Colleges and universities across the United States were faced with a difficult decision this fall: whether or not to continue study abroad programs during COVID-19. Many chose to suspend their programs entirely, while a few — including Christendom College — decided to continue with appropriate precautions in place to ensure the health and safety of the students, faculty, and staff. While the semester looked very different from past years, the end result was a rich and life-changing experience for the students who participated, with no reported cases of COVID-19 amongst the students.

Christendom’s Junior Semester in Rome is one of the most popular features of the college, with students experiencing cultural and intellectual enrichment in the Heart of the Church each year. This past spring, the semester was suspended for the first time due to the outbreak of COVID-19, and there was uncertainty of whether the program would be able to resume in the fall.

The college entrusted the program to the patron saints of Italy, St. Clare and St. Francis, and planned ahead as if the program would be able to continue. Once colleges received the green light from the U.S. State Department to resume study abroad programs, Christendom’s staff worked hard to put appropriate precautions in place. Twenty-two students were required to quarantine for two weeks in a villa in Umbria upon arrival in Italy — amazingly, in a house where St. Francis stayed when he visited the area — before moving into their home in Rome, Residence Balduina.

Once there, the class schedule was changed to allow time between classes to open the windows and air out the room, desks were spaced out to allow two meters between each student, and the classroom was sanitized each evening. More activities were also done in smaller groups and at the Residence, rather than at restaurants and public spaces. There were some opportunities that were lost, but there were silver linings as well. Many museums and churches remained open, but without the long lines and crowds of tourists that are characteristic of Rome — resulting in an experience that students may never have again, according to student Bridget Bennett.

“I never had to wait in line to enter St. Peter’s Basilica, and I was able to visit often because it was so easy to enter — most of the time, the basilica was almost completely silent and empty,” recalled Bennett. “From an outside perspective, it would probably seem like our class missed out on a lot of opportunities that other Rome semesters got to experience, and that is true. However, we also got to experience so many things that no other Rome class will be able to experience again– quarantining in villas in the mountains, seeing Rome with no tourists, [and] being some of the only American students in Italy.”

Semester in Rome Director Katy Ott also noted the number of unique opportunities presented to the students, from exchanging a zucchetto with the Pope, to having Mass in the Clementine Chapel at St. Peter’s daily, to even saying hello to Tom Cruise while on a tour of the Roman Forum.

“Many of the frills of the program were cut back, but what was important remained — the students encountered the heart of the Church and their faith in a very real way,” said Ott. “I would call the semester an overall success, due in large part to the dedication of the staff and professors, both in the U.S. and in Italy — to them I have the sincerest appreciation. The group of students that we had was also a factor in our success. Regulations changed quickly and we needed to adapt the program accordingly, and their resilience was remarkable. The unusual circumstances of the semester fostered a close community and allowed the students to get to know one another and Rome in a unique way.”

The fall semester in Rome is now complete, with students traveling back to their homes in the United States. After a trying year, the semester’s success filled all who participated with immense gratitude at what they received.

“Not many of us expected to be in Rome for the full duration of the semester,” admitted Bennett. “We were amazed that we were able to get a really full, enriching experience of both Rome and of Italy as a whole during this time frame. Our staff played a huge role in the success of this semester, and they went above and beyond to give us a great experience.”

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