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Pandemic throws alums’ overseas postings into disarray

by Chuck Gordon

For Anna Holmquist, Friday the 13th lived up to its reputation last month. That’s the day the 2019 Wingate graduate was informed that the Fulbright program was being shut down in Brazil, because of the coronavirus.

Holmquist was just a month into her stay in Brazil and had been teaching for a little over a week when she got the news. A week after returning to her native Lincoln, Nebraska, she still got emotional talking about it.

“I still don’t think I’ve processed the disappointment of working toward something for so long and having so many hopes and just beginning to taste what an incredible experience it was going to be,” she says. “That was stuff that I had thought about for years.”

Holmquist is among a number of former Bulldogs who’ve had the rug pulled out from under them by COVID-19. Rachel Lods, a former Wingate volleyball teammate of Holmquist’s, was 20 months into a Peace Corps stint in Ukraine, and hoping to extend it by a year, when she was told to pack her bags and head to the capital, Kiev, to await a flight to the U.S.

In the Dominican Republic, Austin Greeson, a 2017 Wingate graduate, is having the opposite problem. Missionaries with Freedom International, Greeson and his family were supposed to go on furlough this month so they could visit family in the United States. Now, they’re waiting out the pandemic in the town of Ramona Santana in southeast Dominican Republic.

Before beginning her English-teaching duties at a university in the Brazilian city of Lavras, Holmquist had spent a week in Sao Paulo for orientation, explored Lavras for several days, and spent another week enjoying Carnival in Rio de Janeiro. She was finally settling into her teaching lessons when she and other ETAs (English teaching assistants) started hearing about Fulbrighters being sent home from Europe.

“Oh well, that’s in Europe,” Holmquist thought. “We might be okay, because there are really no cases here yet.”

It was wishful thinking. Holmquist wound up getting an email on March 13 to pack her bags and wait. Rather than sit on her hands and fret, she and another ETA decided to venture out to some nearby waterfalls. “We figured we should enjoy what could be one of our last days there,” Holmquist says.

Holmquist spent a few stressful days trying to make travel arrangements, and by March 18 she was back home in Nebraska, self-quarantining for two weeks. “It was a rude awakening coming back to Nebraska in the winter,” she says.

Rachel Lods and students in Ukraine

Lods at least gets to ride out the pandemic in sunny Southern California, where she is self-quarantining as a precaution at her parents’ house in Lancaster. The 2018 Wingate grad was fulfilling a dream she’d had in high school of volunteering for the Peace Corps. She’d become integrated into the community in Sambir, a town in western Ukraine about two hours from the Polish border, where she’d been teaching English for nearly two school years.

After 17 months in Sambir, she had become a familiar face to many in the town of 35,000.

“You just wake up one day and realize that you’ve actually become a part of this community that seemed so far away for the first six months you were there,” she says.

Lods taught students ages 9 through 16. She says the “we’re getting evacuated” email came “not out of the blue, but I don’t think any of us were mentally or emotionally prepared.”

“None of us had really said any genuine goodbyes or gotten in touch with our friends or our host families that we had lived with or our colleagues or any of those kinds of things,” she says. “We basically just had to pack up and go.”

The abrupt departure has shaken her, because now she won’t get to see several of her students graduate from high school.

“There are so many things that you don’t think about when a crisis situation is happening,” she says. “We were in the capital, and one of my students messaged me and was like, ‘Wait, so you’re leaving? This means you’re not going to get to come to our graduation.’ And I was just like, ‘Oh my God. Oh my God.’ It hit me very hard.”

Eye-opening experiences

Holmquist might have spent only a month in Brazil, but that didn’t make her departure any less devastating. Having come to Wingate with designs on becoming a journalist, Holmquist quickly caught the political-science bug and switched her major. She was a straight-A student and All-American in volleyball, and as a senior she was encouraged by Dr. Steven Hyland to apply for a Fulbright.

Holmquist had high hopes for how it would affect her life, and even the brief time she was in Brazil changed her.

Quite from Anna Holmquist

“It just opened my eyes to a lot of assumptions that I had about myself and my communities, people around me, that needed to be challenged,” she says. “And I think it just showed me that I need more experiences like that where I’m in more diverse spaces, more diverse groups of people, because I haven’t been in those spaces as much.”

Holmquist is now applying to teach English-as-a-second-language online while considering a return to her master’s program at the University of Pittsburgh in August. Although she’s grateful that she has a safe place to self-quarantine, the early departure has been difficult to come to grips with.

“I am fortunate that I can stay with my family and return to Pitt in the fall, so I will be fine,” she says. “But nonetheless, it’s hard to process that something I worked toward for over two years, and had just begun to experience, is over. I am holding out hope that I can return in some capacity this year or next.”

Lods also hopes to go back overseas once the coronavirus crisis has abated. She ultimately wants to become a sign-language interpreter – she majored in American Sign Language and deaf studies at a junior college in California before coming to Wingate – but she was hoping to put that off with another year in Ukraine. “There was a plan A, B, C, D, E and F in the works,” she says with a laugh.

Now all of Lods’ plans are in flux, since no one knows how long the world will remain in stasis. She says that while she waits on the pandemic to recede, she’s planning to teach English online and try to figure out her ASL-study plans. “I just haven’t really figured out a realistic timeline for when that should start, because I still have such a strong desire to live abroad and work abroad,” Lods says.

The Greesons: Austin, Laura and Malachi

Despite the premature ending to her Peace Corps stint, Lods says she’d do it again in a heartbeat.

“I can easily say that is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my entire life,” she says. “Regardless of the challenges, regardless of the struggles, looking back and being able to reflect on this experience that I got to have and all of the relationships I got to form and all of the different things that I got to learn from the people that I was surrounded by in a completely new culture and learning a new language. It was just such an incredible and amazing opportunity, and I can only speak good of my experience and the Peace Corps as an organization.”

Down in the Dominican Republic, the Greesons – Austin, his wife, Laura, and their son, Malachi – are adapting to changes brought on by the need for social distancing. As part of their duties with Freedom International, Laura taught at a school (which has closed down temporarily) and Austin works construction. The construction work continues, though with fewer workers. And the ministry’s interns all had to leave with little notice.

Also, the Greesons won’t get to visit family and friends in the States.

“We hate that we are not going to be able to visit you this year,” Laura wrote in an email to Freedom International supporters last month, “but social distancing and the stay-at-home policies wouldn't make it easy.”

Overseas Bulldogs are learning that none of this is easy. But they’re keeping things in perspective while the world waits on the virus to become manageable.

“I am extremely privileged to have come back to a very stable situation with my family, our economic situation,” Holmquist says. “I don’t have to worry about where I’m going to live and what I’m going to eat. That’s what I’ve been focusing on: just being grateful for what I have instead of disappointed that this opportunity’s been taken from me, because everybody is having really terrible things happening. And it’s not really about me or us as individuals.”

April 3, 2020