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Living Through History

Thomas Sheehan Reflects on Evacuating Two Countries During Study Abroad

By Margaux MacColl (Medill '20)
May 26, 2020

Thomas Sheehan in Hong Kong

The rapid spread of COVID-19 across the globe caused thousands of students to cut their study abroad programs short. But when Northwestern student Thomas Sheehan (McCormick ’21) learned he had just a few days to evacuate Istanbul, it was already familiar territory. Over the past year, Sheehan found himself caught in the midst of two major world events and was forced to return home early from two separate exchange programs. He reflects on his unique study abroad experience and what he learned from a tumultuous year. 

Thomas Sheehan and friends in Hong KongIn fall 2019, Sheehan began studying at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) Exchange with the intention of staying for the full 2019-2020 academic year. Drawn in by HKUST’s innovative and world-renowned science and engineering program, Sheehan was excited to enroll in HKUST courses that would count toward his Mechanical Engineering major. He was also eager to expand his professional network and build on his research experience. 

Sheehan had read about the widespread protests—sparked by a bill allowing extradition from Hong Kong to mainland China—but knew they were mostly contained to the city, away from the HKUST campus.

“The first month or two was pretty calm,” Sheehan said. “But then, near the end, it got more serious. The protests got more violent. Things like trains and stores started to shut down.”

With the trains closing every weekend, professors were unable to get to campus and Sheehan’s Friday classes were often canceled. But then, one weekend in November, the protests spilled into Sunday. His classes were canceled for the week.

“Uh oh,” Sheehan recalled thinking. “Something might be happening.”

By that point, the growing unrest had reached seven of the eight major Hong Kong universities. HKUST was the only one left untouched.

“We all assumed that our campus would be next,” he said. Sheehan tracked the protests that week using local media and wondered whether it was safe to stay. 

“At this point, I was contacting the students studying in Hong Kong almost daily to provide updates,” Northwestern Buffett's Global Learning Office (GLO) Program Manager Lauren Worth said. “I wanted to be sure they and their parents or guardians had all the necessary facts to make an informed decision about whether to return home early.” 

On Wednesday, the HKUST lunchroom was empty.  “Everyone was gone,” Sheehan said. “That’s when I was like, I don't know if I'm making the right decision to stay here.”

Northwestern officially encouraged Sheehan—and all Northwestern students studying in Hong Kong—to prepare to depart Hong Kong the next day.

Not wanting Sheehan’s experience to be cut short, his GLO adviser sent him a list of study abroad program options to consider for the winter-spring 2020 term. The Koç University Exchange in Istanbul was on that list.

“I don't know anything about Turkey or Istanbul,” Sheehan thought at the time. “But I'm going to go for it.” 

“Exchange programs require a high degree of independence, adaptability, and resiliency from students and Thomas had certainly demonstrated these qualities through his experience studying at and departing HKUST,” GLO Program Manager Whitney Bennett said. One of the top institutions for engineering within Turkey, Koç offers a wide array of courses that can fulfill degree requirements for McCormick students. 

Thomas Sheehan and friends studying in Turkey

Sheehan began studying at Koç University in January 2020 and immediately fell in love. He became fast friends with other students, took boat rides on the Bosporus and explored the sprawling city.

However, another unpredictable world event was about to once again interrupt Sheehan’s study abroad. With COVID-19 quickly spreading across the world, Sheehan grew increasingly concerned as he read news reports stating the virus was in Greece, Iran, and Italy.

“Whenever I talked to local students or anybody else they were like, ‘yeah, it's probably here too,’” he said.

Working closely with the Northwestern Buffett Institute’s Office of Global Safety and Security, GLO communicated information on the growing pandemic to Northwestern students studying abroad.

“From the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, our first priority was our students’ health and safety,” GLO Director Sara Tully said. “We stayed in frequent contact with our students abroad, letting them know that, should they decide to return home early, we would work with them to secure financial and academic accommodations.”

When the U.S. Department of State issued a Global Level 4 Health Advisory: Do Not Travel, Northwestern mandated the immediate return of all students studying abroad. 

“By the time I got the familiar email from GLO telling me to pack my things, I was expecting it,” Sheehan said. Sheehan, once again, returned home. 

Despite the interruptions, Sheehan said he appreciated the time he got to spend abroad and that he learned a lot from his wild year. 

“Time goes fast,” he laughed. “And it can be cut short pretty easily.”

Thomas Sheehan and friends in Turkey