By Connor Mitchell
At the end of February, Fulbright sent me an email about possibly returning to the United States due to the COVID-19 outbreak. This email was sent to all Fulbright Fellows, and I imagined that it was specifically for the grantees in Italy. Two of my roommates were Italian, so I was aware of the spread and impact of the virus, but I was not concerned that it would have a drastic impact on my life. Two weeks after receiving that initial email, schools in the Asturias, the region in Spain where I was teaching, were officially closed for 14 days because of the virus. I figured I would spend my two weeks reading and preparing lessons and then I would resume my routine with my English teaching assistantship.
The first full day of the cancellation on March 13, I received another email from Fulbright and my concern began to grow.
I was watching a movie when I received a message from my program’s director. I opened the long email and my eyes were immediately drawn to “…strongly urging the immediate departure of all U.S. grantees…” The organization recommended that we start making arrangements to leave as soon as possible. I initially chose to leave a week later. However, on March 14, Spain planned to announce an “estado de alarma” that would restrict travel within the country. So, next week turned into leaving on Sunday.
Before I came to Spain in September, my mom and I meticulously packed my suitcase for my nine-month journey, each article of clothing purposefully placed. Packing for my return consisted of cramming heaps of dirty clothes into my suitcase.
I left my apartment for the final time Sunday morning only a few hours after a spirited sendoff from my roommates and I headed to the bus station. The streets were eerily empty that morning. When I arrived at the station, there were six people waiting for the bus. As we filed onto the bus, everyone wore the same uneasiness on their faces.
At the airport, I saw three friends surrounding a gigantic box in front of the baggage check counter. I couldn’t help but laugh as I saw Paulina tried to ship the bike she bought in Spain back to Arizona. Connor and Kat were helping her tape the box shut. It was such a relief to see familiar faces in this moment. I was grateful to share my final hour in Asturias with them and to make my final memory of Asturias one full of laughter and comfort.
I dreaded U.S. customs. I feared that I would be led to some remote location where I would be questioned and tested for the virus﹣ultimately being held for some indefinite period of time. In reality, I progressed through normal customs and I filled out a form asking me if I felt any symptoms. Later, a nice woman took my temperature (a perfect 98.3) and I moved on to baggage claim. After three flights and 15 hours of air travel, I made it home.
Connor Mitchell is a 2018 alumnus of UT Knoxville and was a Fulbright Fellow in Spain. He is a native of Cleveland, Tennessee, and now resides in Dallas, Texas.