Leaving London: Introduction and Mary Virginia Stabler’s Story

Leaving London: Introduction and Mary Virginia Stabler’s Story

A little over a year ago, Samford University’s international travel advisory committee called the students of the Daniel House to cancel the program due to the impending coronavirus. 

Director of Global Engagement at Samford Lauren Doss remembered tracking the COVID-19 situation since January.

“It was beginning to look like the whole continent of Europe was going to be greatly impacted… To be honest, it felt like every day that we were facing was incredibly different.”

Doss was a part of the call that informed the students of the decision.

“We were all meeting multiple times a day, trying to figure out what to do.” 

Doss said that it’s sad seeing the Daniel House empty for a year. 

“We worked so hard to get the house renovated and get the proper staff in place, so it’s disappointing [to see it empty],” Doss said. “I think it’s one of Samford’s best values.”

After a year of vacancy, the Daniel House plans to welcome students soon. 

“We’re thrilled that we are moving forward with the Fall 2021 Samford in London program,” Doss said. “We cannot wait to have the Daniel House bustling again soon.”

Over the next week, members of the Local Staff will tell their stories of their study abroad experience being cut short due to the pandemic.

“What all did we miss out on?

-Mary Virginia Stabler, samford university senior, The Local director of advertising and promotion

The Local: How did you feel when you heard the program was being cancelled?

Mary Virgina Stabler: I was definitely confused, because, in my mind I was like ‘Oh, I know what they’re going to tell us. They’re going to say that we can’t leave the country for spring break.’ In my mind I was completely ready for them to say that. 

When they said ‘we’re ending the program,’ I was shocked and confused at first. Then as I started to see everyone else start to cry, I realized what was happening. 

When that hit me, it was absolutely devastating. I feel like to some people that might sound extreme, but for me, I had been waiting to travel and study abroad since middle school. I literally started saving in middle school. I knew I wanted to go to London; this was the trip I had literally been saving and praying and waiting for, for what seemed like my whole life. 

Being not even halfway into the trip and being told we were going home, it felt like they were breaking my heart and taking something away from me that I had wanted my whole life.

Local: What did you do after the announcement? Did you go on spring break? 

MVS: I had a unique situation with spring break because they told us if you want to stay for spring break you can, but if anything comes up, then Samford is not going to cover the extra costs. Having that in mind, it was really hard for me because I was going to be travelling alone, and I was the only person in the group that was going to do that. 

Photo courtesy of Mary Virginia Stabler

That’s something I’ve always wanted to do is go through England alone. I had all of these plans to see a statue of one of my family ancestors in a city, and I was going to go see that. I was going to go to Bath and do all of these tours. I was so excited for it, but I knew when they said ‘if something goes wrong, it’s up to you to get home,’ knowing I was going to be by myself, in my opinion, it was so much more worth it to have community and go home with a lot of people. 

As a college student, you feel this weird mix of you’re an adult, but also kind of not, and so I was like ‘even though I’m 21, I still wanted to have the adults of the trips with us because I needed more experienced travellers that the airports would take seriously if something was to go wrong. I wanted an authority figure to be around us, so for those reasons I decided to leave with the group instead of going on spring break. 

The Local: What was the actual journey coming home like?

MVS: I really appreciated that I still had a community around me. I had a lot of people to go home with, to look to, to experience that with. 

For me, I had never been outside of the country, so to then have to fly back in the beginning of a pandemic, I had no idea what that was going to look like. I was so anxious about going through customs, what they would do, and Samford kind of heavily implied that if you came back and had signs of COVID that you would be detained. 

Samford students have an opportunity to live in the university-owned Daniel House in London, United Kingdom.

I thought it was going to be this huge thing, so going through the airport, I was so thankful for the community. I know that if I would’ve tried to come back alone, I would’ve been terrified, absolutely miserable and so anxious about it. 

It’s funny looking back and thinking none of us were wearing masks. If we saw someone wearing a mask, we would’ve thought it was insane, but I don’t think we saw a single person wearing one. It was such a different culture back then, the way you talked about COVID, there was panic, but at the same time, we weren’t at the level of masks and staying at home in quarantine, etc. 

It honestly was super smooth coming home. I remember going through customs in ATL thinking that they were going to ask me lots of questions, take my temperature, etc, but all he asked was if I had been in China or Italy in the past weeks. 

I said no, he trusted me, and I went on my way. That was it. That was a blessing of peace and easy travel. We all needed that after being sent home so early.

The Local: What was it like in America when we came back?

MVS:  Coming back, it was really frustrating, for obvious reasons of coming home from a trip we’ve been dreaming of for lots of years, people weren’t taking COVID seriously, etc.

It was frustrating because when we came back, all of our friends from Samford were on spring break. So really, we came back to our parent’s house and just had to be alone and deal with it. By the time any of our friends were home from break and able to come see us, they were also now freaking out about COVID. 

I feel like one of the big things of studying abroad is you have so many experiences that you want to come back and tell people, especially as a storyteller myself, I was so excited to tell everyone what we did, show them all of my pictures. It felt like it got brushed off because at that point, America was now dealing with COVID.

 It was disheartening to come back and feel like you had this whole experience and it feel like it was just a dream; you weren’t able to talk about it with your friends, you’re separated from your group from abroad, so you come back to solitude where all you can really do is think about it and talk about it with the friends that were on the trip with you, but you don’t really get to share the experience the way you’ve always wanted to. 

Photo courtesy of Mary Virginia Stabler

I don’t want to sound like you study abroad just for the social clout, just so you can tell people about it, but it really is one of things that affects you so much since you are so involved in the community when you’re there long-term, so when something affects you that much, you want to share it with other people. 

Now, I feel like one of my love languages is making people a cup of tea, and I only do that because of London and Mrs. Leré  showing me how to make tea. If not for that experience, (making people tea) wouldn’t be something I would do. 

It’s not like making someone a cup of tea is a huge deal either, but to me, that encapsulates stories that come up now where my friends say ‘you never told me that!’ It’s sad because we didn’t really get to tell our story. 

I feel like part of the experience is coming back and telling everyone how changed you are coming back and aside from half of the experience literally being taken away, the sharing was taken away too in COVID’s solitude. 

The Local: What is it like a year later?

MVS: I still feel like I don’t have closure of wrapping up the trip since everything had to be so quick, so chaotic at the end. It feels surreal, in a good way, that I spent six weeks of my life living in London, but also surreal in a way, where sometimes I feel like it didn’t happen. 

Even those 6 weeks that we were there, it felt like so much longer, like 6 months even since your time is so fully packed with activities. London has so many things to do. Thinking ‘if that feels like 6 months, and we had 8 weeks left, what all did we miss out on?’ 

Looking back, it is very obvious that we needed to come home. I don’t know what we would’ve done in lockdown there. I think it was the right call, with hindsight, but it’s still devastating that something I waited my whole life for was taken away from me by something that is out of our control. 

People ask me ‘if you could go back and go a previous semester [to avoid COVID], would you want to?’ My answer is always ‘no’ because honestly to be there, with that group of people, we had an uncanny bond. Not every group had that. 

Photo courtesy of Mary Virginia Stabler

I could’ve sat down with anyone in the Daniel House and had a fantastic conversation with them. In the last few days, squeezing the ‘lasts,’ we split into different groups than usual, and it was just as fun as if I had done it with my closest group of friends in the house. 

It’s this weird feeling a year later to miss everyone so much, to miss being in London together, because we’re still the same people, but it’s so different from what it was there. It was so freeing to be in a different country where you could be anything you wanted to be. When you’re there, you can be bold. If it backfires, you’re going to leave this massive city in a few months, so embarrassing yourself literally doesn’t matter. 

That is so special, to be completely free to be who you want to be, so I feel like we got to know each other in our purest forms. Where someone could be reserved in Birmingham, instead I met them in London where they were bold, exciting and outgoing. It’s exciting to still see people that way, and have that relationship with them, as who we really want to be.