Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Student Interrupted: MTSU Junior Hanan Beyene faces impact of COVID-19 abroad


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Featured in Sidelines’ COVID-19 print edition

Third-year MTSU student Hanan Beyene landed in Japan in mid-January while COVID-19 was only in the back of the minds of most Americans. Nearly two months later she was on a plane heading back to America due to growing concerns about coronavirus.

Hanan Beyene in Osaka, Japan. (Photo courtesy of Hanan Beyene)

As a global and religious studies double major, Beyene traveled to Japan to take peace studies classes. She lived in a dorm in Osaka along with students from other countries as well as MTSU. While this wasn’t Beyene’s first time in the country, she said the new experience of being in Japan for a class and for longer than two weeks was exciting.

“Even a month in, I was like ‘I’m in Japan, this is weird.’ Like you’re still trying to process… The entire time I was there was super exciting. And it was all things I was kind of familiar with, but it was new because I was there as a full-time student as opposed to a short-term type of trip. So, I liked it a lot. It was really, like, the best time for me.”

But soon, it was becoming impossible for the world to ignore the increasing threat of COVID-19. Beyene said she was contacted by the study-abroad office at MTSU at the end of February and was given the option to stay in Japan or return home.

However, life in Japan hadn’t changed that much. Beyene said there was already a culture of wearing masks, even just for fashion, which had led to her purchasing face masks when she arrived. And the Japanese government hadn’t taken any drastic precautions against COVID-19. Businesses and schools were still open and people gathered freely. So Beyene chose to stay.

In fact, Beyene said that she felt safer in Japan.

Hanan Beyene in Kyoto, Japan. (Photo courtesy of Hanan Beyene)

“It was really weird because I remember a lot of people back home were panicking and freaking out about (COVID-19). And I wasn’t really getting that same vibe in Japan, so I felt safe. I was like, ‘oh, no one’s really panicking. It seems like things are kind of under control,’” she said.

However, it turned out the Japanese government had been under-testing like many other countries and many felt that the government did not do as well as they could’ve to tackle the virus. It seemed to many that the government was holding out for as long as possible for fear of canceling the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which has since been postponed. Once the real numbers of cases in Japan started coming out, it got more serious. Japan now has over 13,000 confirmed cases and Osaka accounts for over 1,500 of them – the second-most in the country.

“We would go to the city and there would still be a lot of people and Japan is very dense. So, we just felt like something’s not adding up. Because it can’t be just Japan that is not getting numbers (of cases),” Beyene said.

Beyene said that around the time MTSU President Sidney McPhee released his statement moving the rest of the spring semester online, Japan closed schools at all levels for two weeks.

She said the study abroad office contacted her again at this point. Both MTSU and the university Beyene was studying at in Japan strongly suggested she come home. It was this, paired with the fear for her own health and already losing the cultural experience she had come for, that was the turning point in her decision to go home.

“And that’s when we were like we might as well go home,” she said. “We came for the experience. And we realized our experience in Japan is different because of this. Because they were canceling cultural events, they were shutting down parks and museums and things like that. And I especially felt like I wasn’t getting the full experience I could’ve.”

Coming home, Beyene said, was a mixture of stressful and sad.

“I was really sad this time going back because I was like ‘this is not what I originally planned’ and it was a downer for sure. Last time I came to Japan it was very fulfilling because it was only two weeks and we all had this great experience. And I felt like mine was cut short.”

But the tense feeling in the airport from others traveling concerned about the virus was new to her as well.

“It was really stressful because I could feel other people being stressed out too in the airport… I was like, ‘I just want to go home, I don’t want to deal with this entire process.’ But it went smoothly, it’s just that stressful environment was not great,” Beyene said.

After arriving back to the states, Beyene was told by the study abroad office that she needed to quarantine for two weeks to make sure she hadn’t caught coronavirus somewhere on her way home and wasn’t showing symptoms. Beyene ended up staying in a hotel for 14 days and came out of it, thankfully, with no symptoms.

Hanan Beyene and friends in Kyoto, Japan. (Photo courtesy of Hanan Beyene)

Since then, she has been back home continuing her classes in Japan remotely, staying inside and playing the Sims with her study abroad friends.

“I facetime them all the time. Especially since we’re all kind of in quarantine, we’re talking and playing Sims together all the time, and Animal Crossing… It’s also weird because we all have these different time differences. But we still keep in touch so that’s really fun.”

Beyene said she knows it was the best decision for her health and safety, but it was still a bummer to leave. She plans to go back to Japan and get the experience she missed out on.

“I miss it so much. And looking towards grad or after bachelors… I’d be interested in going back to Japan in some way,” she said. “I love Japan with my whole heart. I miss it so much.”

To contact News Editor Savannah Meade, email

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