Two US Catholic colleges resume Rome study abroad programs

First Day Campus Tour Dormitory in Background University of Dallas students take part in a tour of Due Santi Campus in the Alban Hills outside of Rome. Photo

At a time when many universities in the U.S. are only offering online classes this fall, American students from two Catholic colleges arrive in Rome this week to study abroad.

The University of Dallas and Christendom College are among the few schools to resume their study abroad programs after the global coronavirus pandemic brought most international travel to a standstill.

Administrators and professors at these Catholics colleges have had to get creative in order to balance an academic program that ensures the health and safety of their students without sacrificing the aspects that make studying abroad intellectually and spiritually enriching.

"We have a really bad joke going around campus that the semester is always really 'intense,' but this semester is really 'in tents,'" Dr. Peter Hatlie, the director of University of Dallas' Rome program, told CNA.

The 78 students who arrived at the University of Dallas' Due Santi Campus in the Alban Hills outside of Rome on Sept. 13 immediately entered a "quarantine zone" on the campus (pictured below) where they have begun outdoor classes under a big tent that is 10 to 15 feet distant from a separate tent where the professor lectures. 

Italian law currently requires all people entering the country from the United States to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. In light of these requirements, the University of Dallas has its newly arrived students in what Hatlie calls a "collective quarantine."

"We have an incredible design," Hatlie said. "We have taken our campus, which is an 11-12 acre campus and we have established three different areas. One for non-quarantined people. One for quarantined people, and then an eventual hospital/isolation center in the event that somebody along the way tests positive."

"The students should be emerging from quarantine on the 26th and the first thing that we are going to do is go to St. Peter's," he explained.

Before arrival in Italy, the University of Dallas students coming from different parts of the U.S. began the semester off campus with two weeks of online classes in their own homes in self-quarantine.

Christendom College is also using a combination of online and in-person classes to work within the quarantine requirement for their students who will be living within the city of Rome on Monte Mario this fall. 

Twenty-three Christendom students are scheduled to arrive in Italy Sept. 17. Fr. Michael Baggot, a chaplain and professor of theology for the program, told CNA that he was eager to bring the students to visit Rome's basilicas, but first he had assigned some lengthy readings and a term paper so that the students can "live their quarantine more fruitfully" before beginning in-person classes.

"We have about half the number of students. As you can imagine, [there are] some who simply do not want to take the risk of coming over either for health reasons or for the risk of having the semester canceled, or having special restrictions," Baggot said.

"We'll have a number of restrictions, like any other school in Italy, regarding the use of face masks, social distancing. We actually have a long period of time between their two main courses ... a 30-minute break to ensure the classroom is thoroughly cleaned and sanitized between classes."

Both the University of Dallas and Christendom College are small Catholic liberal arts colleges included in the Newman Guide, an annual listing of recommended colleges chosen because of their commitment to a faithful Catholic education.

Each college said that its Rome program was running below capacity this semester to enable social-distancing measures in the dormitories and classrooms. The schools are also videotaping all lectures so that any individual student who feels sick or needs to return home will be able to catch up on classes.

Other larger universities, such as the University of Notre Dame and Loyola University of Chicago, made the decision to cancel their study abroad programs in Rome before the semester began. 

More in Europe

There are just under 5,000 current cases of COVID-19 in Lazio, the Italian region in which Rome is located, as of Sept. 15, according to the Italian Ministry of Health.

Hatlie said that he had to work to convince the university administration in Texas that it would be safe for the students to come. 

"It has been six months of work and a huge financial investment in getting the campus ready -- working directly with local health agencies -- and all of the troubleshooting of potential things that could go wrong," he said.

Despite the pandemic, the dean is hopeful that the University of Dallas students will be able to travel on a 10-day educational trip to Greece, as well as class trips to Venice, Assisi, Florence, and Bologna this fall. He said that he also plans to give students the freedom to travel within Europe on their own.

"We really believe in the freedom of the individual and we try to teach students to be prudent in their decisions and discriminating in their decisions. Obviously we may have to intervene from time to time if the second wave looks to be strong," he said.

"If we can keep everybody healthy, it is going to be a really extraordinary learning experience for them."

Fr. Baggot said that he expected that many students would arrive in Rome with a "renewed appreciation for the value of a community, the value of in person contact … face to face conversations with their professor, in-person liturgies."

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"So many of the students I have spoken to are tired of online Masses. Not to say that there is no value to those, but I think all of them have experienced firsthand that they can never replace the in-person, lived, physical-embodied experience of celebrating the faith together in a community," he said.

"So I think that these students who are coming abroad have this renewed appreciation for the experiences that they have not had this past semester and I think that they come with a real hunger to take full advantage of the academic and spiritual community."

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