Channing Stirrat traveled to Ecuador to study biology. Nicholas Nerli flew to Morocco to further his Arabic studies. For Adina Rombro, a study-abroad program offered a chance to dive into Peruvian culture and history.
But this past week, as borders suddenly closed and airlines abruptly canceled flights, the biggest lesson for these Americans and many others studying abroad was this: You’re on your own.
It’s unclear how many American students are stuck overseas, though tens of thousands routinely enroll in study-abroad programs — more than 340,000 in 2017-18, according to a report by the Institute of International Education.
U.S. government efforts to evacuate Americans have been halting. President Trump said this past week that the military would bring back Americans from Peru, though evacuations had not taken place as of Saturday even as that country imposed further restrictions on charter flights. On Friday, two Air Force planes evacuated the members of an American women’s football team from Honduras, officials said.
American travelers of all types have faced sudden and unsettling questions with the rapid spread of the coronavirus, but the challenge is particularly stern for students and the colleges under whose auspices they have traveled. Some schools called back their students before borders closed, even when the number of infections was low. Others waited longer, which meant their students had few options for commercial flights.
Some colleges have managed to get their students home in recent days. On Friday, Boston University chartered a private jet, spending about $55,000 to evacuate from Ecuador several of its own students, as well as students and staff from Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore., and the University of Miami.
But across the world, clusters of students remain stranded: A half-dozen physical therapy students from the University of North Carolina are stuck in Guatemala. Fifteen students from Alabama, Georgia and North Carolina, who are training to be paramedics and physician assistants, remain in Peru.
And about 2,000 Americans enrolled in State Department-funded educational and cultural exchange programs worldwide remain in their host countries, the department said Saturday.
“These are unprecedented circumstances,” the State Department said in an emailed statement. “We recognize the closing of borders and air space, lack of flights, and other local conditions make travel difficult and it may not be advisable to immediately repatriate all exchange participants.”
In a statement, the University of North Carolina said its officials were in “regular communication” with the students in Guatemala and were “working diligently on arrangements for their safe return home.”
Several American students said they had received limited information from U.S. embassies over the past week, as governments around the world instituted emergency measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus, including the sealing of borders.
“For me, it was really disheartening to see the embassy, the State Department, wasn’t able to help us,” said Ms. Stirrat, 20, a junior at Lewis & Clark who eventually got on the Boston University-chartered evacuation flight from Ecuador. “It kind of makes me think twice about what it means to be American and how much the government cares for its citizens.”
Ms. Stirrat, her fellow student Kasia Enriquez, and their faculty adviser, Stephen Tufte, had been trying to get out of Ecuador for nearly a week after the country blocked all incoming flights, which effectively shut down outgoing flights, too.
The dearth of commercial flights has left students and their advisers with, at best, a patchwork of options. Mr. Neria, 21, the Arabic-language student from Lewis & Clark, was allowed to board a British government-sponsored evacuation flight from Morocco.
In Peru, Jessica Buie, 25, a student at Lenoir-Rhyne University in North Carolina, said she and her fellow students packed their bags and headed to the U.S. Consulate in Cusco as soon as they got word that the Peruvian government would close its border.
They found a note on the Consulate gate, advising U.S. citizens to call airlines and providing a number to the American Embassy in Lima, which turned out to be incorrect.
“I felt a little helpless,” Ms. Buie said on Saturday, as she and her fellow students remained in Peru. “I felt we were going to have to work together as a group, to be a wolf pack at this time to get ourselves out.”
Joel Ellzie, a faculty adviser from the University of South Alabama who is accompanying the students in Peru, said he eventually found the right number for the U.S. Embassy in Lima but was disconnected after being on hold for an hour. He called the experience “disheartening.”
Ms. Buie and Mr. Ellzie are among 17 students and faculty from four colleges in Georgia, Alabama and North Carolina who are still in the Peruvian cities of Cusco and Lima. They spend their days watching movies and exercising outside. Under Peru’s restrictions, they are allowed to travel only to the grocery store or pharmacy.
Efforts to secure a private charter plane failed when the Peruvian government halted such flights. This week, in a joint letter, the presidents of the four colleges called on Congress to “urge U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo to work with the Peruvian government to create a solution that would bring these stranded students home as soon as possible.”
A State Department spokesperson said in an email Saturday that the agency “has no greater priority than the safety and security of U.S. citizens overseas.” The department’s advice has been broad, though, and for many students and other Americans, impractical as well.
“In countries where commercial departure options remain available, U.S. citizens who live in the United States should arrange for immediate return to the United States,” the department said as late as Thursday.
But departure by commercial airlines is no longer an option in many countries, where commercial airlines have all but stopped flying.
The State Department also cautioned U.S. citizens that consular services abroad may be limited because the agency had allowed staff members, starting last week, to return home if they were at high risk of infection.
Ms. Rombro, a 22-year-old history major at Barnard College in New York, has been effectively locked down in the small apartment she shares with her host in Lima.
By the time Barnard recalled her, she said, it was too late; the president of Peru had already announced that the borders would be closed and there were no flights back home. Her parents have turned to their local congressman for help.
A Barnard spokeswoman said Saturday that the college was working with an outside security firm to arrange a charter flight.
Despite being stranded, Ms. Rombro feels lucky about many things: “I have a bed, I’m not paying for my housing, I don’t have to worry about paying for food, I have water to drink, I have wifi.”
Reporting was contributed by Helene Cooper, Eric Schmitt and Julie Turkewitz.