Cheyenne Hill holds a UofL flag overlooking a beach in Trinidad and Tobago.
Cheyenne Hill on her ISLP trip to Trinidad and Tobago.

Editor’s Note: The following is a first-person account from UofL graduate student Cheyenne Hill, who spent Spring Break on a service learning trip in Trinidad and Tobago just as COVID-19 began to proliferate in the U.S. and beyond. 

In this last semester of college, I chose to join the International Service Learning Program on a trip to Trinidad and Tobago led by the College of Education’s Higher Education Administration and College Student Personnel programs. It was an opportunity that I thought I had missed out on during my undergraduate studies. It seemed like the perfect way to spend my spring break: living and learning in a new country, surrounded by peers and the most beautiful scenery imaginable.

During the first couple of days, I was hit by an onslaught of “firsts:”

  • My first international trip.
  • My first time on three planes in one day.
  • My first time eating lobster
  • My first time snorkeling.
  • My first time presenting in front of professionals.
  • My first sunburn of the summer.

Looking back, I realize that all of these things were so trivial compared to what we went on to experience. We unwittingly were in a front row seat watching a pandemic spread across the world.

COVID-19 was in the United States when we set off on our spring break adventure, but it had not gained traction and travel was not yet restricted. So we trudged ahead.

Our goal was to explore the culture of Trinidad and Tobago and familiarize ourselves with the tertiary system in a new country. As young professionals in the U.S. higher education system, we were eager to exchange knowledge and experience with our Trinidadian peers.

During our first few days, we engaged in roundtable discussions with the Trinidad and Tobago Hospitality and Tourism Institute and the University of the West Indies. However, we were met with a level of caution due to the increasing fear of the virus. Instead of handshakes, we were greeted with polite waves and “knocking elbows,” as well as informational sessions on the importance of maintaining distance and rigorous hand washing. In some ways, the lively discussion we expected was hindered by a feeling of uncertainty.

This was in stark contrast to the reception we received at a primary school in the area. The school was affiliated with the orphanage next door in addition to the local community. We came bearing gifts of soccer balls, Cardinal bracelets, stickers, key chains and new books. In return, we were greeted with laughter and hugs. We felt it was much too soon when the kids began dismissing to their homes.

The ride back to the hotel was filled with laughter, exchanging stories of the vibrant children we encountered.

Then, the messages started rolling in. COVID-19 had reached Kentucky, then Louisville. It was unsettling, watching the chaos unfold from so far away. Our little piece of paradise had been tainted by the knowledge of what we would return home to.

Nevertheless, we persisted. We met with students and faculty and listened to their concerns. We focused on “doing more with less.” Their universities were also facing economic struggles and they wanted to provide the best education for their students. We shared with them our experiences in higher education, what events and services had worked, and which hadn’t. They shared with us new ideas to engage our own students. Many of us formed partnerships with our Trinidadian counterparts, making plans to continue assisting them even after returning home.

Meanwhile, the emails from school, work and home kept pouring into our inboxes and it was often overwhelming. What could we do? We were stuck between wanting to return home to our loved ones, and wondering if it was safer that we stay away.

Our fearless leaders simply reminded us that all we could do was wait and listen. And we did. We continued with the activities we had planned, all of which began with a debriefing on the situation as it spread. We were reminded once again, to maintain space, wash your hands, stay safe.

We always knew there was a possibility of being quarantined upon our return but getting the notification that we were prohibited from campus for 14 days still shook many of us. It was suddenly all too real. Glenn Gittings, one of the leaders for our trip, frequently reminded me that our rag-tag team of 11 (seven students and four professors and administrators) was going through this together.

The tension in the air as we landed in Miami, Florida, was high. We were travel weary, hungry, nervous. Where there had once been boisterous conversation, there was now silence and uncertainty. However, something changed as we landed at the Louisville airport. Something familiar and welcoming, despite all the chaos in the world, it still felt like home. I could feel the tension in my shoulders relax, knowing that whatever came next, we would be okay. Even though the trip was over, we were still in this together.

Later, we found out that not long after our return, Trinidad and Tobago began blocking flights in and out of the country. There was a flurry of activity as the nation struggled to gain a grasp on the virus. Only two days before, the universities we had worked with had shut down all activities, resulting in our final session being cut short.

I guess in the end, this trip still was all about my “firsts:”

  • Including my first time navigating a pandemic of this scale.
  • My first time experiencing real fear and uncertainty about what lies ahead.
  • My first time seeing a group of relative strangers turn into family.

And that is what ISLP has done for me. I visited a new country, learning their history and culture. I grew as a professional, participating in some of the most intellectually stimulating conversation in my life. I learned how to have courage in the face of uncertainty. I gained a family of individuals brought together by a shared experience.

Fear did not win out in this experience. Instead, we used education, reasoning and compassion to build on something so profound that I shall never forget it.

And, given the choice, I would do it all over again.