WSU student returning from study abroad finally gets to hug family after self-isolation


Courtesy of Sydney Wyatt

Wichita State sophomore Sydney Wyatt (left) poses with her family. Wyatt recently returned from studying abroad at the University of Chester in England.

Sydney Wyatt had her spring break plans all figured out. Her flight to Italy was already booked.

A sophomore integrated marketing student at Wichita State, Wyatt got her first taste of international travel when her father, a member of the Oklahoma National Guard, was deployed to Ukraine three years ago. She was immediately hooked.

Last May, she traveled to China with WSU’s Barton International Group.

“I actually put a post on Instagram about wanting to go back to China, and the next day, my grandma texted me and was like, ‘Hey, there’s a virus starting in one of the provinces in China,’” Wyatt said. “And I was like, ‘Oh, dang, that sucks, you know. Is it anything big?’”

Wyatt couldn’t have foreseen that the world was teetering on the precipice of a global pandemic, but once the reality of COVID-19 became clear, missing out on her spring break plans was the least of her concerns.

That’s because she was already some 4,400 miles away from her Cherokee, Oklahoma, home, studying as an exchange student in England at the University of Chester.

Even though there was a quarantine facility less than a mile away from Chester, Wyatt said it took a while for people to wrap their minds around the severity of the outbreak.

“It kind of started hitting home about a month before we left,” she said.

Because the U.K. wasn’t included in President Donald Trump’s original March 12 European travel ban, WSU initially gave Wyatt the option to stay at Chester, but it soon became clear she needed to come home.

When Wyatt’s plane touched down in Atlanta, representatives from the CDC boarded with informational pamphlets and paperwork. After a connector flight, Wyatt finally got to see her family.

See, not touch.

“When they picked me up at the airport, my mom brought a mask for me, so I put that on, had gloves on,” she said. “I wiped down my suitcases with disinfectant wipes so that they could load them into the car, and then I had to sit in the very back of the vehicle and they were in the front.

“It was very weird. It felt like I was honestly in some kind of movie.”

Wyatt knew she had to self-isolate for two weeks before she could as much as hug her loved ones.

“Going through three international airports in a matter of 12 hours puts you at a pretty high risk,” she said.

“After speaking with my family, it was kind of a mutual choice. It was something, especially since my mom is a healthcare worker and I live with my grandmother, who has had previous medical conditions. I knew that I didn’t even want to chance it.”

Wyatt’s grandmother moved out of the one-bedroom apartment on the family farm to give her granddaughter a place to self-isolate.

“I think that was actually the hardest part, because I could like see my family and talk to them because they’re only, you know, 30 yards away, but I couldn’t go over and hug them. I couldn’t eat dinner with them,” Wyatt said.

But her family’s safety was too important to her. She couldn’t put them at risk. She found other ways to pass the time.

“Luckily enough, I kind of have a creative spirit. I ordered a ukulele and taught myself how to play,” Wyatt said. “I did a couple of paintings. I just tried to keep myself occupied.”

When she wasn’t working on her chords, Wyatt could be found watching the entire “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” series, video chatting with friends, or talking to her mom.

A physician assistant who runs a primary clinic in Cherokee, Wyatt’s mother is taking her own safety precautions. She now wipes down her shoes in the garage, washes her work clothes, and showers before interacting with her family at the end of the day.

After 14 long days, Wyatt finished her isolation period Tuesday. She woke up early to tidy and disinfect the apartment.

“As I was doing that, I kind of looked out the window and my family was walking over, and I just went running out of the apartment,” Wyatt said. 

“My mom was the first one that I hugged. She’s kind of my person. Her and I used to hate each other when I was growing up, and now she’s one of my best friends.”

Her father and brother were right behind.

“It was a very, very sweet moment,” Wyatt said. “After this whole long process of like, trying to keep my family safe and complying with everything that was suggested to me, it was such a relief.

“The hardest part was over.”

Wyatt was able to keep her credits from Chester and is wrapping up a few assignments.

She said it was jarring to suddenly part ways with her newfound friends in England. Some of the American students in her program returned home to quite dire conditions.

“Luckily, they’ve all been safe so far. I know that I’m not in the worst scenario,” Wyatt said. “I mean, there was one girl who had to go home to New York City.

“I keep reminding myself that I’m not the only one and that the situation could be much worse.”

As a member of the Student Ambassador Society selection team, Wyatt will spend the next few weeks in Zoom meetings interviewing new members for the fall. She recently secured a marketing internship with WSU Athletics for the fall.

“I have all of that to look forward to and prepare for,” Wyatt said.

And of course she’s just waiting for her next opportunity to travel abroad.