Mohammed Ayesh ’21 teaching English to grade school children in Ecuador shortly before the school was closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It was close to the middle of the night when Mohammed Ayesh ’21 realized he needed to get back to College Station – immediately.
“There was no plan B for me,” Ayesh said.
He was in Ecuador with a group of other Aggies as part of Texas A&M University’s Alternative Spring Break (ASB) program. Unfortunately, he didn’t get to finish out the week. As travel restrictions began to tighten, Ayesh – an international student from Hodeidah, Yemen studying electrical engineering – grew increasingly concerned he would not be able to get back into the United States.
Ayesh was one of about 300 Texas A&M students who had to return early from their spring education abroad programs. To date, nearly 2,700 other students have been impacted by canceled trips or self-withdrawals due to COVID-19 concerns.
For now, international programs have virtually ceased. Remaining spring semester and summer trips were canceled, and Education Abroad is cautiously moving forward with fall 2020 plans as future travel restrictions are still uncertain, said unit officials.
Education Abroad Executive Director Holly Hudson said she aims to have a definitive answer regarding fall programs soon.
“We are still waiting on guidance from federal, state, and university officials that will assist in making the call,” Hudson said. “We hope to run programs as scheduled, but the health and safety of our students is the most important factor.”
“I went there to teach, but in the end, I was the one who learned something.” – Mohammed Ayesh ’21
A Quick Departure
By the time Ayesh realized he may need to leave Ecuador, the COVID-19 pandemic had already swept across Europe, and now concern was growing in South America. In the U.S., travel restrictions for non-residents entering the country had begun. In Kuwait, the airport Ayesh would typically fly into to get home had just closed.
“I was really worried that I would get stuck there in Ecuador,” Ayesh said. “If I didn’t do something, I might still be there today.”
ASB faculty advisor Adrienne Brundage, an assistant professor of entomology at Texas A&M, agreed that things were starting to become unsettling by mid-week.
“It was a bit scary,” Brundage said. “The students were nervous, but worked hard to make sure that everyone was staying healthy.”
It was about 11 p.m. on the Wednesday of spring break when it became crystal clear to Ayesh that he needed to leave. He solicited the help of Trish Winkle, an Education Abroad program coordinator who was on the trip.
“I felt bad because I had to wake her up. But she was immediately on the job and working to get me back to Texas,” Ayesh said. “She was phenomenal.”
By midnight, a flight had been booked. Then work began to try and find transportation from the remote village where they were staying to the airport in Quito, Ecuador.
“I said I would be ok, but she insisted on traveling to the airport with me,” Ayesh said. “She helped every step of the way.”
By 3 a.m., Ayesh was at the airport and, after a couple of layovers, made it back to Houston by 1 p.m. Thursday. That same day, it was announced that the school Ayesh had been working in would be closing its doors. The rest of the ASB group would get on the last flight out of Ecuador just before the country closed the borders early Sunday morning.
A Disappointing End, But Well Worth The Trip
Ayesh was happy to be back in Texas and on the way to his College Station home, but at the same time was sad his experience had been cut short. A second-generation Aggie and member of the Corps of Cadets, he was in Ecuador with ASB to help teach English to grade-school children. As a non-native speaker of English himself, he felt this was an opportunity where he could make a difference.
“It’s very fulfilling to help others that have experienced the same adversities that you have,” Ayesh said. “And there’s nothing more important than education in a person’s life.”
Looking to fulfill service hour requirements for his honor society, Ayesh learned about ASB his sophomore year. His first ASB trip was to New Orleans in 2019, where he volunteered at an understaffed animal shelter.
That trip turned out to be more than he expected, he said, so he decided to do it again. Wanting to make a more significant impact, Ayesh chose to go on ASB’s first international trip.
“I could just be having fun during spring break, or I could have fun while helping others. It’s a very rewarding experience,” he said. “These opportunities have defined my time as an Aggie. Helping others is the most enjoyable part of the experience – it’s at the core of all good things.
“Don’t get me wrong, though, the food was great, too.”
When not in the classroom teaching or working to create lesson plans, the ASB group got to explore Ecuador and discover some of the area’s history and culture. One highlight, Ayesh said, was getting to visit the literal “center of the world” at the Intiñan Solar Museum located on the equator.
Undoubtedly for Ayesh, however, working with the children was the best part, he said.
“I went there to teach, but in the end, I was the one who learned something,” he said. “I used to see service as a duty. A duty to help those less fortunate than I was. This experience taught me humility – a humbleness that no matter how old you are, no matter what kind of education you’ve received, you can always learn something from someone else.”
Having to cut his trip short without even saying goodbye to the children he had been working with was a big disappointment. So much so, that he’s already eager to do it again next year. And despite the recent pandemic scare, he hopes it’s another international trip.
“Traveling abroad has shaped my character and made me the man I am today. It’s helped me appreciate and learn from other cultures,” Ayesh said. “Add in the service component, and it’s life-changing.”
Ayesh said he knows that without the quick action and dedication of people like Winkle, as well as others on the trip, this story may have had a very different ending.
“They are the paradigm example of good Aggies. These people made all the difference.”
Ayesh said he believes that dealing with this adversity prepared him for what laid ahead as the university had to quickly adapt to online learning. He ended the spring semester with his highest GPA in two years.
“I came back a bit bummed that I couldn’t finish the trip, but recharged for the challenges that came with this semester,” he said.