In mid-October of 2020, I received an email from the Office of International Programs sent to all returned study abroad students, encouraging me to apply to work as a peer advisor. I laughed. Why would I ever want to work for OIP, or for that matter, interact with OIP ever again? Especially with the utter disorganization and poor communication in that office’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis when I was abroad?
In early 2020, I studied abroad as a student in the Brown in France program, and like most students abroad that semester, I ultimately returned home early due to COVID-19. As the situation across France significantly worsened in early March with exponential increases in COVID-19 cases, we heard nothing from the Office of International Programs. The most up-to-date information seemed to come from rumors circulating among students on our program’s group chat rather than directly from University administrators. Of course, we had been in close contact with our program director and staff, but we faced radio silence from the decisionmakers back in Providence, the administrators who actually have the power to make consequential health and safety decisions for Brown’s undergraduate study abroad programs. I am not the only person who had these concerns. In both the days leading up to the program’s cancellation and the weeks following our departure from France, the OIP failed to adequately communicate with us or provide sufficient support as we frantically navigated unprecedented, anxiety-inducing circumstances. This is unacceptable. It is one thing to make mistakes during a crisis. It is another to act negligently.
In an email from the OIP that we received in the early hours of Thursday, March 12 (Paris time), we found out that our program had been canceled and that we would have to return home. That same morning, we were called to the Brown in France office for a meeting at 9 am. In our message from the OIP, we were instructed to rebook our return flights or to purchase an economy class ticket to return home. OIP indicated that it would reimburse students for change fees and fare differences for rebooked tickets, or the cost of the ticket in the case of a new reservation. No additional details were given regarding flight pricing or expectations. After our 9 am meeting, many of us stayed at the Brown in France office where we opened our laptops, woke up our parents while they were still sleeping in the United States and frantically began to plan for our return home.
In a confrontational phone call that evening, I was told by the University that the flight that I had already booked was far too expensive to be reimbursed. Only after this phone call, as I was on an evening walk along the Seine back to my apartment, was a message sent out to all study abroad students in Europe at 9:30 pm local time, indicating restrictions for flight pricing, baggage fees and reimbursement. For some of my peers, this easily could have been financially prohibitive, given the extremely high cost of flights booked at the last minute. And by this time, most students in the Brown in France program had already made their travel plans; some students had even left France that same day.
After much back-and-forth and an appeal, the College informed me that my reimbursement would be approved. I flew home on Saturday, March 14 without incident and was reimbursed a few weeks later. Had I not advocated for myself through senior leadership in the College, I would have been forced to worry about the financial implications of purchasing a ticket home as instructed when I should have been free to solely focus on getting home safely at the dawn of a global pandemic.
Sometime around March 14, 2020, the University announced plans to resume courses online effective March 30 and added the following note to the covid.brown.edu FAQs page: “the Office of International Programs contacted all undergraduates who remain enrolled in study abroad programs to share information on options for maintaining academic continuity.”
This is not true; as a student in the Brown in France program, we had only last received a mass email from the OIP on March 12. For two weeks, I was left uncertain about what the rest of my education would look like that semester, with no other communication. It was not until March 31 that we did finally receive information from Providence about academic continuity.
It was a painful two months between my return home and the end of my (online) semester in Paris. While students attending the University’s program in Bologna, Italy were offered a full tuition refund if they were to withdraw from the program, my friends and I in the Brown in France program and other programs across the world were not afforded this option. This meant that I was stuck in online classes for months, having paid full tuition for a largely inadequate educational experience. My online education at Sorbonne Université was woefully insufficient. Personally, none of my classes held regular meetings over videoconference; at best, some instructors sent us their class notes, while a few of my instructors completely disappeared from their courses. At one point in the semester, I gave an oral presentation over videoconference to my professor—in other words, an audience of one. Students studying abroad in Italy were given the option to ditch their study abroad program, while we were forced to continue with a poor learning experience that certainly would not have met Brown’s expectations for online courses. I cannot help but wonder why there has not been any publicly available, official explanation as to why this was the case.
I certainly don’t blame the University for the COVID-19 pandemic, but I indict the OIP’s response. We have never received an apology from the OIP for its mismanagement and lack of communication. It is indefensible for the OIP to have provided inadequate and unclear instructions to students while they feared the prospect of being stranded in a foreign country at the dawn of a global pandemic. It was similarly unacceptable that the University did not do better to provide an acceptable education, relative to the extenuating circumstances, to study abroad students.
Studying abroad has been one of the best parts of my time as a Brown student, and it therefore pains me to tell students to think twice about doing so too. This is not because of the quality of Brown’s programs, but rather because of the OIP’s apparent aloofness, which left me and many of my fellow study abroad peers feeling unsupported during a public health crisis that called for our immediate evacuation. In my view, this was a complete dereliction of duty.
During the few months that I was at Sorbonne Université, I thought that the amount of disorganization and breakdowns in communication were horrendous. Unfortunately, the OIP succeeded in embodying the same bureaucratic nightmares that I experienced as a French university exchange student. I am glad that there are currently no students studying abroad on a Brown program. Although my friends and I all got home safely, I would not be comfortable telling students that they can trust the OIP to keep them safe.
Poom Andrew Pipatjarasgit ’21 can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this piece are entirely his own, written in a personal capacity as an undergraduate student, as opposed to any professional capacity. Please send responses to this opinion to [email protected] and op-eds to [email protected].