A little over a year ago, in March 2020, Samford University’s international travel advisory committee called the students of the Daniel House informing them the program was being cancelled due to the new and impending coronavirus.
Local: How did you feel when you heard the program was being cancelled?
Elizabeth Pridgeon: Initially it was really a happy day. Some of us had gone to the Tate Modern, which ended up being one of my favorite places in London, so we were in a really good mood.
They announced that we were having a meeting, but I had no idea what it was. When we entered the room, all of us together, I looked at Jo’s face [a Daniel House employee] and I asked ‘are we being sent home?’ or something like that. She didn’t answer me and her face got really serious. I got a sinking feeling in my gut that we were going to be sent home.
Even as reports were getting worse, my parents were like, ‘No way you’re getting sent home. No other program had been sent home. You’ll be fine.’ But when they called us all in the room and the [Samford administrators] were on the phone call, I just knew it wasn’t good.
I remember people crying. I remember feeling shocked and this deep sense of loss and sadness, because I had been wanting to study abroad since the fifth grade. I had always wanted to study abroad in London, so it just felt like this dream, which had taken so long to achieve, was finally being taken away.
There’s all of these things that were supposed to happen to me. I had tickets to watch a theater production at the Globe Theatre and I had tickets to fly to Portugal to celebrate someone’s birthday. It was so overwhelming, this sense of loss, this deep sense of regret that I wouldn’t get to spend as much time with these like really wonderful people.
I didn’t feel really afraid because of COVID because I thought honestly, that Samford was being a bit premature in sending us home. I had no idea really what the coronavirus would turn into. I remember going out that day and trying to enjoy that weekend as much as possible, exploring our last days in London, saying goodbye to our internship, people even going to see Hamilton play.
Local: What did you do after the announcement? Did you go on spring break?
EP: After [the announcement] I called my parents to explain the issue and they encouraged me [and a friend] to go on that spring break, to enjoy the last few days and then come home. I remember at that time too, we were having to make decisions when our flights would fly out and where we would live.
It was a very stressful time that all of this was being put on our shoulders. It ended up that me and two other girls, Katie and Savannah, decided to go on spring break. We talked to our parents and we felt good about our decision.
On the morning of the eighth, me and Katie set out to go to Spain, which was our first stop in Barcelona, Spain. The other girl Savannah was going to meet up with us from Paris. So ultimately we decided to say, to just kind of make the most of our last week abroad. Fill an unfortunate timing situation with as much fun and just enjoyment as possible.
The first day in Spain went on without a hitch and the second day did as well so we ended up, exploring Spain, until we arrived in Switzerland on March 11th.
At that point more [COVID] reports were coming in, but at the same time we felt okay. I think it was the 11th that night or early morning of the 12th is when all of a sudden Trump announced the closing of the borders. All of our parents were texting us. Friends were texting us and so immediately we woke up.
Savannah’s dad ended up booking us tickets. We were the second to last row available on this plane to fly back to London. We had to call and get our flight changed from London to Atlanta. Originally we’re going to go to Germany the day after that, but we didn’t really feel comfortable.
That is when I really felt afraid that we were going to get stuck over there with no support. That’s the first time I truly felt nervous because of the coronavirus.
It was getting pretty serious and we ended up getting a flight out on the 14th. It was really hectic. Our flight was delayed. They had to go to a whole new plane. Everyone was trying to frantically check their luggage. They were waving baggage fees for everyone. We ended up waiting a really long time and I saw other study abroad programs coming back too.
The Local: What was the actual journey coming home like?
EP: I remember in the airport, waiting for that flight [back to the USA], trying to frantically grab souvenirs for my family. I had thought I would have more time to buy souvenirs for my parents and my sister.
I was just trying to grab onto anything that I could. I remember trying to buy myself some British candy as snacks, a little London key chain, etc. just so I could remember London. I was going to wait towards the end of the semester to buy some like special things.
Because of that, I don’t really have any physical things from London, but I guess I would say from the whole crazy experience it taught me that I’m stronger than I think. Young people are stronger than we think because without Savannah and Katie by my side, I don’t think I would have made it back to London (from Switzerland) without their support.
They kept me calm throughout that day. We were able to enjoy that last half-day in London. We were able to do a lot of fun things, a lot of touristy things that we hadn’t before. We really did make the best of the last day in London. It was really sweet, but a special time that we got to spend together.
When I got onto the plane, I realized that every seat was physically full and we took off. And I remember right before we took off in the airport, seeing people in masks and hazmat suits and thinking ‘Ugh, so dramatic. Why are these people wearing masks?’
But at that point I was getting nervous and I remember buying hand sanitizer wipes to keep my hands clean and wipe down the seat. Maybe that would protect me. Our flight, I think, ended up being nine hours. There was American couple next to me and I remember them announcing over the intercom they’d never done the COVID procedure before, so we’ll have to wait until they clear us.
When we landed forms were passed out to see if we had been to Wuhan China, which I hadn’t, but I had been into really highly concentrated case areas, both Barcelona and Zurich, so I was kind of nervous that they would maybe quarantine me.
After that, a man in a mask came in… We all got up and got out. There were people with masks waiting for us. At the time I felt like ‘this is a zombie apocalypse.’ After that, we had to wait in a decently long line and we were asked the questions, like, ‘where have you been?’
I was sweating because I was nervous. I had been to highly concentrated areas of COVID, but they let me get through. They didn’t take my temperature because we were either hours or a day ahead of them really cracking down on the coronavirus.
So I remember finally making it, being reunited with my parents and just feeling really exhausted and tired.
The Local: What was it like in America when we came back?
EP: I had to quarantine for two weeks after coming back, so it was just like very emotionally draining. I honestly didn’t leave my room for two weeks cause I was just so disappointed. At the time I didn’t want to see people from school.
In the beginning it really felt like that no one from Samford or friends offered us support for what we had lost. It really did feel like we were kind of alone in this together. I think the worst part is we were still taking classes after we got sent home too, like from our London professors. It was just really hard because in one class we would have been exploring museums, but I’m in my childhood bedroom. It did help a little bit that we were all together on this, but it was just really hard as well.
I was thinking of all the things I lost, all the things that I didn’t get to do, all the time that I would never get again. It was a very sad time. I didn’t like talking about my time in London to my friends or to my family for honestly like six months because I was so devastated by the fact that we had to get home.
Continuing taking those classes after it had happened and really feeling like no one was giving us sympathy or support was really a devastating experience for most of us.
The Local: What is it like a year later?
EP: A year later I still feel a little bit of sadness when thinking back to that day. Seeing how the events played out over the past year, I know that there’s no way we could have stayed. COVID was something that was in a timeline that was going to happen.
There was nothing we could do to prevent it. I think I will always regret how that semester ended and I will always feel sad for the group I was with and how we got sent back… all the things people had going in the city and their hopes, their dreams. But I think that also in a way, our group grew very close together because we share that experience now.
As a whole, it was very hard to talk about at first. Now being a year later and just having time to think, it still is disappointing and there are so many things I wish that could have happened, but there’s no way to avoid it.
Honestly, now I can say I have this really insane and crazy story that, a year ago, I wouldn’t even have thought possible. I’m just really lucky that I got back safe and that everyone on that trip got back safe as well.
I’m glad I got that last little spring break. It really meant a lot and I’m glad me, Savannah and Katie got to go together. We did have a really special time, even though it was stressful.