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Exchange student recounts her journey back home to Spain in a time of pandemic

*Editor’s note: Ines Ayrault Montero is an exchange student from Madrid, Spain, who is in SF State’s Journalism 575 Community Media this spring. Taught by professor Jon Funabiki, the class is a collaboration with El Tecolote.

I started my exchange program at SF State on Aug. 18, 2019. I was thrilled. I didn’t know at all what I would face during the next 10 months, but not in a million years  would I have imagined what would happen. 

The first semester was great. I met a lot of people, had fun in class, visited the city and the Bay Area. Everything was perfect. I went back to Spain for Christmas, and January 21, I was back in San Francisco. 

By that time, there were several news stories about a new virus that had emerged in China, the novel Coronavirus, COVID-19. Nobody but the Chinese seemed to be worried about it. Until the virus traveled beyond China’s borders. I remember that since the beginning of March, the situation was starting to get tense. 

The virus had made it to Italy and the cases were rising really fast. When the problem started growing in Italy, the people in Spain started to worry about the virus as well. 

Eventually, the inevitable happened, COVID-19 arrived in Spain. Every day, the number of cases rose, especially in Spain’s capital city, Madrid, which is also my native city and where all my family lives. I started to be worried, nobody really knew what was happening, and things were changing very fast.

I remember that everything started changing here on March 9. Every day of that week, I woke up with some news about the COVID-19 crisis. First, they cancelled classes. I attended my last face-to-face class at SF State on March 9, but classes weren’t officially suspended until March 11. 

Due to COVID-19, exchange student from Madrid, Spain, Ines Ayrault Montero returned home on March 23. Courtesy: Ines Ayrault Montero

From that day, me and my Spanish roommates decided to do a voluntary quarantine. We knew how the situation might evolve due to our connection with Spain, so we knew that the most responsible thing was staying home. At the time, some might have thought that we were overeating, and that those precautions weren’t necessary yet in the United States. But we knew that the U.S. would eventually be in the same situation as Spain, and things were getting ugly. Let me explain to you a little more about how things were in my home country at that time.

Due to the diffusion speed of the virus, the Government of Spain started taking action. All classes, schools, high schools and universities, were cancelled by March 10. Unfortunately, the population didn’t take this as a warning of the danger, but as a vacation. Everybody went out to the bars, restaurants and parks. This government’s  action was meant to stop the gatherings of large crowds, but they got the opposite effect. 

That same weekend, the Government announced that a national quarantine would be established on March 16. The quarantine force everyone to stay home, with some exceptions like going grocery shopping, going to work if you’re not working remotely, going to the doctor and a couple more. If you stepped a foot in the street without one of those purposes, the police would fine you. 

It was then, when the situation got that extreme, that my parents started to be seriously worried about me being so far from home. And so was I. 

Schools began to close in San Francisco. But the situation still wasn’t as difficult and hard as it was in Spain. There were no restrictions. We were free to move all around the city. Authorities were just asking for distancing and caution. 

Nevertheless, COVID-19 changed all our plans. First, classes. Then, Trump cancelled all flights coming from Europe, which meant that my parents couldn’t come visit me on April 1 as we had planned. Then, as we decided that the most responsible thing to do was stay home, we cancelled our plans for Spring Break. We bought our flights to Hawaii in November, and we had everything planned. 

At that point, all the Spanish students that were in SF with the same program as us started to freak out, and their families too. Our parents were really worried that we would get sick so far from home, especially in a country that has no Public Healthcare (as we do in Spain), because it might cost a fortune to get medical attention for COVID-19 or any other disease. That’s why everyone started to go back home little by little. 

So, in one week, there were no classes, no Spring Break, no visits from our families, our home country living a national quarantine and we had no clue of what was going to happen next. Also, everyone was flying back home, which meant also leaving San Francisco for good. But me and my roommates were resistant. 

We thought that this virus had taken enough from us to let it also take our year studying abroad. We were planning to stay home until things get better around May or June, and make some trips by that time. But we were being too optimistic, even naive. 

By March 16, all of our Spanish friends were already in Spain or had bought the flights for going back. We talked to our parents to see what they thought, and we realized that it was impossible to stay. Our parents would be paying the ridiculously overpriced San Francisco rent and our maintenance for us to be locked up in our house and learning nothing. Also, they would worry about our health and wellbeing every day. My father even had sleeping problems because of that. There were too many reasons for us to leave, so on March 18, we purchased our flights, and by March 23 we were back home.  Our program was over 3 months earlier than we thought. 

COVID-19 ruined what it was supposed to be one of the most amazing semesters of my life. But, honestly, I’m glad that my family, friends and I are healthy and safe. Since this started, I’ve been saying the same, to stay positive: “I wish the worst thing that ever happens to me in life is that I have to stay home.”

With this I mean that, even within the tragedy that we were experiencing, we were all safe and had the possibility of staying home. 

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