Lafayette exchange students sent home early due to COVID-19

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Photo courtesy of Joseph Gutowski

German exchange student Marlene Loebel smiles with her host brother, Isaac. "Her connection with Isaac is an incredible bond and will last a lifetime," Gutowski, Marlene's host family, said.

While Americans are being advised to stay in their homes to prevent the spread of COVID-19, exchange students around the United States and at Lafayette were sent back to their home country, missing the final two months of their exchange experience.

Orchestra teacher Joe Gutowski offered himself for any exchange students at Lafayette as a ‘person to talk to,’ as well as hosting exchange student Marlene Loebel from Germany.

“I am very passionate about student exchange. I think it’s really important that we have exchange students come to Lafayette and that they get to enjoy and experience American culture,” Gutowski said. 

One student that came to Lafayette this year is Noelia Martin Marijuan from Spain. When asked why she became an exchange student, Martin said, “I wanted to spend a year learning about another culture and improving my English, and I also wanted to live the American experience.” 

Martin also said she had plans for spring break and prom, however, the virus has prevented her from following through on. 

“During spring break my family from Spain was going to visit me in St. Louis and we were going to Chicago too and because of the virus, everything was canceled. I was also excited about going to Prom and I even started trying on dresses,” Martin said. 

Exchange student Magnus Thomsen who lives in Denmark was excited to be spending a year in America, especially after spending time in the United Kingdom and Germany for two weeks. As COVID-19 became a rising issue, he wasn’t sure how to react. 

“It wasn’t before my parents in Denmark called me and said it was starting to get serious and I should take it seriously that I realized what was really going on,” Thomsen said.

In regards to the virus, many exchange student programs had to decide whether it was safer for them to stay in the United States or to send them back to Europe to be with their families.

I don’t envy those programs in having to make that decision at all. We felt yanked with ours, because one day we thought, ‘[Marlene] is going to be here the rest of the year,’ and the next day, she’s going home,” Gutowski said.  

Loebel was upset to have to leave so soon but excited to see her family again after eight months.

“I couldn’t even say goodbye to my friends because of the ‘not leaving the house’ rule. But I was happy to be with my real family in that situation,” Loebel said. 

However, Loebel had some difficulties arriving home. Both her brother and dad had contracted COVID-19. To avoid infecting her mother, they stayed in a family summer house until they no longer carried the virus. 

“I think the organizations tried to weigh [if] it made sense to send them into a situation that was worse than it is here, and then it was outweighed by the fact that even if things were worse there, it’s still their family and they needed to go back and be there in their home country,” Gutowski said. 

Host families, along with the programs, were also concerned that if students didn’t go home as soon as possible, they might get stuck in America with no knowledge of when they’d have the chance to go back to their country. 

Gutowski also said the American Field Service (AFS-USA) decided to charter planes to send students back to their home country because there were no other flights.

According to the AFS-USA site, “Planning the travel for our exchange students has been challenging. Sustaining their commitment to AFS, our volunteers have navigated getting AFS students on charter planes, responded to changing flight itineraries, and managed the expectations and emotions resulting from an ever-changing environment.”

Loebel, Martin and Thomsen agree that even if their American experience was cut short, being an exchange student has helped them mature and become more independent as well as teach them how to adapt to different cultures and lifestyles.

Saying goodbye to my [host] family and friends was so sad but I just keep making myself think that [the] journey I was on never ends and will always have friends and family in the U.S.,” Thomsen said.