Amid Pandemic, Italian Exchange Students are Stranded in NYC


airplane on the tarmac at an airport

Andrew Gotshall, Reporter

High school students across the globe are sheltering in place due to the coronavirus. For most, this means hunkering down with family at home and getting very familiar with the video conferencing app Zoom. But what if home and family aren’t in the United States? This was the problem posed to Casa Grande exchange students. Cristian Polci, originally from Milan, Italy, recounts his impressive journey back home. 

“The reasons why I was sent home were mainly two, the first for safety reasons, the second because EF couldn’t guarantee me to find a flight back home after April. I personally would have preferred to stay in Petaluma since Italian hospitals are full of people, and there’s physically no space to hospitalize more than a certain amount of people, and in the US I had insurance that covered any eventual health problems,” said Polci. 

Cristian’s exchange organization EF, or Education First, specializes in educational opportunities abroad for people of all ages. Their high school exchange program is the service that typically facilitates exchange programs at schools like Casa Grande. 

Cristian never thought he would have to end his exchange year early, but “unfortunately, that didn’t happen,” he said. 

Once told he would be sent on his way home, Cristian wasn’t nervous but instead supported immensely by both his host family and Italian family. He said, “I wasn’t as calm as in my daily life, but  my Italian family, my host family, and I already knew I would have had problems during my journey, and they helped me a lot before, during and after the traveling, reassuring me a lot.”

Cristian’s journey home started at 3 a.m. in Petaluma in order to catch his flight by 6:30. He arrived in New York at 1:30 p.m. Upon check-in for his flight to Rome, he was told the flight had been overbooked. 

“I had to call the Alitalia’s emergency line. In order to keep the 6 feet of distance, the plane could only go with 75 people instead of 300.”

The company in charge of making these bookings is Alitalia, an Italian run airline company put in charge of bringing Italian foreign nationals back to Italy. Their flights out of JFK international are scheduled to bring Italians home until the end of May. 

“I called EF, they told me they would send two coordinators to help me and the other exchange students in the same situation as mine,” said Cristian, “I was stuck in NY with 25 exchange students from all over the United States, and I did the travel with Angelica Tantini, who was also an exchange student at Casa.”

“We spent a night in a hotel and left the next day. We went to the airport at 1 p.m. and the plane left at 4:30 p.m. for Rome. We flew for 8 hours (more or less) and we arrived the next day around 7 a.m. Every seat in the plane was occupied (300 people),” said Cristian. “We got out of the plane, and we stayed in line (6 feet away from each other) to go out of the terminal. I live in Milan, so I needed to get on another plane to arrive at home. EF didn’t send me the ticket yet, so I went to the check-in and I asked if they had a ticket with my name. They found it, and they gave it to me.”

“Flights for Milan were finished, so I flew to Turin (the plane left at 2:00 p.m. and I arrived at 3:15). My dad came from Milan to pick me up and brought me home, I arrived by 5:00 p.m.,” said Cristian. 

Cristian notes he feels “bad and good,” stating that he is relieved to be home but he misses the people in Petaluma, especially his host family. 

“The thing that upsets me the most is that everything happened suddenly. I didn’t have the chance to say goodbye to my friends in California, and now that I’m here in Italy I’m really close to my Italian friends, but I can’t go out with them,” says Cristian. 

Luckily, none of Cristian’s relatives are ill, but there were some cases of Coronavirus in his city. Cristian will self-quarantine himself in his bedroom for the next two weeks. 

When asked if he wanted to add anything else to this story, Cristian emphasized, “I just want to say to people not to underestimate this virus. I remember when everybody was saying ‘it’s nothing too bad, the flu kills more people’ and now thousands of people are dying. Being careful today can prevent a death tomorrow.”