendell Pritchett arrived in my inbox telling all students studying abroad in Europe to return home. Regardless, it was impossible for this self-pity to last more than several days before realizing that my misfortune had been miniscule. 

I, along with the vast majority of undergraduates who go abroad, are young and healthy and more prone to devaluing the seriousness of COVID-19 as a result. But every student can look just one degree beyond themselves to find someone who has been more severely hurt by this pandemic. Whether it is the cousin who lost her bartender job due to the virus, the grandparent who can no longer risk visiting family, the health care worker down the street, or anyone within the ever-growing population of virus-infected individuals, the chain of impact is endless and heartbreaking. While spending a semester abroad is supposed to be a liberating coming-of-age adventure, the shift of focus away from myself and towards the greater good was an immeasurably more necessary experience for me than another weekend trip to the farm. 

This reminder of humility revealed the second truth: what I have now is more than enough. I may not have been able to finish my semester, but I’m grateful for ten unforgettable weeks in Edinburgh. I cannot see my friends or my boyfriend anytime soon, but I have relationships that are strong enough to stand the challenge of Zoom-only communication. I may not be able to leave my home, but I do have a home and loving parents.

So yes, my semester was not as expected. None of this is what anyone expected. These two truths have helped me understand and appreciate my place within the broader, deeply connected world, and I hope that they can offer some comfort to others, as well. I do believe that when the dust has cleared, we will come out of our apartments and houses and rejoin society as more empathetic and appreciative people. This might not be the typical outcome from studying abroad, but I nonetheless will be forever grateful for it and the lessons learned along the way.

The views expressed in the Penn Pandemic Diary are solely the author’s and not those of Penn or Perry World House.