Alumna living in Italy amid global pandemic

Author: by Sabrina Tartaglia '21

Published Date: 4/6/2020

Categories: Alumni Education Pioneers Persevere

Alumna Katie Kujawski '14
Surrounded by silent streets, businesses, and schools in Florence, alumna Katie Kujawski '14 is finding new ways to fill her days with work and positivity amid the COVID-19 outbreak in Italy.

Kujawski graduated from Carroll in 2014 from the education program and is now involved in Florence with the Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) program. Before the pandemic hit Italy, she said spring was approaching and the streets were filled with energy. Since the lockdown began, life has changed drastically.

Kujawski shared, “All of life disappeared, it seems. The streets are hauntingly quiet.”

Despite the mood being heavy, Kujawski noted how businesses have adjusted to this new reality of offering delivery to customers’ homes. This has been one of the many ways of keeping comfort in the community.

Doing her part in flattening the curve, Kujawski is staying in and keeping up with friends and family via online platforms such as FaceTime and Skype. Although there’s the challenge of the time zone difference between Florence and Wisconsin—seven hours ahead of Central Standard Time here in the States—she has been in contact with her family for support. She also was doing her best in sharing how fast things change and the severity of the situation. 

Kujawski said, “It felt like we were in a time machine. I was certain I was living two weeks ahead of them and just wanted to warn everyone what was coming and get them on the same page.” 

As the situation is constantly changing and everyone is waiting for updates, Kujawski has been able to take time to complete tasks she’s unable to do because of her busy schedule. Accepting that this is a new reality, she is taking the time to rest, read, reflect, cook and more to pass the days. 

Amongst keeping herself busy and positive, Kujawski believes working together as a community and staying inside will lead us to the end. She noted, “If we choose irresponsible behaviors and actions that hurt the health of the community…The situation will last even longer. It is essential we work together now, that we look out for the whole community rather than our own interests.” 

As we are all doing our part in flattening the curve, we share more of Kujawski’s story of living in one of the COVID-19 hotspots and her advice to the Carroll community in the Q&A below:

Q: What drew you to study in Italy?

A: It was a bit of a random decision! My friends are I were trying to choose a TEFL program, and Florence was one of the locations we all agreed on. There weren't any long-term plans connected to it. I knew Florence was beautiful and historical, and it was the home to lots of important art that I had studied in art history. Of course, it's famous for its culture also, the food, the fashion, the was very attractive as a student looking to take a break from work and explore for a bit.

Q. What has been your favorite part about it so far?

A. It's been a great and challenging experience to try understand how to fit into or embody a different cultural perspective first-hand by spending time living in it and interacting with the people in it. It's a different outlook to try and understand the world outside of the American bubble. Even down to a smaller scale, how home and family functions is different: how people do their errands, how mealtimes work, how the family is structured, etc.

It's fascinating going back and forth between here and the U.S. and not realizing I've learned these differences, but then feeling these differences when I try to adjust back to life in Wisconsin. Trying to learn a new language is also a fun (and frustrating) challenge. But maybe the best for me has been learning about the food and cooking, using new ingredients that are local seems like even through preparing meals you can learn about people, their mentality, their history.

Q. What was life like before the pandemic hit?  

A. Spring was approaching! Everyone was starting to escape their winter hibernation and move again. It's a nice period of the year where it's warmer and there is more light, and it's before the big summer wave of tourists hits. So the city is really enjoyable. It's comfortable to walk everywhere, people were active. Everything was energetic.

Q. What is life like now?

A. When the lockdown began, we were very uncertain about what exactly that meant for us. Could we go to a friend's house or no? Could we meet for a coffee? Could I go for a run? Quickly those things were clarified with a big "no," and we've tried to adjust. I'm really amazed at how well people have adjusted and improvised in the situation. Businesses that don't usually offer delivery (including bookshops, toy shops, wine cellars, and also the great array of restaurants) activated so that they could deliver their products to customers' homes. This was for the comfort of the community, but also to keep business moving of course.

In my opinion, Italy wasn't well established online before this . At least compared to the way I was used to after studying and working in the U.S. online collaboration wasn't a strong suit, and suddenly everyone is Skype-ing and Zoom-ing for meetings and appointments and students are getting lessons online from their teachers every day. So things are moving, but the mood is heavy.

We're just waiting. We're watching the news every night to see the new count of infections and deaths. Even though we've been at this for three weeks now, the nightly increases are still startling. It's kind of like the Hunger Games in a sad way, where they watch for the nightly updates and President Snow's announcements. We're also constantly anticipating another new decree with more restrictions or extensions of the existing ones. It's hard to keep improvising and trying to accommodate when we don't know when this will end. We're doing our best, but it's tiring.

Q. How are you coping?

A. It's a day by day thing, for sure. A constant work in progress! I'm trying to keep in mind that this is temporary, and what's important is that I'm healthy and safe and my loved ones are healthy and safe. I also realize that this is my contribution to the situation. It's not comfortable or ideal by any means, but I think/hope that I'm helping slow the progress of the virus by staying home. I've also really leaned into the fact that this is the reality for the moment, I can't change it or mope about it forever, and I want to try to take advantage of it for what it is.

I've let myself rest a lot and think and contemplate and focus on plans for the future. I've been reading, reflecting, writing, studying, cooking, and calling home...all of the things that I just never seem to have enough time for when I'm consumed by my normal schedule.

Q. Is it difficult being away from family and friends, especially now?

A. Technology has been the biggest blessing! It makes being away not as difficult. But getting in a groove with staying in touch with people in different time zones, fitting our schedules together, that's challenging to establish and maintain. In this period, it's a bit more challenging. There are more emotionally up-and-down days, and being home would just be really nice. And now as the regulations are changing in Wisconsin, I wish I could be there to support my family. I suppose, though, even if I were quarantined in Wisconsin, FaceTime would still be the way I'd have to communicate with my parents!

In this unfolding of the pandemic, though, what's been more difficult probably than being away from family and friends has been trying to communicate to them and help them understand what we are experiencing here and what could be coming for them. It's hard to understand it if you aren't in it, how rapidly things change, how serious the situation is. It felt like we were in a time machine. I was certain that I was living two weeks ahead of them and just wanted to warn everyone what was coming and get them on the same page. But without scaring them either.

Maybe this is just one of those events that unfolds the way it is meant to unfold. It's way bigger than us.

Q. How do you keep your spirits up with so much sadness and tragedy happening around you?

A. I try to fill my days with good things, things that uplift me. I try to limit my social media and news time, because that gets heavy. But I am really inspired by the good and collaborative work that people are doing to get through this together. I'm inspired that we are all doing this together. It's not easy for anyone, but we are all trying to reach out and check in and support each other in the best way we can.

Recently I "met" some friends for a drink on Skype, which was funny and lighthearted and reminded us that there is still a world outside of our houses, and it will be ours again soon enough. There is an end to the tunnel, and even thought it's still dark, I know I'm not walking through it alone.

Q. As someone who is living in the epicenter of COVID-19, any advice for the Carroll community as it is increasing in the states?

A. I want to reiterate that the situation is serious, and I hope we all treat it as such. A month ago, I was also scoffing at the fact that this was "just the flu," and was quickly proven wrong. Just because I'm not physically impacted by the virus (thankfully), doesn't mean that my actions won't impact someone else, seeing as the virus can appear asymptomatic.

The whole thing is kind of like voting. It feels like your contribution is insignificant, but if we all think that, then the outcome won't serve us. For these reasons, take the "Safer at Home" order seriously. No one is immune to the virus, and the sooner we do our part to slow it down our movements and "flatten the curve," the sooner we can move on together.

Even if you are concerned about how damaging this is for the economy, consider that our health comes before all and that a virus doesn’t respect any rules or norms of an economy, society, etc. If we want to help the economy, the best thing we can do is stay in and help the doctors and nurses do their work and not put any more strain on the hospitals. Also keep in mind to that just because the governor or the president issues an order with an end date, doesn't mean that everything will be finished then, either.

The virus also doesn't listen respect our desired schedule. Those dates are estimates, but they don't necessarily reflect human behavior. If we choose irresponsible behaviors and actions that hurt the health of the community, those dates can be extended and this situation will last even longer. It is essential that we all work together now, that we look out for the whole community rather than our own interests.

The ability to move freely is a privilege, not a right, and looking at China, Italy, and other European countries, we can see what measures we will face when that privilege no longer supports the health of the community. Act together now to avoid those consequences later. We are all connected in this, and everyone's contributions (good or bad) really do matter.


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