The Trouble with Volcanoes: A Retrospective

The volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted in Iceland on Wednesday April 15 leading to the closure of airports all over the United Kingdom and Europe, stranding over 6 million people around the world, and the loss of at least $200 million a day for airlines; and the biggest question seemed to be: Well, St. Mary’s, what are you going to do about this?
Eyjafjallajökull’s (pronounced ay-yah-FYAH-plah-yer-kuh-duhl) eruption corresponded exactly to the end of term for students in Oxford studying abroad at the Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (CMRS).

The ash from the volcano had drifted across the UK and parts of Europe and the Atlantic Ocean shutting down airspace because of it’s ability to clog engines and severely reduce visibility. Flights were resumed on April 22, allowing the first St. Mary’s students to return home.

While we were all stuck in England, we were fortunate enough to have a place to stay for free, our beds at CMRS were still available, while constantly refreshed our airline’s Web site to see if they could take us home.

The situation was frustrating, to put it mildly. No one was sure when the volcano would stop erupting (there were rumors that it had been active for two months last time it had erupted), students spent hours on hold trying to rebook canceled flights, and updates on whether airspace would be open were usually announced every six hours. Everyone was in a purgatorial state of unpacking and waiting; anxious to do something but unable to do anything but wait.

Furthermore, we didn’t hear anything from St. Mary’s, specifically International Education, until four days after the volcano hadn’t started canceling flights. It felt like we were being ignored! That IE either didn’t know or didn’t care about all their students stuck in a foreign country.

Finally, on Sunday we got an email that said that CMRS would be taking care of us and to ask if we needed any financial assistance for necessaries like food. St. Mary’s also contacted the parents of the students in Oxford, stating the same information.

I initially read this feeling further frustration and annoyance. I felt that IE was just handing off their job to someone else and that they were just, as usual, being incompetent and unreliable. But that’s entirely unfair. IE works and has worked incredibly hard to get students abroad. For the size of the IE staff they are able to get a very large number of students to jump through all the necessary governmental hoops to travel to a foreign country.

I realized that I and the students I was with wanted someone to blame. We wanted someone to do something! To get us home! But IE was unable to stopper up Eyjafjallajökull’s ashy tirade with St. Mary’s unending, award-winning happiness (see Princeton Review’s “The Best 371 Colleges”) or send our sailing team on a transatlantic rescue mission.
IE was just as lost and unsure of the situation as students were and had to wait and assess the situation. Their sentiment was good, but it just felt a little too late. I think we would have liked to hear from SMCM sooner just to know that we hadn’t been forgotten.

This situation did bring to my attention some things that I think IE should do in the future for students studying abroad. First, keep in touch with the students. We don’t need to be bombarded with emails every day, but every once in a while check up on the students letting them know that IE is still available to help them if they need it. Second, have a tentative plan set up to deal with emergency situations like Volcano Chaos 2010. Of course, IE didn’t know that this specific situation was going to occur, but just a plan to contact students and parents as quickly as possible about St. Mary’s plans in dealing with the problem.

Finally, set up a group of students from each program, the semester after they return, to assist applying students. I don’t just mean a board of students to answer questions about the price of beer or what to pack and not to pack, although this panel is important.

I propose the creation of a group of students who can work with IE to assist people who are applying. These students should know what forms are needed for visas and IE and where to find them. You may be saying, but that’s IE’s job! It is, but from what I have heard and experienced, IE is currently unable to handle all of the students that are studying abroad. I relied more on my friends to figure out what paperwork I needed that I did the IE office. Students who have gone through the program know exactly what applicants require; IE can then coordinate and organize all of the programs on a broader level and keep in contact with the foreign institutions.

I think Eyjafjallajökull’s eruption has illuminated some essential aspects in preparing to study abroad and can help IE and other students improve their experiences abroad.

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