Students sitting down for their final exams at the College of Medieval and Renaissance Studies (CMRS) in Oxford April 15th received a rather unexpected surprise when their teachers told them that a volcano erupting in Iceland would probably cause flight delays. By the time they had finished their tests, Heathrow Airport was closing. Now, all 18 of the recently graduated Oxford alumni were stuck in limbo, unaware of when they’d be able to leave the school.
The volcano, Eyjafjallajökull, had begun erupting the previous day after eruptions in March. Authorities across Europe grounded airlines on that Thursday and Friday for fears that the volcanic ash, which covered the air above northern Europe up to 13 miles up, could cause failure in the jets’ engines. From that Thurdsay until April 21st, the Oxford students were among over five million people stranded in Europe. According to the BBC, the six-day delay cost the city of London alone £100 million.
“At first it was a little scary not being able to go home because you didn’t know when you were going to be able to leave Oxford or what was going to happen with your flight,” said junior Jacklyn Ward. “Almost everyone studying abroad was stuck at CMRS. I think a few people went to the airport to try to get a flight out but they ended up getting stuck in the airport anyways.”
“Not being able to travel home was extremely frustrating,” said junior Megan Lantz. “My mom was supposed to come and travel with me for a week in the UK but never made it because her flight was cancelled. We had to cancel all the entire trip, all of our reservations, everything, it was really upsetting. It was really frustrating to finally be finished school, to have been abroad without our friends and family for four months and then find out we couldn’t go home/they couldn’t come to us.”
“I know some people were really frustrated about not being able to get home, particularly because they had been missing home for weeks already,” said junior Julia Rocha. “On the other hand, there were at least a few people who were excited to get a couple of more days in England. Some people took the opportunity to get more traveling done by rail, while others explored Oxford a bit more.”
The College made accommodations for the students as it could. “CMRS, especially our senior tutor, was concerned that we were all stranded and was doing his best but there honestly wasn’t much he could do,” said Lantz. “They were very gracious for letting us stay at CMRS until we could get flights home and constantly wanted updates on our travel situations.”
“SMCM offered us emergency funds for food,” said Ward. “It was really easy to get the money, which was nice. We just had to ask CMRS for how much we wanted and when we wanted it by. But not many people took advantage of the emergency funds.”
Several students said they were surprised not to hear from the International Education office about their predicament sooner.
“We all felt like the IE office didn’t really care that we were stuck abroad because they hadn’t emailed the students at all,” said Ward. “They said that they had been in contact with CMRS but none of the students knew that so we were all pretty upset with the way SMCM handled the whole thing. But after we emailed the IE office saying that we felt they forgot about us, they emailed us all offering us emergency funds.”
“We were well aware that there wasn’t much they could do, and they did, like CMRS, offer us emergency funds for food until we could get home,” said Lantz. “But for the first few days when we didn’t hear from them, it was kind of like, ‘Hello? You have over a dozen students stranded over here.’”
“It was disappointing that a program that puts such emphasis on … safety and security didn’t even contact us to see if we were alright stranded in a foreign country,” said senior Ally Moore. “I would have appreciated if the day after the airports shut down they had contacted us.”
“I think the CMRS response was great,” said Rocha. “They told us on the day of our final exam that we would probably encounter problems with our flights and that should it last a while, we would not be held to the agreement that we should be gone by Saturday at noon. So, before we all even realized there was a problem, we were already reassured that we wouldn’t get sent to the curb. In terms of IE, I think I would have been completely satisfied with their response if it hadn’t been more reactive … While I think their response was a helpful one and more than you could have expected from a larger, more impersonal school, it did come a bit later than I would have hoped.”
According to LaRita Hagar, the Director of IE, CMRS was the IE office’s representative responder should any situation arise. “Where there was confusion was that our on-the-ground partner was acting on our behalf.” Hagar said she first heard about the problem on Saturday from Dean of Students Laura Bayless, and had not heard from students before that.
Hagar said that the IE office has previously dealt with problems arising from hurricanes, earthquakes, and health issues, among others. She said that students studying abroad could call Public Safety with a problem to be relayed to proper help. According to Hagar, 89 percent of incoming first-years plan on studying abroad to fulfill the Experiencing the Liberal Arts in the World requirement, so problems like these are problems that will need to be faced in the future as well.