Study abroad group returns early with mixed emotions


Photo courtesy of Keltoum Rowland.

Ever since COVID-19 struck American soil, students’ lives across the country have stilled. Colleges are shutting down and transitioning to online classes. Upcoming events are cancelled. For many, graduation commencement remains uncertain. 

At Southern Miss, alongside summer study abroad postponements, the spring semester Château Program has ended abruptly. The Château Program, ideal for freshmen and sophomores, offers 15 credit hours in French, English, and political science courses. The students live at the Château de Pourtalès in Strasbourg for much of the semester. Though students can typically withdraw from the program at any time, university officials and the Office of Study Abroad have decided to cancel the on-site portion of the program entirely. 

On March 14, 23 students and professor Keltoum Rowland returned to the United States.

“The program was supposed to be until April 28, but had to be cut short due to the CDC level 3 for most of Europe,” Rowland said. A French professor, Rowland is the director of the Château Program as well as an honorary consul of France.

Rowland also clarified that the students will continue to take the French and English courses online. The political science course was an early January class that every participant had to take before embarking to France.

The Château Program members experienced France in its final days before shutdown. Though trips to major areas and events were canceled, such as the European Parliament and the Louvre, the French citizens themselves were described to be mostly at ease and calm. 

“The French people, to me, were not reacting in the crazed way that Americans are. The government was taking necessary actions and precautions, but citizens weren’t going to stores to hoard toilet paper or hand sanitizer, that’s for sure,” sophomore English licensure and French double major Olivia Ladner said. 

“For the most part, it was normal. You mainly had people wearing masks on the public transportation,” sophomore elementary education major Chandler Lersch said. 

Only on their packed flight home did the group discover that France announced a nationwide lockdown. The lockdown closes all nonessential businesses, such as cafés, restaurants and museums.

Ladner described the flight from Frankfurt, Germany, to Dallas as super crowded and stressful. She said everyone was wearing masks in fear of catching the virus from the contained and circulating air.

Similar to the Southern Chorale students that returned to the United States in February, the study abroad students will have to self-quarantine and self-monitor for at least two weeks. No one in the group is required to be tested for COVID-19.

“When we touched American soil at the DFW Airport, we had to fill out a form and be interviewed by CDC officials before we could go through security. We were told that once we were home, we would have to be self-isolated for a period of fourteen days,” Clancy Slay, freshman healthcare marketing major, said. 

Slay added that the study abroad group is also being closely monitored by Southern Miss health officials at the Moffitt Center.

“We would all love to see our families, but may not be able to for their safety,” she said. 

Despite the early cancellation of the Château Program and leaving their new French companions behind, some students, like Lersch, were happy to return home.

“I would much rather be here at home than in Europe, even if there are confirmed cases. I just feel a lot more stable and safer here, because now I won’t have to worry about being able to get home or not,” Lersch explained.

In comparison, Ladner would have preferred to stay longer.

“I was mainly scared of getting sent back early,” Ladner said. “I’m not happy that we got sent home. The U.S. is in the same state virus-wise as France, and I felt way more secure in Strasbourg than I do back in the States.”

Regardless of personal feelings, the last national disasters in recent memory for some college students are Hurricane Katrina or 9/11. On a broader scale, not since World War II have citizens across the world experienced the same crisis at the same time. 

“It all seems unreal to me,” Clancy said. “I can’t help but wonder how [the coronavirus] will affect my future college career. I think this does have a direct effect on how I view the staff of Southern Miss and everything they do for the student body.”

University updates about the coronavirus, including hours and event cancellations, can be found at