Celine Ruggeri Tartaras recalls the sobering silence in the streets of Milan, Italy, during the COVID-19 outbreak last spring. “The only sound we heard outside was the sound of ambulances,” she says. The region was on strict lockdown for nearly three months, and Celine and her two sons rarely left their apartment. “If you had a dog, you could go for a walk, so our neighbors joked about sharing dogs just to have an excuse to get outside,” she recalls. “The experience was heavy and difficult; I had to learn to find the positive.”
One of those positives was a group of lifelong friends who met at the U in 1994. “We bonded during international student orientation week,” explains Heike Hoffmann Otsuka MA’99, from Germany. “And we’ve stayed in contact ever since.” The friends came to Utah from all over the world—Argentina, Colombia, France, Germany, Greece, India, Japan, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the U.S. Some stayed one year; others stuck around for several.
In 2016, the alums started a WhatsApp chat group called “Utaholics.” When COVID-19 hit, they began messaging more frequently. “And then we decided to have video calls to hear how everyone was doing, how the situation was the same or different in our various countries,” says Heike, who is president of the U’s European Alumni Club. “Especially during these crazy and trying times, it has felt so good to be connected.”
During the video calls, the old pals joke, cry, vent, talk politics, swap parenting tips, trade recipes, and share loads of memories. While sheltering-in-place in Germany, Kathrin Hofmann Gommel and Daniel Gommel (who married after meeting at the U) found old photos and created collages to share. “We don’t talk about coronavirus all the time,” says Kathrin. “We laugh a lot, too.”
“There was something special about our group,” says Ajay Ravindranathan PhD’99, from India and now living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Themis Tartaras MS’97 PhD’01, from Greece and now residing in Norway, explains it this way: “We met when we were young. We bonded through sharing new and fun experiences…. It’s been 25 years and we’re still close. That speaks to how good of an experience we had in Utah.”