Covid-19 on Alden Street: The experience of a lifetime, cut short

By Jacob Johnson

The clock read 3 a.m., but the panicked chatter of over 20 students rang through the open villa residencia on the early Thursday morning, with midterms hours away, that was the last thing on anyone’s mind. Tirzah McMillan lay in her room atop all the hectic conversation, when Xavier Gibson came bursting through the doors, not even time to knock, with the tragic news.

“Trump just created a travel ban, everyone is trying to find tickets right now, what are you going to do?”

To which Xavier got the no hesitation response from Tirzah: “I’m going to deal with it in the morning, leave me alone.”

This is not how Springfield College senior Tirzah McMillan envisioned her final days in Spain, having to scramble across multiple continents in a dream-like state to flee to the safety of the United States during one of the worst pandemics in recent history. The Covid-19 pandemic has had massive implications on all aspects of daily life across the globe, and students studying abroad like Tirzah and Xavier are no exemption from that list.

Tirzah, from Haddonfield N.J. and a senior Communications/Sports Journalism major at Springfield College, began the 2020 spring semester studying in Seville, Spain, the Spanish city in the southern region of Andalucía, bustling with traditional Spanish culture mixed with a touch of today’s popular culture. In Seville, she attended the University of Seville, a mostly commuter university of over 65,000 students.

Tirzah had been looking forward to this international experience for a long time. She describes herself as an “advanced conversational” in Spanish, a humble statement. Tirzah only began taking Spanish classes as a freshman in high school, but had always been interested in learning not only the Spanish language, but the Latin culture as a whole. It was not only her interest in the language that drew her to learning it, it was also her desire to create friendships with many different kinds of people from different backgrounds.

“I had a knack for the language… I like to surround myself with different kinds of people, and that’s what drew me to the Spanish culture,” she said.

That’s where the inspiration began to spend a whole semester immersed in the culture of Southern Spain. From the moment Tirzah arrived in Madrid with the rest of the Academic Programs International (API) students and got a tour of the bustling, modern metropolis, to the four-hour ride that separated her from the strong culture of Seville and the heritage-rich southern state of Andalucía, she took advantage of her many opportunities to immerse herself in a culture much different from her own.

A photo of Tirzah during her time abroad. (Photo Courtesy of Tirzah McMillan)

Seville, Spain provides a much different experience for students and tourists alike compared to other highly visited cities like Madrid and Barcelona. Everything from the architecture to the variations in the Spanish language are distinct from the rest of the country. The buildings have a heavy Mediterranean, Arabic influence, varying in vibrant, unusual colors like yellow and green flat roofed buildings.

While many students studying abroad share a small apartment or homestead with people from the same university as them, Tirzah traveled to Seville with Xavier Gibson, a fellow Springfield College junior, and lived with 20 other students from around the United States in a large residencia. Aside from a residencia mother that would check in once in a while, it was just the students. Three stories tall, the center of the residencia leads up to an open ceiling that pours fresh air into the building. The building did not even accommodate a laundry dryer, leaving hanging your clothes in the sun as the only way to dry them.

It was everything that Tirzah wanted in an abroad experience, only to be cut off by the worst pandemic in over a century.

While Tirzah and Xavier are now completing their studies from home through online means, the academic experiences that they took away from Seville will last a lifetime. “I learned a lot from the classes,” said Xavier. “Just being immersed in the culture and talking to locals, or something as simple as going to a restaurant or bar taught me so much about the language and the people. The academic side of my experience was great,” he added.

Xavier is a junior Physical Therapy major, also having complete fluency in the language which led to him wanting to spend a semester in Spain. However, many of the classes he took in Seville did not directly relate to his major and were major cultural experiences for him, like painting.

Perhaps the most unfortunate part of Tirzah’s experience being cut short is how her classes operate now over online means. Tirzah took many of her Visual and Performing Arts credits in Spain, including her favorite class; Flamenco. The class was not even taught at the University of Seville, where the bulk of Tirzah’s learning took place. She went to an actual Flamenco studio, and also invested in skirts and shows specifically for the folkloric dances and music.

“I knew I couldn’t leave here without taking this Flamenco class,” she said.

But Flamenco was not the only dance that Tirzah added to her repertoire, from riding camels on the beaches of Morocco and belly dancing at large API dinners, to dancing at the Spanish version of clubs, called ‘discotecas’ into the late evening and early morning hours, dance is a key to happiness for Tirzah.

“I love to dance, and dancing is the one way that I always get out of my head, so I’ll always remember Spain for their discotecas. In America we call them clubs, and I’ll never forget barhopping with my friends and ending up on a dance floor until 4 or 5 a.m. That’s what I’ll always remember, I feel like I’ve never really had the opportunity to enjoy myself like that. I find it a lot more safe in Spain. I feel like even just going out here isn’t safe sometimes.”

But all of that came to a screeching halt when President Trump placed a 30-day travel ban for all European countries on March 11th, and the only option that Tirzah had was to pack up her entire life, and spend hundreds of dollars on a plane ticket home in a seeming scramble for safety. The morning of March 12th, Tirzah woke up and by herself found a plane ticket home that took all but a linear path to John F. Kennedy airport in New York City. Her first stop was Barcelona, where Tirzah would find a connecting flight to Moscow, Russia, going through their customs and CDC, and only then being connected on a 10-hour flight back to America. Over 24 straight hours of flying across half the globe, countless time zones, and Tirzah’s abroad experience had come to a crashing halt.

From the early days of being in Spain in late January and biking through the streets of her new temporary home, learning the Flamenco in a real Flamenco studio, to dancing the night away at the various discotecas across Seville, there is no doubt that Tirzah and Xavier had experiences that will last a lifetime—even if they were cut short by the pandemic of a lifetime.

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