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For a normal college experience during the pandemic, these students hopped continents

Natalie Smith, a second-year master’s student at Johns Hopkins University, was supposed to study in Washington this semester. But she’s now taking classes in person at a Hopkins program in Bologna, Italy. (Anna Fantuzzi/John Hopkins University)

When Natalie Smith walked into her macroeconomics class recently, she felt a wave of euphoria.

To see her classmates and professor in person, take notes and ask questions without having to awkwardly unmute herself on Zoom — “I was unnaturally happy,” she said, laughing. “I’ve never been so happy to attend an economics course.”

Never mind that her temperature was scanned when she walked into the building, that everyone was wearing masks and that she was in Italy, thousands of miles from Washington, D.C., where she had expected to study this fall.

Smith had found a way to get to Johns Hopkins University’s only campus that is not virtual this semester — its School of Advanced International Studies program in Bologna — joining an only-in-pandemic-times, scrambled-at-the-last minute community of “students in exile” whose lives have been upended by the novel coronavirus.

Those exiles include students like Smith, who so desperately wanted the normal college experience that she gambled on plane tickets and endured a strict video-surveilled quarantine at an Italian hotel to study at SAIS Europe. They include international students who couldn’t get visas to the SAIS campus in Washington because instruction there is not being held in person this fall. And they include students who had planned to be at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center who are now conducting their graduate study of China from the middle of Italy.

The students are now united in an unusual experiment, one that shows how intensely many students crave normal campus life and how radically some students and schools are willing to rethink the status quo.

Instead of set courses of study and divides among their three campuses, SAIS leaders have created a mash-up of Chinese, European and American classes, reimagining what a global school really means.

They’re doing it a time when there is very little education abroad this fall, said Melissa Torres, president and chief executive of the Forum on Education Abroad. U.S. universities have canceled most exchange programs during the pandemic.

Austin Bliss, a student from Missouri, had expected to be in Nanjing but is now taking a mix of online classes from professors in China, as well as in-person classes in Bologna. He is also befriending Chinese students in Italy.

Like others, he is bracing for more restrictions. There have been no coronavirus cases this fall among students, faculty and staff in Bologna. But in recent days, Italy reported its highest number of new cases since the pandemic began.

“I really hope it pays off and I don’t end up trapped alone in a room on a lockdown doing online classes,” Bliss said. “But it does feel really good to be here.”

In normal times, SAIS Europe is the antithesis of virtual learning, said Bart Drakulich, the school’s vice director. “It’s everything that online isn’t.”

Classes are tiny and intimate. The 200 or so graduate students come from dozens of countries to the school located amid the medieval brick buildings of Bologna, a lively college town. During breaks in classes, they typically walk downstairs with their professors to the school’s cafe, chatting over espressos about a scholar’s experience in Rwanda, or the toughest part of negotiations, or anything they’re wondering but wouldn’t interrupt class to ask. As classes wind down for the evening, those coffees often turn to glasses of wine. Some students bring instruments, and the conversations continue.

“It’s like a family,” said Sabrina Newton, a 23-year-old student from Tysons, Va.

“You know each other, you love each other, you hug, you grab drinks,” Smith said.

Students travel, both for fun and for school, to cities such as Brussels, Geneva and London to visit international agencies, talk with alumni and get new perspectives firsthand.

But the coronavirus forced the university to rethink everything.

The Nanjing campus was the first to switch to virtual classes, when the spring term began in February. Early in the pandemic, people were thinking of the coronavirus as a local issue, a problem in China, said Adam Webb, co-director of the Hopkins-Nanjing Center.

Then the virus hit Italy. In late February, a sudden spike in cases quickly shut down schools, said Michael Plummer, director of SAIS Europe. School leaders held emergency meetings and began offering the option of virtual classes.

“It was really fast-moving,” said Gabrielle Calabro, the director of student life at SAIS Europe. Italian officials would announce new restrictions at news conferences at 9 p.m. or 10 p.m., which school leaders would scramble to translate and put in place by the next morning.

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Many students were frantic, trying to decide whether to stay or go. Smith’s roommate packed up her things and left. Smith spent hours each day trying to figure out what to do, looking at rising case numbers when she needed to be studying for midterms.

In March, the government imposed a national quarantine. Everyone was required to stay home, with the streets largely empty but for police. “It was really eerie,” Plummer said.

Smith’s Italian friends had begun to tell her if she didn’t leave soon she might not be able to get out. She bought a ticket at 7 p.m., packed up everything in her apartment and got to the airport for a 5 a.m. flight.

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A few days later, back home in North Carolina, she took an economics midterm on Zoom from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m.

She had a class from 3 a.m. to 5 a.m. on Saturdays. Instead of meeting classmates on the school’s patio or cafe to work on group projects, she was trying to figure out times to Zoom that didn’t conflict with their European class times and could also work for a student back home in Indonesia.

“It was pretty awful, honestly,” she said.

Even as professors began adapting classes, Smith knew online-only classes in such an intensive program were not something she wanted to do again. Ever.

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Meanwhile, in Italy, things began improving. When the lockdown ended in the spring, school officials weren’t sure they could reopen in the fall, but they hurried to find things they might need. It led to creative efforts to get some scarce items, such as masks mailed from a graduate and others unloaded from the back of a car. Air-filtering equipment arrived just in the nick of time.

Program leaders began talking about their options.

In July, when it became clear that international students would not be allowed into China and classes in Nanjing would be virtual, Drakulich half-jokingly asked Webb if he wanted to come hang out in Bologna for the fall.

Webb proposed an “HNC in exile,” with he and some other faculty from Nanjing being based in Italy for the semester. The Bologna campus would be offered as an option for students unable to get to China.

The idea was a little mind-bending. And for some students, the answer was a hard pass. “For people focused on China — you don’t ever think, ‘I’ll do a semester in Italy!’ That was not on my radar,” Bliss said.

Bliss had been excited about the idea of studying in Nanjing since his first year in college and was devastated to learn he couldn’t get there. But after months on Zoom in his parents’ house, any menial job sounded better than online classes.

When the Washington campus decided to go all-virtual, the offer to study in Bologna was also extended to those students, most of whom typically spend the first year of the master’s degree program in Italy.

Smith was registered to study in Washington with a lease and two jobs when the announcement came out.

In less than two weeks, she had her escape plan: She applied to transfer, got an answer on whether her financial aid and scholarships would follow her (they did), found housing in Bologna and booked a flight. The timing was crucial: She needed to land before her Italian residence permit expired in late August, and with enough time to quarantine before classes.

The exile plan didn’t just upend students’ plans, but also school operations. They had been thinking about how to forge closer connections between campuses, said Eliot Cohen, dean of SAIS. “Covid has forced us to do that.”

The campus in China had always been more of an outpost, said Webb. But this year, with common challenges and better technology for communicating, all three SAIS campuses have been working closely. They are taking advantage of ramped-up virtual courses to allow students to take classes from multiple campuses. They’re also considering a new degree program and talking about having students interested in Sino-European issues travel between the Nanjing and Bologna campuses.

“After this plague we’ll be stronger for it,” Plummer said.

Meanwhile, in Bologna, things are a little different on campus. Fewer students are at school at any given time, and the bartender in the cafe is not allowed to serve alcohol this fall. Students tend to leave campus after their last class now, said Lorenzo Marchetti, a student from Italy.

And there are now Chinese-language and bilingual events for students who had expected to have Chinese roommates and immersion in the language and culture.

“It’s surreal,” said Nick Kaufman, a 23-year-old student from Boston whose Fulbright research in rural China was abruptly cut short by the coronavirus. He finished those studies in Massachusetts this spring. He, too, expected to be in Nanjing this fall.

“Maybe I’ll be in South America next,” he joked, “to study China.”

But he is grateful to be in Bologna and go to events on campus, such as a talk by a former Finnish prime minister about power dynamics between the United States, Europe and China. “This is a socially and intellectually isolating time,” Kaufman said. It’s nice to walk past a flier for an event, he said. “It’s kind of what you want out of graduate school.”

Smith was grateful and happy, too.

“Even to have half a semester in person, and having to jump through all the hoops I jumped through,” Smith said, “it was definitely worth it.”

A photo caption initially misidentified a SAIS student seated in a classroom as Austin Bliss. It is Nick Kaufman, a SAIS student from Massachusetts.