The World, Interrupted

*This is a meme.  However, it reflects varying emotions as the UL Campus closed and international students were recalled.

My Fellow Americans, My Fellow Humans,

Hello, from an unexpected interruption to my Study Abroad experience, and to the intent of this academic blog.  The world as we know it is no more.  Dramatic shifts are afloat and I’ve been asked by the International Program Office to share some of my personal experiences as well as impart some of my wisdom.

You likely do not know this, but I have been in the United States military for just shy of 20 years. I have worked in myriad fields and lived all over the country.  I have attended multiple universities and achieved several degrees… usually at night, after working full time on matters of national security.  Law school was always a dream of mine – an absolute luxury.  Selected by UMass Law to study in Ireland, I was honored to represent our school, grateful for a chance to explore international law from the fresh lenses of my classmates and lecturers.  At the UL School of Law, students are from all over the world.  The legal modules are highly integrated with those of the Human Rights Master’s Program.  The UMass Law ethos, to Pursue Justice, naturally blended into a magnificent legal learning symphony.  I say this, so you can understand I was sort of in my own personal heaven, studying international law… thinking, and reflecting along the River Shannon.  It truly is a luxury to have time to think and reflect.  It is the space where grand ideas are born.

My supplies were fully stocked and I was hunkered down to weather COVID19 from Ireland, like a reporter in the field.  I was sitting in my dorm room, at the desk by the window, working on my Youth Crime midterm when I got the call. “Shea, the Chancellor wants you to come home; you’re being recalled.”  That direction was quickly followed up by a note from the UL International Education Division strongly encouraging international students to immediately return to our respective nations.  Now, I am a pretty flexible person – my belongings are currently in a storage unit in Massachusetts, my post office box is in a different town, and my cat is with a friend in yet another town; my brother was watching my Jeep in Maine; and, my realtor was helping me from afar.  So.. “home” to me, had actually become that dorm room in Ireland.  Local Family” to me, had become flatmates from China, Nigeria, Cuba, Canada, and Ireland.  Relocation, however, was not optional.

Within 4 hours, with flights booked, we were having something of a COVID19 Christmas party as we shared our food, cleaning supplies, extra clothes, and extra bedding with flatmates who would remain in country.  We all had so many emotions.  I joked about the challenge of deciding whether to bring my golf clubs or toilet paper with me on the flight (see pic).  I spent 2 hours on the phone with Aer Linguis to ensure my golf clubs were added as an extra bag.  I paused to broken-heartedly look at them, as plans to golf the island were now on hold due to a global pandemic – an enemy I couldn’t negotiate with.  I knew more lives would be lost and I wished I could hug the world.

It’s all very trivial, then and now – but, I had just gotten settled.  I had my own electric tea kettle, three layers of mattress pads, those awesome new Irish sheets, and an irrational stack of pillows.

Someone asked me what my supply plan looked like and recommended I share with you that it included much-needed nail polish remover.  It may sound funny, but especially in times of confinement or isolation, basic hygiene has a tremendous ability to empower one’s sense of grounding.  Wherever you are, in whatever capacity you are at in this global fight, it helps to have a schedule, shower daily, workout, journal/diary/read, mediate or pray – maintain your entire self: body, mind, and soul, as much as you can – it will help you adjust to this time as well as the new-normal that will follow in a post-COVID19 world.

I spent St. Patrick’s day, not in Dublin, as the official UL correspondent I was chosen to be; but, as a student packing, with a mixed sense of urgency and concern for humanity.  It was confusing to figure out where to go – did my military unit want to activate me yet?  Why was my Jeep in New Hampshire and my brother in Florida?  Where was I going to quarantine for 14 days?  Because, although I had been practicing  social distancing for days, I am responsible and planned to follow the CDC and the WHO.

Then, there was just this new fear – how on earth was I going to get on a plane, with students I know who had traveled all over Europe for weeks, and potentially bring this virus to the people of my great nation?  How could I, a responsible law student and military member, possibly be one of the international transmitters of a deathly virus?  Whose life would I be endangering upon my return?

A flatmate helped me decide which shoes to keep, toss, or donate, and I did my best to write a thank you card to our Village Staff.  I’m working with UL to negotiate reimbursement for abandoned lodging.  Of note, I can officially say I now live out of 2 suitcases and a golf bag.  (It’s safe to guess COVID19 cost all displaced international students anywhere from $1000-$3500 USD, pending flights, unused hotels, unforeseen expenditures, and abandoned belongings.  We owe tremendous debts of gratitude to the family members who took us in and quarantined along with us.)

We had a solemn St. Patrick’s Day dinner (see pic).  I didn’t have the heart to tell my flatmate I couldn’t eat the lasagna she made.  It wasn’t just those of us who were leaving who were distressed.  There were six of us at the table, two of us recalled to America, four staying.  Those staying were wrestling with the question of whether to try to go home.  They were sad to see new friends leaving.  Some even had mixed feelings to include immense gratitude as their home nations were suffering far worse and Ireland was a welcome sanctuary.  We had a guest who tried to talk to us; but really, there’s no room for pleasantries at such a good bye dinner.  We were grieving a loss.

Our flat had bonded much in our time together.  All post-graduate students, we had been practicing daily sayings in Chinese; we were reading one another’s papers and scripts; we celebrated how clean we maintained our shared living space; we went to dance performances together; we dappled in kayaking in the UL pool; we had a busy WhatsApp chain of shared news media; we had a night where we all sang our favorite songs to one another; and, we had even started after dinner walks (see pic).  After dinner walks are one of my greatest pleasures and I highly encourage you to go walking with your families during this time.  In Ireland, you need to stay within a 2km radius of your home; and in the United States, please follow your local laws. Social distancing isn’t a joke – it’s a highly preventative measure. 

In less than 36 hours, with my destination changed twice, and hopes of returning to Ireland to witness future UL graduations, I was on a plane with one of my flatmates, lysoling yes, even the hands of the stranger sitting beside me.   Patrick, what a doll you were to tolerate me cleaning our entire row before our plane departed.  I look forward to horseback riding with you and the Boston Police one day.  Please say hi to Karen for me.  And, Olive, thank you and the Aer Linguis crew, for keeping our aircraft so clean and your passengers so comfortable! As an aside, it’s a really small world – our flight attendant is a graduate of the UL School of Law and holds degrees in law and economics.

I safely arrived in the United States, collected by an uncle at the airport, and began teleworking for my military unit right away, while under quarantine.  My uncle risked his life for me.  I am eternally grateful his company allowed him to work from home so that we could quarantine in the same house.  He is one of my favorite people, but this was a tremendous sacrifice.  He joked, “we can’t leave our little refugee at the airport” to lighten the mood, which of course resulted in me tearing up as I put my mask on while realizing I would likely not hug anyone for months to come.  

To discuss the impact of a global pandemic, a very human level from one student’s perspective is just that – one student’s story.  And, while I’ve been asked to share more about my shattered plans, I will save that for another post.

Let’s think more on a macro scale – about the safety of our world and of our nations.  Let’s focus on what we can personally do NOW to help humanity.

This is a time where it is NOT optional to address how you can best help your family and your neighbors, rather it is of epic importance that you do.  We are in a new world that requires us to work together, facing a deathly virus, so that we can save as many lives as possible and recover our economies and infrastructures creatively and deliberately.  We will need to think differently, but right now – we must focus on what we do individually and collectively.

It is a choice to be a helper, a choice to be part of the solution.  And, in times of crisis, we get a chance to determine what we are really made of.  For some, it means acknowledging physical limitations requiring you to remain home, to help flatten the curve, and to not overwhelm our hospitals.  For others, it means showing up to the front lines – running grocery stores, hospitals, pharmacies, delivery services and other essential businesses, to including maintaining national security and protecting the long standing democracy upon which our nation was founded.  These decisions are individual and they are NOT made lightly.

I’ve been struggling with my disappointment in those not listening to the social distancing guidelines, who are still going to gyms, who are visiting their significant others and traveling between homes as though the world is fine, who are laughing in the face of COVID19 believing themselves to be healthy enough to handle it if infected – not prioritizing the safety of others.  I’ve called upon my faith as a reminder that we are all equal, that we all react differently in high stress situations, and that it’s up to those who are able to continue to set the example, and to lead in our communities.

I challenge you to look inside, to reflect upon how you can best be of service, and to do so graciously, deliberately, carefully, and respectfully.

I’ve gathered some volunteering opportunities and will post them; but, I also want to encourage you to comment on my blog if you have positive ideas of things people can do to help our world in these troubling times.  I’ll share your ideas as long as they are heartfelt and respectful.  If you have a good news story, please feel free to share that as well.

Our minds are powerful tools and we must remain positive.

I want to thank you for reading my blog, and for loving one another.  Make amends with anyone you are in quarrel with.  Decide how to be your best self.  And, remember that is it okay to feel however you feel, but that it is important you take decisive action to remain healthy, to support those you love, and not to endanger the lives of others.

We are in this together – one world, one humanity.  Lives are on the line.  Our actions matter.  Your actions matter.

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