When the novel coronavirus outbreak presented travel challenges for Illinois Wesleyan
students abroad, the IWU community came together to help students return home quickly
The global reaction to the novel coronavirus felt like a series of falling dominoes.
News came fast with little time to digest the latest development before another update
scrolled across the screen. For travelers abroad, those falling dominoes threatened
to box them in and leave them stranded in a foreign land.
Fifty-five Illinois Wesleyan students were studying in 15 countries during the Spring
2020 semester. Other groups, like the IWU volleyball team, were traveling abroad over
IWU students studying in Italy, an early coronavirus hot spot, were required to return
on March 2. Less than two weeks later, all IWU students abroad — and international
travelers nearly everywhere — were assigned an immediate and mandatory task.
“It felt like wave after wave of crises,” said Stacey Shimizu, IWU’s director of the
International Office and Study Abroad program. “With each success, there was relief,
celebration, exaltation. But it was all shadowed by the question of what next? ”
The challenges presented by the unprecedented time were many: suddenly closed borders,
crowded airports, canceled flights, stress and anxiety amid the chaos. But the Illinois
Wesleyan community came together to negotiate those hurdles and to assist and empower
students faced with unforeseen circumstances.
“Bringing students home was a group effort, involving people at IWU, partners overseas,
travel agents, and the students themselves,” Shimizu said. “In the midst of all the
stress and uncertainty, colleagues acted with calm urgency, sharing information and
ideas, and responding at all hours.”
• • •
Being stood up, scammed and majorly stressed did little to weaken the resolve of Shakira
Cruz Gonzalez ’21. She was going to make it home.
“Failure was not an option,” she said.
The junior political science major had been studying abroad in Morocco for two months
before she was called to return on March 12. But, to get home, she had to endure a
marathon of waiting and a series of disappointments before returning to her hometown
of New Orleans.
“I wasn’t afraid. I was hopeful and optimistic, determined to find a way out, although
there were times I felt like the universe was against me,” said Cruz Gonzalez, who
was in the Moroccan capital of Rabat at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Every
time something new came to light, I became more determined and more focused on the
idea that I was getting home.”
Cruz Gonzalez first tried to move up her return flight home by two months. An hours-long
phone call with airline customer service was unsuccessful. A flight from nearby Casablanca
to New Orleans was then booked for a week later. It was canceled later that same day.
Plans were made to head to the Rabat airport early the next morning with students
from other universities, but the driver never showed. A frustrated Cruz Gonzalez then
took the advice of Shimizu, whom she had kept apprised of each development, and headed
to the Casablanca airport. There, Cruz Gonzalez went from counter to counter seeking
a flight home, but struck out over and over again.
Needing to clear her mind, she took a walk around the airport concourse when a kiosk
caught her eye. She was offered and purchased what she believed to be a $500 ticket
to France. But she was misled. It was only a wait-list ticket.
Though her frustration grew, so did her determination. Cruz Gonalzez continued to
search for a way out. She stayed in contact with Shimizu. She eventually learned that
flights to France were being booked only for passengers with pre-booked flights from
France elsewhere. Shimizu helped book a flight from France to the United States. Cruz
Gonzalez was then able to book a flight from Morocco to France.
After five days of anxiety and uncertainty, she was heading home.
“The two feelings I felt were sadness and gratitude,” Cruz Gonzalez said. “The sadness
I felt came from the realization that I was never going to be able to study abroad
again. … The gratitude came from the reminder that I was actually in Morocco, even
if it was only for a short time.”
Cruz Gonzalez had to rely on herself to navigate the difficult situation, but was
thankful to have an ally at IWU. “Stacey Shimizu is the hero in my story,” she said.
“She was so kind, patient, encouraging and resourceful.”
• • •
Illinois Wesleyan volleyball coach Kim Nelson-Brown awoke to a knock on her hotel
room door in Salzburg, Austria, at 2:30 a.m. on March 12. She picked up her phone
to check the time and was alarmed to see dozens of missed calls and text messages.
A half-hour earlier, seven time zones away, the U.S. had announced restrictions on
travel from European countries. Although there were many unknowns at the time, the
decision to cut short the remainder of the team’s exhibition tour of Austria and Germany
was made out of an abundance of caution.
Just how that would happen required swift coordination. Nelson-Brown worked with Illinois
Wesleyan Athletic Director Mike Wagner and a travel company to quickly devise a plan.
“Obviously, at 2:45 a.m., there’s not a whole lot to do,” Nelson-Brown said. “But
our travel company contacted me and encouraged us to start packing and head immediately
to the airport.”
The group, which included two coaches, 14 student-athletes and 22 family members,
departed at 5:15 a.m. that morning for the airport in Munich, which was believed to
offer the best chance for the group to travel together. They sought a flight — any
flight — that would return them to the United States.
The team’s bus was stopped at the German border and all its passengers were required
to get off and show passports. “Anxiety was high already, and you could tell some
of our group members were stressed when this happened,” Nelson- Brown said.
The group arrived at the Munich airport and secured boarding passes for a flight to
Chicago with a connection in Charlotte. Some players’ parents met the group in Chicago
to take them home. A bus was sent to transport the remaining group back to Bloomington-Normal.
Having closed campus and extended Spring Break for an additional week, those players
stayed the night at a local teammate’s house before returning to their respective
homes the following day.
“Besides being a 30-hour day, there was relief to be home so we could figure out what
was going on,” Nelson-Brown said. “As a coach and as a parent, I consider myself a
mom to these players, so there was relief to get them all home safely and together.”
• • •
Illinois Wesleyan Professor of Biology Given Harper remembers the exact time he began
coordinating travel back to the United States for the 24 students he was leading on
the Spain Program in Barcelona.
It was 3:13 a.m.
That’s when Harper received a text message from a panicked student in the early morning
hours of March 12. The U.S. had just announced European travel restrictions. Specifics
were hard to come by, but it was clear their trip would be cut short.
Harper worked with Shimizu to book flights back to the U.S. on March 15. Students
were instructed to be at the airport four hours before the scheduled departure, but
Harper’s phone started buzzing again on the taxi ride to the airport. Several students
reported they were not listed on the flight manifest.
Upon arrival at the airport, Harper bounced between airline counters seeking answers.
“We believe the flight was overbooked and the airline’s computer system was overwhelmed,”
Harper stayed in contact with Shimizu throughout the uncertainty. Four students booked
separate flights with help from their families. Meanwhile, Harper continued to work
the airline desks. Eventually, he and the students were encouraged to try checking
This time, the results were more promising.
Five students secured their booked seats. Thirteen were placed on standby. But two
more students were not in the system at all. Harper and his wife Jean offered their
seats to the students, but the airline would not allow the transfer. Luckily, a high
rate of cancellations (mostly European nationals not allowed to enter the U.S.) allowed
for those two students — and all 13 on standby — to board the flight.
“Jean and I told the students we would be waiting for them out in the terminal if
they were unable to board the flight. We assured them they would not be alone if they
did not make their flight,” Harper said. “Several minutes later I started receiving
a stream of texts from the students indicating they were able to board. Once I heard
from the final student, it took a minute or two for the realization to sink in that
all students would make it out.
“Needless to say, I was extremely relieved to hear such wonderful news.”
Amid the chaos, the Harpers missed their flight. Another was booked for the following
day. They taxied back to their Barcelona apartment where Given had wisely hidden a
key above the door, half expecting such a return. After hauling their luggage up five
flights of stairs at the end of an emotionally exhausting day, they collapsed on the
The streets of Barcelona were mostly deserted with shops and restaurants closed due
to the pandemic in the days before the IWU Spain Program left. But the city came to
life each night when Barcelonans gathered on their balconies to cheer and applaud
“They repeated their performance that night,” Harper said. “It was a profoundly moving
experience that brought tears to our eyes.”
The Harpers returned home to Bloomington-Normal the next day. The feelings at the
end of the ordeal ranged from exhaustion to disappointment to relief.
“I was extremely disappointed that the semester ended for the students, as I had put
my heart and soul into helping make this an experience of a lifetime for them,” Harper
said. “I believe they certainly had such an experience, although it was much shorter
than what we had hoped.”
• • •
Illinois Wesleyan’s efforts to return students to campus, or to their homes, was almost
a total success. Fifty-four students studying abroad, and groups like the volleyball
team and Collegiate Choir — which earned accolades while touring South Africa over
Spring Break — were able to return despite travel challenges.
One student, Thao “Jenny” Le ’21, was unable to return from Oxford’s Pembroke College
despite repeated attempts to book a flight from London to her native Vietnam. Shimizu
stayed in contact with Le on a regular basis throughout March and has continued to
check in frequently (Le was finally able to travel home to Vietnam in early June).
That continued support from Shimizu mirrors the cooperation between IWU officials
and others helping coordinate student travel during the coronavirus outbreak. From
Shimizu working with airlines and travel companies, to IWU International Student and
Scholar Advisor Robyn Walter communicating with international students, to Director
of Government and Community Relations Carl Teichman ’80 working with government officials
to navigate travel restrictions, the Illinois Wesleyan community came together at
a time when the situation demanded it.
“Although I wish our students had been able to enjoy their full semester abroad, responding
to COVID-19 has certainly made their time abroad both more memorable and more precious,”
Shimizu said. “Seeing the ways in which they initially fought to remain abroad, and
then the calm and competency with which they managed their return, has been a gift.
“IWU students are resilient, and I know that each one of them looks forward to the
day when they can again explore the world.”