Thomas Preston, a political science Washington State University professor and international security policy expert, had just begun a Fulbright-sponsored four-month teaching stint in Constanta, Romania, when the entire country was placed under quarantine and that martial law has been declared.
It was early March, the coronavirus was threatening to become a global pandemic and the Romanian government had as little of it as possible, so authorities quickly imposed strict nationwide social distancing rules.
“It was interesting being under martial law, with police vehicles constantly announcing over loudspeakers to stay at home or risk death!” Preston wrote nearly 50 days into the southeastern European country’s 65-day lockdown. “To see convoys of disinfectant trucks passing, spraying the streets and buildings with chemicals, was also unusual to say the least. But these measures have really been effective, with Romania having only 11,000 cases and 600 deaths, and the peak has already been reached!
“After observing what happened in neighboring Italy, it is clear that the Romanian government handled the situation well by immediately locking things down and not waiting until there were a lot of cases to do something. something like it happened in the United States”
“A surreal experience”
Preston had been teaching graduate seminars on political psychology and international security at Ovidius University for a few weeks when the US State Department suspended the Fulbright program and ordered all graduates to return home. But he and his wife, Leeanne Noble, decided to shelter in place instead.
“We felt that we had made the right choice, given the strong measures taken by the Romanian government to control the epidemic and the fact that we had a well-stocked apartment where we could isolate ourselves,” he said. .
His Romanian neighbors and university hosts “have been great. Many went out of their way to make sure we had everything we needed. Although it was a surreal experience, we are very happy that we made the decision to stay,” he said.
At least a third of Fulbright scholars in Romania have chosen to stay in the country, Preston said. “And seeing crowded airports full of people stuck for hours on end without masks on TV, it seemed more likely that we would get infected there and bring it home.”
Equipped for the challenge
Even before government orders canceled in-person classes, Ovidius decided to move all of his classes online, Preston said. Luckily for him and his students, he had experience in distance education and was well prepared for the challenge.
In addition to keeping his courses on track, he also continued to work with Romanian colleagues on plans to establish the Black Sea Institute for Development and Security Studies. The project is part of a proposed partnership between WSU and Ovidius to cooperatively offer a master’s degree in development, security, and global studies at the two universities.
Preston looks forward to sharing with his students and the wider WSU community what he has learned abroad and about “the experience of not only living in Romania, but also coming through the pandemic in a country that has done well. handled the situation,” he said.
Isolated but reaching out
As a Fulbright Senior Scholar, Preston’s responsibilities included outreach to the Romanian public, however, circumstances made most interaction with the community impossible.
“We go out every week to buy groceries or sometimes we go down to the deserted beach in front of our apartment to admire the Black Sea,” he said. “It’s a shame that the wonderful opportunity Fulbright normally provides to meet people, experience culture and travel across the country has been curtailed by the virus and the resulting travel and social distancing restrictions. I hope the work that I continue to do – although no longer officially under Fulbright – will help build bridges between WSU and Ovidius and I can return in the future and explore this beautiful country more.
Nevertheless, Preston was happy to perform online public awareness activities. During the lockdown, he and Noble, who are in home music bands, discovered they enjoyed writing songs together and shared with friends on Facebook one of their new tracks, “The Lockdown, Breakdown , Quarantine Blues” – “to cheer people up with music,” he said.
Ovidius’ vice-rector obviously shared the video with the press and their story appeared on the national news website, Preston said, “so I ended up doing outreach to the Romanian public about this Fulbright after all!”
the Fulbright Fellowship Program in USA sends American professors, professionals, and scholars abroad to lecture and/or conduct research for up to one year to increase mutual understanding around the world. Fulbright programs operate in over 155 countries around the world.