Late one night, while Austin Peay State University freshman Madison Morgan finished her laundry, President Emmanuel Macron of France announced the European Union was closing its borders.
Beginning the next day at noon, no one would be able to fly out of Charles De Gaulle Airport. Morgan, a Dickson County High School graduate, watched Macron on her smartphone. Her flight back to the U.S. was scheduled for Thursday – two days after the travel ban.
“We have to leave now,” said Angel Arrington, another Austin Peay student. Both women spent the spring semester as exchange students at France’s Université d’Orléans. “We have to get to Paris tonight.”
The trip from Orléans to Paris takes about 90 minutes by train, but there was still so much to do.
“I had to close my French bank account, we had to go talk to housing and get our rooms in our dorm closed,” Morgan said. “We had planned to leave on Thursday. Now I was packing, freaking, calling my parents. I was a mess.”
The two Austin Peay students threw clothes into Morgan’s suitcase and then rushed out into the street.
“It was go, go, go,” she said. “We didn’t have time to close out our dorms. We left our keys and went. We stood outside our building, trying to get an Uber or BlaBlaCar (French ride-share app). It was a mess.”
Eventually, Arrington talked to a French classmate who’d studied abroad at Austin Peay. She helped them to get a BlaBlaCar, which took them to the outskirts of Paris. Their flight to the U.S. was scheduled to leave at 10 a.m. the next morning, just two hours before the borders closed.
An American in Orléans
Last year, Morgan was a senior high school student in Dickson, trying to figure out where she wanted to attend college. Then one afternoon, Austin Peay French professors Karen Sorenson and Christophe Konkobo visited her school.
“After I met them, I knew I had to go to Austin Peay,” she said.
Part of her plan was to someday study in France, but a few weeks into her first semester, she received an email from Austin Peay’s learning opportunities center, letting her know she’d received a global learning opportunities scholarship.
“That was a great thing because they gave me money to study abroad,” she said. “I thought, ‘I’m going to France’ — this is happening. My dad is a detective, so he has this protectiveness over me, but my parents didn’t want to talk to me about their worries because they knew it was my dream.”
So, in January, only one semester into her college career, Morgan arrived at De Gaulle Airport. The terminal was crowded with international passengers. That afternoon, she made her way south to Orléans, and in the days that followed, after the fogginess of jetlag, paperwork and a new culture lifted, Morgan fell in love with the city.
“I felt at home there,” she said. “It’s not a big city, but it’s large enough to have this wonderful downtown area. You don’t have to do anything. It’s just beautiful to look at.”
A new virus
In the next few weeks, Morgan felt more at home in this foreign city, making friends with her fellow students and growing in her French language abilities. She also kept coming across stories about a mysterious illness in China.
“I remember seeing on social media that there was a new virus, but I didn’t pay much attention to it,” she said. “But then the other Americans from other universities started talking about it. It kept growing and growing, and then everyone was talking about it.”
In France, residents were warned to stay away from gatherings of 50,000 people or more, but every week that number grew lower and lower. Morgan kept in regular contact with Sorenson, who told her Austin Peay was restricting international travel and moving all classes fully online. Then early one morning, she received a call from Austin Peay director of study abroad and international exchange Marissa Chandler.
“In a weird way I knew she was going to call me,” Morgan said. “That night when I went to bed, I saw that President Trump was going to make an announcement, and I thought, ‘I’m going to go home.’ Dr. Chandler called me at 2 a.m. I was half asleep and she said, ‘you’re coming home.’ And I lost it. France had always been my dream. To go home early just broke my heart.”
A weekend in Paris
That Friday, after staying on hold for more than two hours, Arrington and Morgan booked flights back to the U.S. They were set to leave the next Thursday, giving them time for one last visit to Paris. They arrived by train that Saturday morning.
“We ended up in a restaurant, and the waiter came by and said ‘we’re closing at midnight, and we won’t be open tomorrow or for a while,’ ” Morgan said. “We woke up the next day and everything was closed. It was eerie. We ate at the boulangeries, French bakeries, because they were open. We went to a portion of the Louvre that has a shopping center — it was my third time there. Every other time it was wall-to-wall people, lines everywhere. Now, we were in this shopping center by ourselves, with two security guards.”
Getting back home
That Monday night, while Morgan and Arrington rushed to Paris, Chandler booked the Austin Peay students a flight home and reserved them a hotel room. They arrived in their room at 1 a.m., slept for an hour and then headed to De Gaulle Airport. The terminal wasn’t as crowded as when they first arrived in January.
“It was just Americans trying to get home,” Morgan said. “It was smooth sailing.”
All the passengers were given forms to fill out, explaining where they’d been and how they felt. When the plane landed in the U.S., they disembarked only 10 people at a time.
“You got off the plane, and the CDC was there waiting, wearing masks,” Morgan said. “They looked at the paper and at you and just said, ‘you’re good to go.’ They did give us a paper on what to do if we developed symptoms.”
Morgan never did develop symptoms, but she did self-quarantine in her bedroom for 14 days at her parents’ home in Dickson. She finished her semester at the Université d’Orléans with early morning — “very early,” she said — Zoom lectures.
Even with the stress of those last few days, she hopes to return to France soon.
“I had to come home, but I have all these feelings that I lost this opportunity,” she said. “And so, I emailed Dr. Sorenson and asked if I could go back to Orléans. I want to go back. I felt at home there. It’s like a part of me is missing. I was only there for two and a half months, but I loved it.”