Ava Ratcliff ’21 is now at home in upstate New York after her School Year Abroad (SYA) in Spain was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic. SYA is a year-long study-abroad program that Andover founded with Phillips Exeter Academy and St. Paul’s in 1964. According to the program’s website, SYA Spain students live with a host family in Zaragoza, Spain, taking courses with SYA while also immersing themselves in the local culture. In this column, Ratcliff recounts her journey back to New York and offers commentary on both the challenges and opportunities posed by quarantine.
I left SYA Spain on March 13. My campus knew we were going home before our resident director announced it. Italy and China students were already back in the States (after a failed attempt to send the kids from China to Italy for the rest of the year). Earlier that week, the Spanish and French campuses gave students the option to go home and finish school online, or remain in-country and assume the risk of coronavirus. Twelve of the 63 students at my campuses accepted the offer to leave. Those who remained, myself included, felt like survivors. We were brave enough, dedicated enough (and stupid enough) to remain in the country. Our reckless, idealized bubble did not last. Two days after students were given the option to go home, President Trump announced he was closing the European borders in 48 hours, and Spain closed all its schools. I was coming home.
Twelve hours after I got the news, I was on the late train to Madrid, hastily packed suitcases stacked up in front of me. Everything felt normal. I had gone to Parque Grande with a friend earlier that day and we marvelled at the people on the Tranvía, maskless and hanging onto the poles. We retraced our steps to where we met on the first day, watching as clueless joggers and elderly retirees passed us. It was a time before masks and gloves and takeout.
We hugged goodbye at the airport and suddenly I was alone in Spain, boarding a nearly empty plane headed to London and then, after thirty-six hours of nonstop travel I was home in New York. I was exhausted, but also vaguely terrified. On the first page of my passport is a thick Spanish visa, proclaiming in thick black letters that I live in Spain. Trump had just declared that Spain was CDC Level 3: Do Not Travel. As it turns out, this visa meant nothing. I walked through customs with a TSA agent stopping me only to ask if I had travelled to China in the past month.
At the time, I was relieved. Now, I am furious. I was coming from a high-risk area and had spent time in two hotspots, Madrid and País Vasco. I should have been tested, or at the very least had my temperature taken. But, through whatever combination of white privilege and customs agents unaware of government protocol, I was not. We know now that the majority of coronavirus cases where I live, New York, come from Europe.[a] If I and others had been tested, maybe some of these cases could have been prevented.
I am writing this from my house in upstate New York. I am so lucky that my family and friends are healthy and safe. I am lucky that I live in a rural area, so I can go outside whenever I want. I am lucky that I have a stable internet connection, so I can talk with my friends and attend my classes.
Being home when I am supposed to be in Spain isn’t ideal. But, I feel privileged even missing Spain when I know lower-income and minority communities are struggling infinitely more than I am. This guilt isn’t productive, but I, like everyone else reading this column, can channel it into something that is.
I haven’t lived at home for an extended period of time since I was 13. I haven’t shared a room with my sister since I was 11. I’m using this year cut short as a way to reconnect with my siblings. I’ve realized that thanks to the five-minute phone calls that have served as our almost only form of connection for three years, I hardly know them.
Being home is not without its challenges, especially quarantine’s stifling pressure to self-improve. Some days I just lie in bed and talk with my sister across the room. I miss Spain and all the memories I thought I would make there. When the missing and the guilt and the fear for the future becomes too much, I try to remember what was going through my mind last spring when I decided to spend my Upper Year in Spain. I was so excited to immerse myself in a new environment, to take on new experiences. Being home has given me the hardest, most immersive experience yet. I’m excited to take it on.