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Thursday August 18th

'Roller coaster of emotions': How UNC students and faculty got stranded in Guatemala

<p>UNC Division of Physical Therapy students and faculty members on the annual service-learning trip to Guatemala pose for a group photo. Photo courtesy of Lisa Johnston.&nbsp;</p>
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UNC Division of Physical Therapy students and faculty members on the annual service-learning trip to Guatemala pose for a group photo. Photo courtesy of Lisa Johnston. 

Nearly a dozen UNC students and faculty members were stranded in Guatemala for several days in March due to pandemic-related border closings. 

The group consisted of third-year physical therapy doctoral students and accompanying faculty on a service-learning trip. In light of the global COVID-19 outbreak, the president of Guatemala closed the country’s borders on Monday, March 16, leaving students and faculty without a way home.

Lisa Johnston, assistant director for professional education in the physical therapy division of the Department of Allied Health Sciences, said students have gone on the trip for the past 10 years to provide education and training to clinicians in the area. 

Sara Galante, a physical therapy doctoral student, said in an email that she had been looking forward to the Guatemala service trip since being admitted to the UNC Doctor of Physical Therapy program over three years ago. 

“I didn’t want to believe something this unprecedented could happen," she said in the email. "Even if I had considered a worse-case scenario before leaving, I don’t think that I could have imagined the turn of events that we experienced.”

When the group first arrived on Tuesday, March 10, Johnston said the situation was normal.

“We had a great first three days, uneventful, doing our thing, going into our clinics and sites and doing what we planned to do,” Johnston said. “At the time, there were no cases in Guatemala.”

The students planned to spend a little over a week in the country, with their flights scheduled to depart on Wednesday, March 18.

“Initially we were concerned that we might not be able to go at all,” Karen McCulloch, director of the Neurologic Physical Therapy Residency, said. “We felt like things were progressing in Europe but we felt like there was not much of an issue in Central America. While we were there, things just changed really quickly. We sort of got caught in the middle of it.”

The situation changed drastically over the weekend when the group received word that the borders would soon close. 

“It wasn’t really clear what that meant,” Johnston said. “It sounded like they weren’t letting any new international people into Guatemala. It didn’t really say people wouldn't be able to leave Guatemala.”

According to the group’s blog, four students and one professor were able to evacuate before the border closed on March 16 at midnight.

Johnston said by Monday, March 16, their flights for Wednesday had been canceled. But they were able to establish contact with UNC Global, the U.S. Embassy and airlines, she said. 

“There was really no hesitation, it just took a while to get something that worked,” Johnston said. “It took awhile for the Guatemalan president to let any flights leave. The biggest part of the problem was they had to clear up the restriction.”

The students and faculty were finally able to leave early in the morning on March 22.

“From Monday until we left on Saturday, our total focus was trying to figure out how to get back home,” McCulloch said. “It ended up feeling like a lot longer because we were just waiting, not sure when we would get confirmation of the flight.”

Galante said she was thankful for the support provided by UNC, state representatives and friends of friends who helped them safely return.

“The entire experience was a roller coaster of emotions from finding out the flights were canceled and the borders were closing, to calling my loved ones and telling them, to thinking that we had found a way out,” Galante said. 

She said the 24 hours leading up to the evacuation had a similar feeling of uncertainty because the group knew the evacuation wasn't guaranteed until they were on a flight home. 

None of the UNC students or faculty fell ill during or after returning from Guatemala, Johnston said.

“We were very lucky compared to probably a lot of students who are on a study-away experience,” Johnston said. “To have something like this happen, I think we were in the best position we could have been in, all things considered.”

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