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Community Coronavirus Diary: Penn Staters Abroad Who Had to Come Home

by on April 29, 2020 5:00 AM


Antiquities smuggling in India. Cattle ranching in Namibia. Mayan art in Mexico. 

Such wide-ranging research interests took Penn State faculty members all over the world during the 2019-2020 academic year. But when COVID-19 was declared a pandemic last month, the university’s globe-trotting scholars and artists had to figure out whether to come home, when to come home and how to come home. 

Elizabeth Ransom (International Affairs) had gone to southwest Africa to see how Namibian cattle ranchers were adapting to climate change. She had been in country five days when the State Department urged Americans abroad to go home. Ransom barely made it. She flew out of South Africa on March 15. The last flight back to the U.S. was on March 18. 

Jonathan Brockopp (History and Religious Studies) and Paula Droege (Philosophy) had to switch gears even faster. They had planned to spend two weeks in Tunis so that Brockopp could continue his research on a collection of some of the world’s oldest Islamic manuscripts. The couple spent four days, arriving on March 11 and getting one of the last flights out on March 15. 

Eliyana Adler (History and Jewish Studies) arrived in Israel on March 1, planning to spend four months studying community memorial books at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum. All three of her daughters were also abroad. Selah, her youngest, was in Israel, doing a gap-year program. Rana was in Spain. Maya was in Jordan. 

Adler wanted her girls to join her in Jerusalem for Passover, but Israel barred entry to travelers from Spain because of the ferocity of the epidemic there, so Rana had to go home tο the States. Selah moved in with her mom. So did Maya, but under a strict 14-day quarantine. 

How strict? An Israeli Ministry of Health team in hazmat suits ordered her to show herself on the balcony of Adler’s Jerusalem apartment to be photographed and answer questions.

The one nice thing about everyone returning to the U.S.: Adler, her husband and their three daughters got to spend Passover together, though it was just the five of them rather than the 22 they usually feed. 

“Less cooking,” Adler said, looking on the bright side.

Elizabeth Kadetsky (English) had been in India with her 5-year-old son Sascha since last August doing research on antiquity smuggling. She planned to come home in March for the launch of her memoir, “The Memory Eaters,” but of course, those events got canceled. 

Then, while still in India, Sascha came down with a high fever and a full-body rash (it wasn’t coronavirus). That crisis dealt with, they had to scramble to catch one of the last flights out before the country shut down. 

Amara Solari (Art History) and her husband Matthew Restall (History) were also traveling with a little one. They had gone to New Orleans to avail themselves of the resources in Latin American studies at Tulane University. 

Solari went to the Yucatan peninsula on March 11 and had to leave a few days sooner than she had intended when it looked like the border was going to close. Now the family is more or less stuck in New Orleans, having rented out their house in State College until June and with no easy way to get home anyway – or have you ever driven 21 hours with a 3-year-old? 

Instead of researching Christian-themed Mayan art, as she planned, Solari and Restall have returned to a translation-in-progress of a 16th-century account of Mayan life. Their toddler, Catalina, thinks they’re staying indoors because of an infestation of teeny-tiny corona bees.

Finally, there’s Helen O’Leary (Visual Art), who was spending the semester working on what she called a do-it-yourself or pop-up museum in Jersey City. On March 20, an 8 p.m. curfew went into effect. O’Leary slipped out of town and back to State College with an hour to spare.

Like the Solari-Restalls, she had rented out her State College house for the year, so for now, she’s “camping” – not in the sense of living in a tent but in the sense of making do with temporary lodgings. 

O’Leary is scheduled to teach a studio art class at Penn State this summer. “How do you teach art online?” I asked her.

“You tell me,” she said, cheerfully. 

Each of these scholars/artists is used to working at home and working alone, so sheltering in place isn’t as tough for them as it might be for others. They’re also used to working on multiple projects at various stages of completion, so everyone has pivoted. 

The saying “Man plans, God laughs” seems particularly apt during this season of foiled plans. Thanks to Eliyana Adler, I know now that it rhymes in Yiddish: “Mann tracht, und Gott lacht.”

Abrupt changes and last-second arrangements are stressful, but everyone I spoke to knows how fortunate they are. There’s inconvenience and disappointment, and then there’s heartache and hardship.


Russell Frank came back from Greece in March, six months into a planned nine-month stay. If you have an anecdote for his Community Coronavirus Diary, write to [email protected].



A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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