*Turin, Northern Italy (Photo: Tilly Single)

TilIy Single was looking forward to a year-long university exchange in Northern Italy – until the coronavirus turned it into a “red zone”.

The fourth-year Communications and International Studies student at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), had worked hard and saved hard for the opportunity to live in Turin.

“From the first general meeting in the first year of our International Studies course, we spoke about the trip and the finances involved in living abroad for a year.

“There were weeks where I’d be working almost full-time hours [on top of] full-time university, to save for this trip.”

Along with other exchange students, Tilly arrived in Italy on February 16:  “just in time for our orientation week, so we had a week of orientation and started preparing for the semester.

“Two days later they announced they were cancelling Uni for a week.

(Photo: Tilly Single)


“The thrill of travelling to a new place was still high, so we thought of the week off as a chance to explore our new home. But when they cancelled Uni for another week, started closing local shops, cancelling events and restricting travel, we began to worry.

She admits to having under-estimated the significance of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The moment I became really concerned was [when] our cohort received an… email from UTS, basically saying that the situation in Italy had worsened and that we’d be brought home.

“We were in a panic; high emotion; crying, anger. [It] wasn’t a good time.”

“There was no other information in the email and by this time it was 5pm in Australia, so most of the university offices had closed, which left us… stressed for around 12 hours or so.”

Tilly touches on the shift in attitude in Turin after parts of Italy were declared Red Zones.

“On the last couple of days, after Milan and Venice… I noticed a massive change in Turin.

“The lines for groceries were massive and people were starting to freak out. They closed every second till and made sure everyone stood at least a metre apart and it was a really tense environment.”

Since returning to Australia, she has been self-quarantining and negotiating her options.

The journey home from Italy (Photo: Tilly Single)

“We weren’t given much instruction other than to self-quarantine. We weren’t even tested unless we showed symptoms.

“At this point, I’m past the frustration and I’m just getting ready to take the next steps,

“Sure, the uncertainty of the situation isn’t great but we’re all in this together.”

“In hindsight, after all the stress… I’m very glad to be safe back in Australia.”

Other UTS students on exchange across Europe have been warned they too may be forced to return to Australia if their host country is also classified as a red zone.

Maegan Parker, a fourth-year Journalism and International Studies student, was never expecting her year abroad to turn out like this.

“Our host university, La Universidad de Granada, has been closed for 10 days now,” she said,

“My housemates and I were contemplating whether it would be safer to stay here in Spain and quarantine, or travel to the airport and return home,

“[But] we have to stay here now because… Spain has closed [its] borders and to get a flight home would be almost impossible.”

With no idea of a re-opening date for her host University, or whether she’ll be forced to return to Australia – Maegan is now nervously waiting to see what happens next.

Not far from Spain, in Aix en Provence Southern France, Law and International Studies student Murielle Abou Karam is also in the middle of the crisis.

“The new struggle is coming home,” she said. “Most people are willing to come home but airline [travel is] becoming more and more restricted.”

From this point, any student returning from international exchange will be placed in 14-day hotel quarantine.

— Suzy Taylor-Monzer