SAIS Europe holds in-person classes in Italy, attracting students from U.S. and China during pandemic

Never mind that her temperature was scanned when she walked into the building, that everyone was wearing masks and that she was in Italy, thousands of miles from Washington, D.C., where she had expected to study this fall.

Smith had found a way to get to Johns Hopkins University’s only campus that is not virtual this semester — its School of Advanced International Studies program in Bologna — joining an only-in-pandemic-times, scrambled-at-the-last minute community of “students in exile” whose lives have been upended by the novel coronavirus.

Those exiles include students like Smith, who so desperately wanted the normal college experience that she gambled on plane tickets and endured a strict video-surveilled quarantine at an Italian hotel to study at SAIS Europe. They include international students who couldn’t get visas to the SAIS campus in Washington because instruction there is not being held in person this fall. And they include students who had planned to be at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center who are now conducting their graduate study of China from the middle of Italy.

The students are now united in an unusual experiment, one that shows how intensely many students crave normal campus life and how radically some students and schools are willing to rethink the status quo.

Instead of set courses of study and divides among their three campuses, SAIS leaders have created a mash-up of Chinese, European and American classes, reimagining what a global school really means.

They’re doing it a time when there is very little education abroad this fall, said Melissa Torres, president and chief executive of the Forum on Education Abroad. U.S. universities have canceled most exchange programs during the pandemic.

Austin Bliss, a student from Missouri, had expected to be in Nanjing but is now taking a mix of online classes from professors in China, as well as in-person classes in Bologna. He is also befriending Chinese students in Italy.

Like others, he is bracing for more restrictions. There have been no coronavirus cases this fall among students, faculty and staff in Bologna. But in recent days, Italy reported its highest number of new cases since the pandemic began.

“I really hope it pays off and I don’t end up trapped alone in a room on a lockdown doing online classes,” Bliss said. “But it does feel really good to be here.”

In normal times, SAIS Europe is the antithesis of virtual learning, said Bart Drakulich, the school’s vice director. “It’s everything that online isn’t.”

Classes are tiny and intimate. The 200 or so graduate students come from dozens of countries to the school located amid the medieval brick buildings of Bologna, a lively college town. During breaks in classes, they typically walk downstairs with their professors to the school’s cafe, chatting over espressos about a scholar’s experience in Rwanda, or the toughest part of negotiations, or anything they’re wondering but wouldn’t interrupt class to ask. As classes wind down for the evening, those coffees often turn to glasses of wine. Some students bring

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