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Credit: Felicity Yick

Police cars patrolled the streets every hour, blaring stay-at-home messages below the apartment window of 2019 College graduate Wilson Fisher, as he quarantined for seven weeks in Ukraine. 

Fisher, a 2019-2020 Fulbright grant recipient, spent months in Ukraine researching the contemporary art community as an art historian, curator, and writer. Sheltering in place during the pandemic allowed him the opportunity to continue his work abroad.

Fisher, however, was in a rare situation in comparison to his Fulbright cohort.

Penn's Class of 2019 included 14 2019-2020 Fulbright awardees. While a few of them chose to stay in their host countries, most program participants rushed home as Fulbright programs were terminated worldwide and national borders began to close, leaving behind their unfinished projects abroad.

On March 20, the Fulbright program was suspended for all American citizens participating in the U.S. Fulbright Program. The cultural exchange program provides individuals with grants to study, research, or serve as English Teaching Assistants in classrooms across the world for up to 12 months. Due to the coronavirus, all current participants were asked to return to the United States in mid-March.

For three weeks, 2019 College graduate and 2019-2020 Fulbright grant recipient Fjora Arapi was trapped under strict lockdown measures in Albania, where she was conducting an independent research project on religious identities. With the lack of in-person interactions under quarantine, Arapi said her work became nearly impossible to continue.

“I pretty much stayed in my apartment a lot,” Arapi said. “It was much, much, much more strict than anything happening in the US.” 

The U.S. State Department offered all Fulbright participants worldwide the opportunity to voluntarily leave their programs on March 13. Arapi, however, decided to stay in Albania despite the warning. The harsh restrictions made her feel Albania was safer than a plane full of Americans returning home, Arapi said.

When Arapi received the second message on March 20 that Fulbright was suspending all programs, she said she thought to herself, “Why should I sit here and pay rent to sit in an apartment doing nothing?” and decided to take a flight home.

“Ironically, the flight that I took out of the country was one of the last flights because after that the airport pretty much closed,” she said.

Like Arapi, 2019 College graduate Caroline Scown initially chose to remain in her host country of Taiwan where she was an ETA. When Scown received the second and more urgent Fulbright notice on March 20, she immediately started looking for flights. Scown was hoping to book a flight to Singapore, where her parents live, before the country's borders were set to close that evening.

“I was about to jump on a flight that afternoon, leave all my stuff behind and just try to get into the country,” Scown said. 

She ultimately decided to live with her boyfriend in the U.S. rather than rush into a country as its borders closed. 

2019 College graduate Savi Joshi, who was working as an ETA in Malaysia, said returning to America felt like a race against time. Joshi said she watched Singapore’s borders shut down as she sat at Kuala Lumpur International Airport waiting for her flight.

“Literally there was always this perpetual fear in our head like is the US border going to close?” Joshi said.

Joshi said she and the other ETAs in Malaysia left in haste as the country began to go under lockdown. 

“We actually left our hometowns looking completely normal and then we came to an America that was completely shut down,” Joshi said. “It made the contrast a lot more stark.”

Joshi said one of the challenges she faced was discussing with her Fulbright community in Malaysia why she had to leave. “Especially for my younger students, they don’t fully understand that I’m not coming back as an ETA,” Joshi said.

In Mexico, 2019 College and Wharton graduate Mark Rinder also found it difficult to explain his sudden departure to his community. Rinder received a Fulbright grant to participate in the Binational Business Program for which he interned with Endeavor, a Mexican non-profit that promotes entrepreneurship. 

Rinder decided to return to the U.S. when he received the first message from Fulbright on March 13 that offered voluntary leave from the program. Originally, Rinder said his employers did not understand why he was leaving.

“When we first spoke, they didn’t really understand the magnitude of the global health crisis that was going on and neither did I because in Mexico we didn’t feel it yet,” Rinder said. “It was just something you saw in jokes and in memes and in casual conversations.”

Rinder said he was one of the few people in his program who was able to sign a new contract with his internship company once his program was terminated in March. He is working for Endeavor remotely until June 30, the original end date of his grant period.

Despite the increasingly urgent requests from Fulbright for all participants to return to the U.S., some grant recipients currently remain in their host countries. When Fulbright announced all programs would be terminated, 2019 College graduate Dillon Bergin said he had to make a tough decision about staying in Germany, where he was a participant in Fulbright’s Young Professional Journalists program.

If Bergin chose to stay in his host country after his Fulbright program was canceled, he would be living in Germany as a private citizen rather than a Fulbright participant. This led him to question if his healthcare and visa would still be considered valid in the country.

Bergin ultimately decided it would be safer to stay in Germany rather than risk putting his parents at risk in the U.S., one of whom is a physician. He had studied in Germany before arriving at Penn, so he felt he had a strong support system and prior experience in dealing with German bureaucracies with regards to legal matters such as attaining a visa.

Bergin said he has been quite happy in Germany, where he currently lives next to the Black Forest and has had the time he needed to finish his work. 

“It’s gorgeous here. It’s the sunniest city in Germany,” Bergin said. “I got stuck in quarantine with a lot of writing to do which is actually what needed to happen to me.”

Although he plans to return to the U.S. in July, around the time his grant period was intended to end, Bergin is nervous to find out what the country looks like. 

“I’m coming out on the other end of it, and I do not know what I will be going into when I return to the United States,” Bergin said. “They are definitely not [on] the same timeline.”

In an effort to help Fulbright recipients transition back to the U.S., the Fulbright Program Board provided all grantees with an additional $1000. The board also notified 2019-2020 participants that they would be given reapplication privileges to embark on a Fulbright program in the future. 

“Collectively, you are enduring a test beyond that of any other Fulbright year since our program’s start in 1946,” Fulbright Board Chair Paul Winfree wrote in an email sent to all 2019-2020 Fulbrighters on April 10.

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