In our first episode of Season 2, we hear from Cooper McCrillis '21 who's Laurentian story is anything but normal. In the spring of 2020, Cooper and his classmates went through more than one "once-in-a-lifetime" experiences when the COVID-19 Pandemic brought an end to their semester abroad in Kenya.
[Theme Music Plays]
Beth: Hello everyone. And welcome back to another edition of Scarlet and Brown Stories, a St. Lawrence University podcast, where we discuss some of the stories of Laurentians who are doing all these interesting, wonderful things. We are starting off season two with somebody who has not just an interesting background, but has their own unique St. Lawrence story, which is kind of a different mode than what we've done in past episodes. And that person is Cooper McCrillis. We are so excited that have him kind of tell us a little bit about what it was like being a student during the COVID-19 pandemic when he was abroad in Kenya. And like so many of the students who were abroad at that time, oh, well, all of the students who were abroad at that time, his time abroad was cut short.
Beth: He graduated in 2021, and it is exciting to have him back where he can talk a little bit about not only his experience and his story about what it was like when the program was canceled. But we're also going to hopefully hear a little bit about what his upcoming plans are this summer, which include going back to Kenya to have a kind of a bookend trip. So without further ado, let's kick it off and kick it into our interview with Cooper McCrillis class of 2021.
Dennis: Here we are with Cooper McCrillis, class of '21. Cooper had a very interesting kind of career at St. Lawrence as a student. Rather than giving you the kind of resume overview, I was thinking for this episode, why don't we start at the beginning? Not necessarily literally, but you were here, let's just say, at a very interesting time. And so I think your story will sort of speak for itself. So when you came into St. Lawrence, who were you at the time? What were you kind of bringing to the table?
Cooper: Oh, thanks Denny. And thanks for welcoming on to the podcast this afternoon. And yeah, I had quite an interesting adventure at St. Lawrence. I enjoyed the pre pandemic St. Lawrence and then the pandemic St. Lawrence and then a little bit of the post pandemic St. Lawrence.
Dennis: I'm going to get my math here probably embarrassing wrong, you came in 2018, in the fall?
Dennis: 2017, yeah.
Beth: So yeah, Cooper, tell us a little bit, who were you when you first came into St. Lawrence? What maybe made you want to come to St. Lawrence?
Cooper: Well, I think sort my biggest attraction to St. Lawrence when I was looking at schools, I was always interested in sort of a small liberal arts college, somewhere in the Northeast. And my dad graduated from St. Lawrence on the mid eighties. So that was sort of always an attraction to me. He was always interested in me going to St. Lawrence, but never was a huge push. He always wanted me to make my own decision. And I think my first tour that I had at St. Lawrence was a really rainy late spring day.
Beth: The most beautiful time of year.
Cooper: Exactly. It was pouring rain. We were trying to run between buildings with the tour guide. And I just remember being sort of infatuated with how friendly and how happy people were on campus, even though it was a miserable weather day. And I instantly sort of realized, man, if people are this happy and welcoming in this type of weather, I can only imagine what people are like when it's sunny and 60 degrees out or something like that. And I was always a big fan of the outdoors too. So Canton offering so many outdoors opportunities with the Adirondacks nearby, Lake Placid, Adirondack Mountains, waterfalls, et cetera. So that was a huge draw. And then just, I think the alumni network, I knew about that through my dad telling me stories and knowing how important that would be in a college experience for me was pretty important.
Cooper: And I ended up doing a summer program, the summer before my senior year of high school, where I met, who then ended up being my St. Lawrence roommate from Keene New Hampshire. So we met at this summer program in New Hampshire and St. Lawrence ended up being there for a college fair day. So I talked to some people from admissions then, ended up getting accepted, ended up showing up the same, accepted students day with my friend from that summer program. We had no idea that we were both going to St. Lawrence. And then we were like, man, we should be roommates. And we ended up being roommates for just about all four years.
Beth: That's incredible. I don't know too many people who go to college with a roommate in mind, especially one that they didn't go to high school with. So that's a pretty incredible story. So what was the summer program and how did you guys bond so quickly?
Cooper: Yeah, so we did something called the St. Paul's advanced study program, which is based in Concord, New Hampshire, and it's for sort of the top seniors in each high school in New Hampshire. And so you go there for about a month, you take sort of a specific major course that you're interested in, and it's supposed to prepare you for college. You also do a writing workshop where you focus on writing your college essay, things like that. So it's a big sort of college prep courses for about a summer. And so we ended up living in the same. We were taking different classes, but living in the same dorm that summer, and that's how we met.
Dennis: So you're kind of moving along. Things are going well when you get here. I sense that just looking at your kind of resume. You immediately get involved in a bunch of leadership opportunities.
Cooper: Right. Yes, definitely. Yeah. Right away I got involved with SLU EMS, which is all student run, collegiate EMS on campus.
Dennis: That's great.
Cooper: Yeah. Which was a lot of fun and certainly added a lot of extra hours and busyness to my schedule, but something that I really enjoyed. And then I got pretty heavily involved with class council right away freshman year. And that carried right through all four years.
Dennis: Yeah. No, that's great.
Beth: Because I think it's important to mention you were the class president for the class of 2021, which I'm sure had a very different field than maybe the class of mm, 2019 post pandemic or current pandemic, I should say, at the time must have definitely changed how class councils were run.
Cooper: For sure. It was quite a unique experience because the first, I guess, freshman, sophomore year, it was really normal around campus. There was no pandemic restrictions. We had no knowledge of the pandemic was going to occur, was sort of all systems go. All the fun weekend events were still happening. Class council was planning lots of ways to get our class together for different activities, fundraising, et cetera. And then 2020 came around and the pandemic started, and we had to figure out how we were going to plan safe events, how we were going to fundraise safely for senior week. And then of course, starting to figure out that senior week would maybe become a senior weekend. Commencement would get, I guess, severely altered. And that was certainly quite an experience to navigate through and trying to help our class understand how we could make a positive out of such a negative situation and sort of being able to quell some of the frustrations that people were having too.
Dennis: That is really interesting. And that's sort of getting into the place where I feel like your story gets really interesting, right. I'm wondering if you could take us to January of 2020, put us in your viewpoint a little bit, and what was going through your mind with that? You're getting ready for a big semester. I mean, that's the spring of your junior year. It's a semester that a lot of people traditionally will study abroad and you were among them.
Cooper: Correct. Yeah. I was packing up and getting ready to head off to Kenya, which I was super excited about, something that I had wanted to do since freshman year when I heard about the famed St. Lawrence Kenya semester program. I actually had a couple friends that in my class 2021 that were Kenyan classmates.
Dennis: Oh nice.
Cooper: And so I had interacted a lot with them, became really good friends with them, and that really sparked my interest to want to go to Kenya. So then of course, hearing about the Kenya semester program, I was like, that's a perfect opportunity. I remember text my mom that I was accepted. And she thought I said that I was going to Canada for a semester abroad. And she was super, super excited. And oh, we'll come visit you. And that'll be great. And then I said, no, no mom, it's not Canada. I'm going to Kenya. And of course that really surprised her. And she had to take a minute to understand that. Then once she understood what I was going to do, she was really excited. But yeah, we were packing up in January. We arrived in Kenya with, I think there's 27 of us from St. Lawrence.
Dennis: Was it you and a crew of friends all applied together or were you kind of going in blind to just meet a new group?
Cooper: Yeah, that's a really good question. So it was me and one other friend who I was pretty close with. And then as the rest of us, it was just pretty blind. We had a very diverse group of students, which I think made the experience really, really awesome. We had people that were heavily involved in athletics, people that were involved in Greek life, people that were involved in clubs. So it wasn't really just one giant group of friends.
Beth: That's great.
Dennis: That's one of the coolest things about the abroad programs I think. I did the France program. I had one person who was a friendly acquaintance. I would say it was also 26, 27 people, very similar in numbers to yours. But it was basically all new people, and you start out not knowing them, and by the end, they're still people that you think warmly about all these years later that really just each and every person kind of leaves a mark on you, who you do those experiences with.
Beth: That's so funny because I studied abroad in London and about half of my program were from my FYP, and that was completely not planned. I was like, oh, so I guess we're just doing FYP in London now. So which ended up now we do have an FYP program in London. That just ended up being so funny. And so the other people who I didn't know, we quickly all kind of bonded, which was great. Do you feel like, Cooper, that the Kenya program, obviously, like you said, it's a famed program, it invites so many diverse people from different backgrounds and identities to go to Kenya. Do you feel like that group of people or some of the people that you still connect with very strongly as an alum?
Cooper: Yes, for sure. I felt like I made some really strong connections in Kenya with the different host families that I stayed with throughout the program. And I still remain in really close contact with them today, as well as the different faculty and staff members that are based in Nairobi in Kenya on the compound, which I think is pretty cool because it's a whole different group of Laurentians that's completely across the globe in Africa, right. I mean, that's pretty special because we think of St Lawrence as an alumni network in the states, right. But realizing that so many alumni are spread out throughout the world, and there's such a fantastic cluster in Kenya and being able to sort of exploit that and stay in close contact with them I think is really, really special.
Beth: It's incredible.
Dennis: That's great. So I had tons of friends who went, did the Kenya program over the year, some of my best friends. And it does tend to attract a uniquely adventurous personality type. I would say similar to Adirondack semester a little bit. And actually those two programs, often there's a lot of overlap between who does what. But I would say that the average Kenya semester participant is more adventurous than the average France semester participant, which is what I did. Right.
Beth: Or London.
Dennis: Yeah. And so I know that I felt I was excited, but I was like a small town guy from the Adirondack who had never really left the US before. And it was something I wanted to do in terms of how I knew I wanted to grow and get that experience. But I was also quite terrified. I remember the night before leaving, being pretty terrified by the whole thing excited, but also, how were you feeling kind of the night before you were scheduled to leave?
Cooper: Yeah, there was definitely a lot of nerves. I had never traveled outside the country before. I had traveled some around the United States, but never outside the country. And I think that at a night before it sort of all hit me, I wasn't just traveling to South America or up into Canada and in North America. I was traveling across the globe to the equator, to Africa to Kenya and realizing boy, I am really, really far away from home. And if something were to happen or whatever, just playing a bunch of scenarios overhead in my mind. And I sort of reached a point where I'm at an age where this is the time to do it. And I just sort of let it all go and said, I'm going to immerse myself as much as I can, enjoy every moment, and realize that this is probably something I'm never going to have another opportunity to do.
Beth: That's really important. I think the other thing too, that I would be curious to hear your thoughts on, because the Kenya program does have elements of home stays and from various different times of the program and aspects of the program that is shared with, I think Rouen also has a home stay. Right, Denny?
Dennis: It does. It does indeed. Yeah.
Beth: And in London I had a home stay. I feel like a lot of my nerves, again, I was going to, arguably one of the closest countries in terms of what our culture is like to the US, but moving from Canton and being from the North country to one of the most, if not the most multicultural city in the world, was exciting. But I also was like, what if my host parents don't like me? And I was really worried about that.
Dennis: I had that kind of thing too. Yeah.
Cooper: Yep, me too.
Dennis: As much as the different place thing, the host family thing was one of the biggest parts. It was just the idea of being kind of thrown into an entirely new family. That thing where you're in someone else's space in a very different way.
Beth: A very extended house guest. And you're like, but I've never met you before. This is great. There was no... I don't know if it's the case now maybe you can shed some light on this, Cooper, but we were given virtually no information about them. They were like, here's the members of the names of the family that you're going to be going, and good luck when you get there, they're going to come pick you up. So I had no idea what their address was, nothing. Oh, that's actually not true. I guess I did send them a letter ahead of time.
Dennis: That might be the one thing you get.
Beth: The one thing I did get was the address. But I had no sense of who was I staying with? Granted that was in 2008 when I went, is it the same for Kenya in 2020?
Cooper: Oh, it most certainly was. We arrived in Kenya. We had, let's see probably about five or six days before we would go to our first host family, which was based in Kericho, which is sort of, I'd say Western area of Kenya, very, very rural, so away from the capital city of Nairobi. And we got just like you said, Beth, we got a double sided sheet with the names of our host parents, names of our siblings, their occupation, and pretty much what they like to do for fun. And that was about it. And so it was like have at it. We had also taken three days of Swahili, which is one of the main languages in Kenya. We took like three days of Swahili.
Dennis: Pretty much good to go then.
Beth: Yeah, fluent. Fluent, yes.
Cooper: I was very fluent. We were assured that at least one member of the house would speak some broken English.
Cooper: So I was like, this is a win-win. It sounds like we're set up for success.
Dennis: Yeah, for sure.
Cooper: I remember feverishly writing as many Swahili words in my notebook as I can. And hoping that when it came time for me to use them, that I could at least pronounce them correctly so maybe they'd understand what I was saying.
Beth: The way I would've just been pointing to my notebook the entire time, like this word, this is what I mean.
Cooper: Yes. When we arrived in Kericho, they had a ceremony sort of welcoming our group and the way that we were supposed to meet our host parents, where we all stood up and started dancing, and each host parent would make sort of prolonged eye contact with different students. And you were supposed to guess who your host parents were. And so they would come over and dance next to you, and they would look at you for a while. And you would think that was maybe your mother, but then this person would go and dance with someone else. So you would be really confused.
Dennis: I have never heard of this. This is amazing.
Beth: That's incredible.
Beth: Meanwhile, they said in London, all right, that car that's pulling up, that's your car. Get in it.
Beth: That's amazing. Now is that a cultural aspect of being in Kenya?
Cooper: It was. Yeah. That was a typical sort of tribal welcome.
Dennis: Oh, interesting. Yeah.
Cooper: So right away we were immersed. And it was certainly a little awkward at first, but once we all started understanding what was going on, it was pretty special and pretty cool to watch how slowly students were able to figure out who their parents were. And yeah, it was pretty cool.
Dennis: When you just heard the pitch for how it was going to, did you know how it was going to work before you started? Or was it kind of like, they just threw you out there into this area and then the dance starts, and then the process reveals itself and you figure it out as you go?
Cooper: Yes, that's pretty much it. We were given like maybe two minutes heads up of what was going to happen. And then it was just sort of jump right in, and see what happens.
Dennis: That's probably the easier way to do it. If I had, I would be very intimidated by it. I think it sounds very cool like one of those things that you look back on as an amazing life moment. But I don't know, it would make me very nervous, the process. Until you see it.
Beth: I would've been overthinking it, right? Yeah.
Beth: I would've been like, okay, so here's my plan of attack rather than being in the moment. That's such an interesting and amazing way to quickly get to know somebody, because I do think that dancing is ultimately a form of self expression as we know, but it's also a way for you to just kind of meet the environment where you're at. And so whether you're dancing, because you're out with your friends or in celebration at a wedding or whatever, we use dancing as meeting the energy of where we're at for a celebratory reason in different ways.
Beth: What a beautiful way to be introduced to people who you don't know and have this understanding of you had to let go essentially of your ego at the door and just be in the moment and throw yourself into this experience. I think that's gorgeous.
Beth: So, okay. So you're introduced to your host family and that's within, like you said, the first couple of days of being in Kenya?
Beth: What's the next, so I know that you do a few different host family visits and such, so how long are you with this family and then what else do you get out of that experience before the next portion of the program?
Cooper: So we're with that family for about a week. And so we are fully immersed with this family. We are treated as either their son or daughter. So we're immediately treated as a member of the family. I remember going to bed that night, waking up early the next morning, right away, helping with farm chores, milking the cows, gathering some food for the day. They owned a tea plantation. So we went out and picked some tea leaves, which was a really neat experience. I was really lucky. My host brother was a year older than I was, and he was there while I was there. So we bonded really quickly, and he sort of took me under his wing for the week sort of showing me what he does on a day to day basis, which was really neat.
Dennis: That's really cool.
Beth: Oh, that's incredible.
Dennis: And for this portion, are you seeing the other members of the program much?
Cooper: No, no.
Cooper: Nope. So that's also sort of another special element of the program is we're all in the same area, but none of us know where our fellow classmates are. So they could be two houses or two compounds down the road, but that's the whole sort of, I guess, special component of the home stay as you know that people are nearby, but you don't exactly know. And so sometimes you would randomly see people walking down the road, and you'd say hi or something, but there was very little contact with the other students. We ended up getting together, I think one afternoon as a whole group to sort of talk about how the week had gone thus far, but that was our only contact that we had as a whole group with each other.
Beth: I love that's very much an experiential education moment. It's something that St Lawrence is moving as much as we can in any capacity. We're trying to have a lot of these experiential education opportunities because you're going to remember that week in terms of getting to know a different culture, specifically a different culture within Kenya that maybe you would've if you were in Nairobi or at the compound, and you're learning aspects about a very different country than your own while at the same time putting into practice some of the things that you had learned ahead of time. Whether it's Swahili or the cultural aspects that maybe you had studied before you gotten there. I really I'm curious. Do you wish you had had more time?
Cooper: Yeah, for sure. I felt like I had a really successful rural home stay, and I was really sad to leave. I could have gone for another couple weeks with them. I feel like that first night I clicked sort of instantaneously with them. Yeah. Which I think was, was really special because that was a huge anxiety of mine was how would I fit in with the family and would it be awkward? Would it just be the language barrier, things like that, would it be really tough to interact with them? And right after that sort of first night, I could tell it was going to be perfectly fine. And I don't know, all my fears just sort of washed away. And I was like, all right, I'm ready to just fully step into this experience.
Beth: So after this portion of the program, what's the next part of the Kenya program?
Cooper: Yeah. So at that point we headed back into Nairobi where we started our class portion of the semester. So we took classes nearby one of the colleges in Kenya, in Nairobi so in the city. We would spend sort of the evenings on the compound and then the days in the classroom in the city, which is a really neat experience. We got to sort of explore the city during sort of our lunch hour, got to interact with a lot of Kenyan professors, which was really fascinating. Some of these professors have been teaching for St. Lawrence for 20 plus years.
Cooper: It was really neat, sort of picking their brains about the different groups that had come prior to us. And during that two or three weeks was when COVID-19 started to sort of rear its head.
Dennis: In terms of the timeframe, are we talking your early February at this point?
Cooper: Yes. Yep.
Dennis: Okay. Yeah. Are you in contact with your parents back home very often?
Cooper: I'd say frequently a couple texts here and there, but we weren't talking all the time. And that was sort of the beauty of the program, right, was to fully immersed yourself. So we were checking in, especially once I started to see what was happening in China. That was sort of the topic of conversation.
Dennis: You were kind of taking it serious from early on. It was kind of on your radar then.
Cooper: Yeah, it was. And I think a part of that was sort of my background in EMS and sort of the medical field. And I was definitely, out of all the students, I was probably one of the few that was really paying attention early on.
Dennis: Right. So what was the mood among the students in general, as that's going on?
Cooper: Sort of the mood was like, this is interesting, but we're in Kenya. People didn't see it affecting Africa as a continent. And then of course, Kenya, as a country, people were thinking, this is something that would be in China. They'll get a handle on it, and we'll sort of continue on. But yeah, most people weren't really batting an eye about it.
Beth: To be fair, that was very much the case I felt like in the United States where thinking maybe in mid-February we had the first case is in Seattle or something like that, right? And we were kind of feeling like, oh no, it's horrible watching. I remember watching videos of people on the street collapsing and being like, oh, that's so heartbreaking, but I hope that they get a handle on it. I just remember most of us feeling like, all right, well, nah, man, this COVID-19 thing is really annoying because it's starting to affect supply chains as early as like February 2020. And that's like, I think the extent of where I was aware as a professional who's navigating the world.
Dennis: Yeah, in February I was definitely not. It was like a bit of a curiosity, but I was like, I've heard this story before, swine flu and SARS. I mean, SARS is probably the big one that I remember everyone being freaked out about, but didn't exactly live up to the build up here. And so yeah, I can tell you for sure. I would've been among the ones on your program who was not paying any attention whatsoever. Yeah.
Beth: I can guarantee that I was as well. So I think that the fact that you were paying attention and utilizing that EMS background is just goes to show you how much of a first of all, a forward thinker that you are, but also putting that liberal arts mind to use where you're taking wholistic pieces of information and going, Hmm, this might be something we want to pay attention to.
Cooper: Yes. Yes, my liberal arts toolbox was certainly open at that point. Yeah.
Dennis: So you had a couple weeks of class there at the compound, is that right?
Cooper: Correct. And that also sort of went hand in hand with our urban home stay component.
Cooper: So we spent about a week or two on the compound, then transitioning to living with a family in Nairobi. And sort of throughout that, COVID was becoming more relevant. And I remember having some pretty interesting conversations with my urban family about COVID, and they seemed pretty interested in it. And I guess sort of when I realized it was starting to become such a big deal was the night that my urban host dad thought it'd be a good idea to go to the pharmacy and start stocking up on hand sanitizer stat.
Dennis: Oh, interesting. Yeah.
Cooper: Because he was following it really closely and seeing what was going on in China. And I thought, oh, this is good. That's forward thinking again, that's smart, great. And again, I didn't think it was going to be much of a big deal. And then sort of towards the end of that home stay component, I began to think maybe our trip could get cut short by a couple weeks.
Dennis: So you were thinking as early as that, that could be a possibility.
Beth: When was the end of your home stay in Nairobi? Are we talking now the end of February, or?
Cooper: Yeah, at that point we were towards the end of February. Yeah.
Beth: Still have about three weeks before it really starts hitting the fan.
Dennis: And you go back to the compound at this point?
Cooper: Correct. Yes.
Dennis: Okay. And still taking classes?
Cooper: Yeah. Still taking classes, still doing normal activities. Nothing had changed. We may have gotten an email from St. Lawrence saying that they were monitoring the situation, but it was more about the other study abroad locations.
Beth: Because if we recall as well, once we get into March, Italy was one of the first places that was really hit. And we did have students in Italy and that kind of thing. So I can imagine you maintaining contact with some of your classmates who were at other places probably helped to also help you with understanding what was going on.
Cooper: It did. Yeah. I had a really close friend on the Italy program. And I guess she had only been there for two or three weeks, and she sent me a message that she was getting evacuated, on her way home. And I was like, that's scary. That's not good. But again, I was thinking, okay, that's Italy.
Dennis: It happens. Yeah, I mean, you hear every so often some programs get cut short, so it's not unprecedented that a single program might be cut short.
Beth: So take us to, it's like go time for COVID now in March. When did you hear like what were the first maybe warning signs about potentially this is going to get cut short? And then talk us through getting the call that the program had to be canceled for the rest of the semester.
Cooper: Well, right at the end of the urban home stay in Nairobi, it was announced that Kenya had their first confirmed COVID-19 case. And so that was when it hit me of, well, here it is. It's in Africa, it's now in Kenya. So here we go. I began thinking, that is what it is. Hopefully, they'll get it under control. I remember the second to last night, I believe before we left to go back to the compound, my dad and I were out for a drive. And just down the road from where I was staying, the Kenyan government was frantically building a isolation hospital.
Dennis: Oh, wow.
Beth: Oh, wow.
Cooper: For COVID. And this was probably not even a quarter of a mile from where I was staying. So we had been watching the process, and that night we were out for a drive and we passed an ambulance with lights and sirens going with people sitting in there and the white gowns, the face masks, the face shields.
Cooper: And I said to him, what are the odds that that's the second COVID patient in Kenya? And we got up the next morning and low and behold, there was now two COVID 19 patients. And so we were a car length away from this ambulance with that patient in the back. And at that point I was like, this is really getting serious. And realizing that this is a global pandemic, and here we are in Kenya, what's going to be the next move? So we went back to the compound, and we got ready for our spring break trip where we were going to be going out to the Masai Mara for a safari which was a huge highlight of the program, something that we had all been looking forward to for a while. And just before we left, we were told to pack all of our bags on the compound. Leave one bag on your bed, packed and ready to go in case we were to return early to fly home. And that's when we realized there's a good chance we might not make it much farther.
Beth: Did you get to do the safari?
Cooper: The story gets even more dramatic.
Beth: Oh, my goodness.
Cooper: So we arrive in the Masai Mara. We're supposed to be there for about five days. We arrive at night. We go on a game drive in the morning. So we're going out on safari in the morning. We meet with the Maasai Mara tribe. That night we got an email from the Dean of International Student Affairs saying that there's a good chance we were going to get evacuated the next couple days. So I went to bed, and the next morning I got up and I checked my phone. And I had an email with plane tickets in it.
Cooper: And that's how we were told that we were getting evacuated which that was quite the feeling. And that definitely created some nervousness, some chaos. It was quite the way to figure it out. We sort of had an idea it was coming, but waking up and seeing that email. I mean, that was the first thing I saw on my phone when I got up in the morning was the plane tickets. And then an email saying if these flights get canceled, the US military was going to come and get us and bring us back to the US.
Beth: Oh, my gosh.
Dennis: Right, because that's the other issue, right? Is that they were, flights were getting canceled, stuff was getting shut down. And this was your first pandemic and your first abroad, unfortunately colliding.
Dennis: What was the sort of mood in the group at this point?
Cooper: It was pretty tense. People were really worried at that point. People were trying to communicate with parents, trying to communicate with school. People were pleading with school to give us another week, give us another two weeks, just sort of thinking, well, this isn't really our issue yet.
Dennis: Was there a counter move of like bring the chopper now? Kind of thing.
Cooper: Yeah. Yes. And the school wanted to get us back before we went on safari. And the program directors bargained for one more week for us which was really, really nice of them and something that, I mean, obviously we knew, but no one else really knew about. So they already gave us a bonus week.
Dennis: I see. Yeah.
Cooper: Which obviously had a lot of risks attached to it. So yeah, we raced back to the compound. One group of us left the night we arrived, and then another group of us left the next day. And as we were flying out, so we flew from Nairobi to Dubai and then Dubai to JFK. And when we got on the flight out of Nairobi, we were informed that was going to be the last flight out.
Cooper: Everything was going to be closed.
Dennis: Yeah. So I mean, that second group, were you on the second group?
Cooper: Yes. Yep.
Dennis: What were you feeling at that point? What were your...
Cooper: I really started getting nervous because I was like, okay, we're going to make it out of here, but now we might get stuck in Dubai. And here we are sitting on 787 jumbo jet with everyone around us wearing masks and some people wearing the white suits. And here we are a bunch of Americans.
Dennis: Wow. Okay. Yeah. Did you have the masks?
Cooper: No masks.
Dennis: No masks.
Cooper: And all we had was a little tiny thing of hand sanitizer and a couple wipes.
Beth: Wow. And so you eventually get home though, right?
Beth: You're not still in Dubai right now, right?
Cooper: No, no. And so when we arrived in Dubai was at the time when some of the US airports were like randomly closing for a day. And so there was...
Beth: And clean everything. Yeah.
Cooper: Yes. Yep. And they would stop allowing flights in, and they would divert you all over the place. So when we arrived in Dubai, we were hearing about that and hearing that JFK was closed and trying to scramble because all of us needed connector flights out of JFK to get back to where we lived. So that was very high stress. They put us in sort of a giant queue in Dubai and made us go through a sort of infrared temperature taking device. And we were told, if you had a temperature, you're going to be whisked out of there and taken out of the airport. And you're going to have to quarantine for a couple weeks in Dubai in a random location.
Dennis: Wow. So I mean, if you had had a bout of something because of food affecting you or just like typical travel stuff, it could have potentially been a very different part of the story, right?
Beth: Thankfully you do get back from Dubai eventually, and you get home. So once you are home, is there a feeling of relief that you're home with your family? Is there a feeling of loss that you lost out on time from the semester?
Cooper: Yeah. I'd say it was a huge loss because I knew that we were going to miss sort of the most exciting part of the semester, which was the internship for a month long at the end. And I was going to be working with the flying doctors. We were going to be doing like air medical transports.
Dennis: Oh, wow.
Cooper: Around Kenya, which I was really looking forward to, obviously, something that I had some background in. And then sort of arriving home, this was at the height of pandemic, right. So we arrived in New York. There was no one in the airport. And that's when I realized that this was truly a global pandemic, and this was truly affecting the United States. And when I arrived home, my dad picked me up, brought me home. I had no handshake, no hug, no contact. He gave me a mask. He was wearing gloves, put me in the back of the car. Quarantine was starting which I had no knowledge about. And when I arrived home, there was a trash bag outside the door. I had to take off all my clothes, put it in the trash bag. And go down to my basement where I would be essentially locked up for two weeks. And I had absolutely no contact with my parents except on the phone.
Beth: Oh, my goodness.
Cooper: So here I am sitting in the basement trying to think about how I was just in Africa, like 48 hours earlier, living my best life, studying abroad. And now here I am in the basement. I miss my parents, and now I can't have any contact with them for two weeks.
Beth: And to also be in their house, but but like, oh no, can't talk with them at all. I can't imagine feeling like, oh, at least I get to see my parents and hug them and be with them and know that they're okay. But remembering what that mindset was, if anybody traveled at that time, when everyone was trying to get home for isolation and quarantining, a lot of people were like that where we were, mm, I can't touch you right now because I don't know where you've been. You don't know where I've been. At this point we're just trying to make sure that we're safe for each other.
Dennis: Right. The transition back from abroad is a challenge in the best of circumstances, especially I think from the Kenya program. I think that reverse culture shock thing is very real. But in this particular environment, it seems like a uniquely challenging sort of life experience, I guess.
Cooper: Definitely. Yeah, because you're right. Coming back home in a normal semester is a huge transition, and it's a huge culture shock coming home. Now adding the pandemic on top of that, it was a lot to try to sort of comprehend and figure out how our normal way of life was going to be severely altered for a period of time.
Dennis: Were you aware at that point that the whole semester was done? Not just for you as someone who had been abroad, but for everyone? That had been announced basically that the students had been sent home from campus as well? Okay.
Cooper: Correct. Yeah. I had known that. And so we were the last, I think, St. Lawrence Study Abroad Program to be sent home. So all resources I guess, were on our boat when it was time to go. So we sort of knew that it was just us, and sort of the focus was to get us home at that point. And yeah, I had a lot of friends that were on campus who were saying, oh, we're going home, but we're going to be back up in three weeks. And the normal semester will continue, which obviously we know quickly changed to we are done for a while.
Beth: It's all online.
Dennis: There wasn't a point when you thought that you might be getting sent back to campus or something? Like how were your classes being handled from that point on?
Cooper: So the majority of our classes in Kenya ended at that point. So we ended up just sort of streamlining straight into finals. I had to write a bunch of term papers. I think there was one class that met a couple times on Zoom, but because of the sort of technology and the huge time difference in Kenya, that was pretty difficult to do. So they attempted that for, I think maybe one or two weeks. And then they went right into a final paper too.
Beth: So this semester, obviously, doesn't end the way that you're hoping and I'm sure left a little bit of a hole in your St. Lawrence experience. And we know that navigating then your senior year with a pandemic, there were all these other challenges that came with, like you had mentioned earlier, making sure that you had been fundraising for senior week.
Beth: And I would also point out that I had the pleasure of working with your class for the senior class gift and could not have worked with a better group of people who understood and basically said, we want our senior class gift to go to an emergency fund for students. And you took something that very easily people could have been bitter about and said, why are we giving at a time like this? And your class really stepped up and said, no, we're going to give to this because we saw the impact of how much student emergency funds are necessary. And you all stepped up in that way. Let's talk about the good things though. Which is that next, well, I guess, what next week at the time of us recording this at late June, you're going back to Kenya.
Cooper: I sure am. Yes, yes.
Beth: Talk us through. How did this come about? What are you doing and why are you going back?
Cooper: That's a good question. I maintained really close connections with my host families throughout the pandemic and sort of the rapid departure. And I felt like I didn't have the closure that I really wanted on that semester. And so I've always planned. I've always wanted to go back to Kenya, and I was hoping to go back about a year ago and then sort of the pandemic continued. So this summer, when it looked like things were settling down, I decided that I really wanted to go back. And this is also sort of coupled with the alumni trip that St. Lawrence is putting on, going back to Kenya in the middle of July, which will be an amazing experience. This is sort of celebrating the 50 year anniversary for the program. So there's going to be people that went on that very first semester, all the way up to people from 2020, which will be special. But yeah, I'm slated to fly out next week Kenya, and I'm going to spend about two weeks with my different host families before I will join the alumni trip in the middle of July.
Beth: That's incredible. And what are some of the things that you're hoping to do with your host families when you're there?
Cooper: So the urban family in Nairobi, so I had a really little host brother who was one year old when I was there two years ago. So now I think he's almost four. And so he's growing really fast. So I'm looking forward to doing a lot of fun activities with him. I think we're going to go to some zoos and maybe visit the giraffes, things like that, which I'm really looking forward to. And then I'll travel out to Kericho where my rural host family is. I'll spend about a week with them, and we're going to be doing a lot of hiking, working around their compound on the farm, and visiting with some family there. Then I'm actually spending a couple days with the compound chef in his rural home in Kenya.
Dennis: Very nice.
Cooper: Yeah, which I'm really looking forward to. I became really close with him when we were there.
Beth: And you're not just going by yourself too. Your parents are going?
Cooper: Yeah. Both my mother and father are going. They're going on the Alumni trip. So I'll meet up with them.
Beth: Ah, incredible.
Cooper: Sort of after my two week adventure.
Beth: Oh, that's so incredible. I'm so happy that, we were just talking about, you kind of get whisked away from this program, and then you don't even have the pleasure of being able to love and embrace your family. But now you get to bring your family to the place that you were whisked away from, and show them like, hey, this was part of my experience, and you get to share that. What thoughts, what feelings do you have about that?
Cooper: It's just a huge sense of excitement, I guess. And I really fell in love with Kenya, with their culture, with the society, with the people. And there was only so many stories and pictures that could give it justice to my parents. So having this opportunity through St. Lawrence with the great Alumni trip to go over there as a family is certainly definitely once in a lifetime opportunity, something that we will obviously never do as a family again. So being able to show them compound that I stayed on, the families that I interact with, the animals that I saw, sort of the mountains that we climbed, and to be able to all do that with them and show them what I did is going to be really special along with interacting with all the other Kenya alumni that are going back from that Kenya semester program, interacting with them, swapping stories about their experience, and just being able to relive the experience all over again for a couple weeks.
Dennis: Is anyone else from your program going to be going?
Cooper: No, I think I'm the youngest one that's going. There's a couple people from the late 2000s that are going.
Beth: Okay. Well Cooper, thank you so much for joining us. This has been just, it really should be made into a movie, honestly, this experience because there's so many positives and unfortunate negatives that happen with your time in Kenya and being a student during COVID and having to adjust and adapt. But if there's anything that the classes of 2020 and 2021 in particular have shown me is how resilient and persistent you all are and your drive to continue to want to be a part of the Laurentian community and give back in different ways we've never had to conceptualize before, is just incredible. And as the quite literal leader of your class as the class president, you exemplify that with your ability to make lemonade out of lemons. So we are so excited for your trip.
Cooper: Well, thank you very much. It was an honor to join both of you today and give you a snapshot on what my Kenya adventure was like.
Beth: Thank you so much.
Yeah. Thank you.
Cooper: Thank you.
Beth: And there we have it, another wonderful interview. And this time I felt like it was more of an investigative reporter story versus just kind of chatting about somebody's wonderful career or something that they have accomplished was a true Laurentian story. This is going to be something that I feel like it'll be history within St. Lawrence, right? But not just Cooper, I mean, just generally speaking, when people are saying like, where were you? You were a student during the COVID-19 pandemic. Where were you? What happened to you? And I think that's going to be really interesting and fun. I want to thank Dennis Morreale for co-hosting with me again. And we are excited to come back next month with another amazing interview. So be sure to click the subscribe button. That way you can see immediately when episodes drop. And we'll see you next time, Laurentians.
[Theme Music Starts]
Beth: Scarlet & Brown Stories is edited and produced by Amanda Brewer. Megan Fry Dozier, Dennis Morreale, Beth Dixon, and Amelia Jantzi.
Amelia: Our music was written by Christopher Watts inspired by Eugene Wright '49.
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