As the coronavirus spread rapidly across the US and around the world in the spring of 2020, one group of college students found themselves in a perilous situation—those studying abroad. As countries shut down airports and sought to lock down their borders to keep the virus contained, BU and other US colleges and universities closed their study abroad programs and scrambled to bring their students home safely. For Willis Wang, it was an incredibly tense few weeks from March into April. “We don’t do emergency evacuations for a living,” says Wang, BU’s vice president and associate provost for global programs.
With more than 2,400 students from both BU and other US colleges and universities studying abroad in one of BU’s 90-plus programs, spread across 25 countries and six continents, it was a massive effort to track every student and ensure their travel plans.
Nowhere was the situation more tense than 3,000 miles away from Boston in Quito, Ecuador, where five BU students were struggling to get out, after 11 others had left before them. The city’s mayor had put in place a shelter-in-place order, meaning the students couldn’t get to the airport.
“We endured a week of uncertainty, of fear and worry, which paralyzed us in our rooms, unable to attend classes or think about anything other than our situation,” said Joel Herbert (CAS’22). Ultimately Wang’s team was able to book the students a charter flight, and the drama ended when they landed in Miami. “We are relieved that the entire effort went smoothly,” Wang said upon hearing the news, “and that all our Quito students were safely home.”