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ECU student returns home from Spain safely

Story by Mark Bratcher
East Central University

When East Central University student Jacob Talkington left for a semester of study abroad a couple of months ago, the coronavirus was only a blip on the radar.

“I had heard about it but had no idea of its severity or the implications it could pose,” said Talkington, of Pauls Valley. “At the time, no one knew it would become such a big problem.”

Just two short months earlier, it was still business as usual. Talkington was all set to further his education at the University of Extremadura in Cáceres, Spain. His mother, Angela Doss, had other concerns at that time. This was her son’s first trip abroad, academic or otherwise.

“Honestly, I had bigger fears than a global pandemic, such as terrorism or war,” said Doss, who – like all three of her children – attended ECU.

Talkington flew from Dallas to Madrid on January 21. Not long after he found himself 5,000 miles from home, evidence of a growing virus problem started to emerge.

“I first became aware the virus was ramping up in the month of February when it became an issue in Italy, a country close by,” Talkington said. “At first, I had assumed it would only be an issue in China and other nearby Asian countries.”

As the world’s news media continued to report the accelerating spread of the coronavirus, anxiety on both sides understandably ratcheted up.

“The fact that Jacob was so far away was enough to nearly panic me at times,” Doss said. “I tried to stay focused on my job and trust God with my son. It was totally beyond my control, so I coped with these feelings through prayer and by being as proactive as possible in every situation that arose.”

Doss stayed connected with her son through What’s App? and Snapchat, mobile phone text and social media applications that are popular with international travelers.

“Jacob is very self-sufficient, so I didn’t have to do much,” she added.

Talkington’s self-sufficiency started early. He had dreamt of studying abroad since he was 15 and had saved thousands of dollars on his own to someday make it a reality, Doss said.

A Computer Science major, Talkington started learning Spanish in 2016 using the DuoLingo language application. That led him to a Spanish class with Dr. Errol King and then to the office of Dr. Mara Sukholutskaya, director of ECU’s Global Education program. She helped organize and facilitate his international exchange.

“The experience of studying abroad provides students with a much better understanding of different ethnic groups, cultures, philosophies and traditions than a textbook or a lecture can,” Sukholutskaya said. “The fact that Jacob was going to spend a semester in Spain was especially important because the last semester-long exchange with ECU and the University of Extremadura took place several years ago.”

What to do when encountering the coronavirus outbreak was not a lesson that Talkington, or Sukholutskaya, bargained for on the trip. She checked on his well-being often. Notably, he was the only ECU student studying abroad, although several trips scheduled for later in the semester – including to Mexico and Ireland – had to be cancelled because of the outbreak.

“The developments in Italy, Spain and all over the world caught all of us – students, parents, partner universities, the global education community as a whole – by surprise,” Sukholutskaya said. “But it was very easy to communicate and work with Jacob because he is very efficient and very organized.”

Talkington already had a full plate when the coronavirus started to spread across Europe.

“An international exchange is already a rollercoaster of emotions even without it,” he said. “I think many people have the idea that studying abroad is just a vacation and that’s not the case. You have to focus on your schoolwork just like anywhere else. On top of that, you’re in a totally new environment and you have to adjust to that.”

Doss was understandably filled with conflicting emotions. Her son was realizing his dream of international travel but was suddenly facing an expanding and very real nightmare.

“We all wanted Jacob to experience his trip to the fullest,” she said. “I didn't want to see this end for him, but I knew we had to use wisdom. Once we made the decision to bring him home, the anxiety of something catastrophic happening weighed heavily on me. I was fearful that I couldn’t get him home.”

Talkington, keeping one eye on his studies and the other on the spreading virus, also started to worry about a path home.

“It was a very odd feeling,” he said. “Sometimes I felt calm, like things were under control, and that people were overreacting. Other times it seemed like people weren’t taking it seriously enough. My main concern was not getting sick. I was afraid that flights could start getting shut down and that I wouldn’t be able to get back.”

On March 14, less than two months after his arrival, Spain ordered a quarantine because of the coronavirus. By this time, arrangements had been made to bring Talkington home. Although he knew it was for the best, he felt disappointed his trip would be cut short.

“I couldn’t initially bring myself to accept that I had put so much work and effort toward this goal and it was about to be taken away,” Talkington said. “It’s definitely been one of the most taxing things on my mental state in the recent past.”

After spending six days under Spanish quarantine, Talkington flew home safely to the delight of not only his immediate family, but his ECU family as well.

“Jacob is adventurous, smart and practical, and he persevered,” said Katricia Pierson, ECU president. “We are all very pleased to have him back home again.”

Talkington was not tested for the coronavirus before his departure from Spain. But when his layover flight arrived in Chicago on March 20, his temperature was checked and he was required to fill out a questionnaire. His family was overjoyed to collect him in Dallas later that day.

“To say I am relieved is an understatement,” Doss said. “Having Jacob home back under our roof is truly a blessing.”

Once home, Talkington started a two-week quarantine safely distanced from the rest of his family. On March 24, just to be certain, he was tested for the coronavirus; three days later the results came back negative – much to his and his family’s relief.

“It’s been stressful at times,” Talkington said. “Ultimately, however, what I’ve experienced has changed my perspective and my life. It has been a wild ride and I have no regrets.”