In the natural wonders of Charles Darwin’s lab on the Galápagos Islands, biology students and faculty from Montclair State University, who had left for one of the world’s most remote locations before travel was restricted, were mostly unaware of how the rest of the world was reacting to the growing spread of the coronavirus. During their “once-in-a-lifetime” research opportunity, the world beyond was quickly changing.
“There was little connectivity and you absolutely do not have CNN or the BBC coming through your TV in the hotel,” recalls Associate Professor of Biology Jennifer Krumins, who co-led the spring break research trip in early-to-mid March.
But the “snippets” of information the group received was enough to know the COVID-19 was getting bad. “We were all very aware that we were hidden away and we were silently tense about how we were going to get back,” says Krumins, who was relieved when they all returned home safe and coronavirus-free.
The group was among dozens of Montclair State students and faculty abroad when the spread of the coronavirus accelerated around the world. The outbreak overshadowed spring break adventures and cut short study abroad programs, including that of junior Public Health major Justin Inigo, who was studying in London.
“Coronavirus was always the topic of conversation, in and out of the classroom,” Inigo says. “We always joked about being sent home because of it, but I don’t think any of us actually thought it would happen.”
Kia Sabo recalls the middle-of-the-night reaction in Prague when a European travel ban was announced by President Trump: “My friends went into panic mode, crying at the tram stop and repeating the phrase, ‘This was not supposed to happen.’”
Oasis Before the Storm
The Galápagos Islands are “a giant classroom for ecology and evolution, for geology and oceanography and sustainability,” says Krumins, a specialist in microbial ecology and biodiversity. She organized the trip with Professor Paul Bologna, a marine ecologist, to make connections with the Charles Darwin Research Station for future education and scientific trips.
They traveled with 11 students, a mix of graduate and undergraduates studying biology. “We were snorkeling one day off the side of an island with sea turtles, seals and sharks, and the most amazing fish you’ve ever seen. Then, plastic garbage floats by,” Krumins recalls.
“It gives you this view of even where you think you’re in this pristine, preserved place, you see human impacts. It was a major learning experience.”
Six-thousand miles away in Prague, Sabo, a sophomore Business Administration major, was making the most of her time abroad, studying in cafes, shopping at local markets, walking thousands of steps each day. On weekends, she tasted the cuisine in Wroclaw, Poland (“best food, hands down”), skied the Swiss Alps and was awed by the architecture in Budapest. “I learned so much about community, culture and myself,” she says.
Ariana Leyton ’17, ’18 MS, a project coordinator for University Communications and Marketing, unplugged in the Norwegian fjords, a dream vacation for someone who had studied Sustainability Science as both an undergraduate and graduate student. Leyton was unaware of the scale of the crisis until family began frantically texting about the travel ban. The news had Leyton and her traveling companions scrambling for flights home.
Back in Prague, the 24 hours after Sabo learned she had to return to the United States was a “crazy mess of emotions.” She made rushed goodbyes “to new friends, the wonderful city I was studying in and all the adventures that could have been.”
Across the globe, the biology students in the Galápagos returned home on some of the last flights to leave Ecuador.
“We had some minor travel glitches, but in the middle of all that, a minor travel glitch can be pretty scary,” Krumins says. “I didn’t really realize the degree to which we were sitting on pins and needles until I knew everybody was safe.”
Studying ‘Abroad’ Without Leaving the House
All students and faculty who came home from overseas had to self-isolate for 14 days. Inigo and Sabo and other students who were studying abroad are finishing their terms online and passing the time with do-it-yourself projects.
“To be quite truthful, quarantine is boring,” Inigo says. “Right now, I’m purging my closet. I bought way too many clothes in London.”
Sabo is weaving a basket. “My mom also adopted another dog, so making sure the new addition is happy and mixing well is another task to keep me busy.”
The online classes present some challenges and bright spots. “We are expected to be on real time and real time is six hours ahead, so my noon class is now at 6 a.m.,” Sabo says. But there have been “great moments where we see community and humanity emerge. In my philosophy class we have had many discussions on topics that relate back to the crazy times that we are presently in.”
In a favorite photo from the trip, Krumins is leaning against a rock “looking professorial,” while students in the background splash in a Galápagos waterfall. She admitted to being in a funk for a few days after returning.
Then Krumins shifted gears to put her courses online and prepare for a virtual scientific meeting, adapting to this new normal, she says.
“It’s the same challenge we’re all going through, just completely refocusing your life.”