Coronavirus: how has it affected exchange students?

The COVID-19. We all know what it is by now, and many people were forced to change their lifestyles because of it. It continues to affect us all, wherever we are. There is so much uncertainty for many of the university students who are completing exchange years.

Is the Erasmus exchange continuing? How long will we continue to have online lectures for? Will we be able to travel back to our home countries? 

From speaking to different coursemates and friends, I have drawn together just some of the stories from students who were completing their exchange years until the coronavirus had other plans for their studies.

Before the outbreak one of the students was completing an exchange year in China, until the coronavirus had other plans for her studies. 

  1. Proximity to the virus during the initial outbreak

From a University of Sheffield student placed at Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou, China, a 1.5-hour flight away from Wuhan

“My first semester and exams ended on January 15 and we were then supposed to have a 4 week break for Chinese New Years. I decided to visit the U.S. over the break and flew there on January 16 planning on staying for 3 weeks. At this time, I had not heard any information about the virus even though it stated a full month before. The only thing I had seen was at the train station in Hong Kong 4 days earlier. They had a small poster saying that if you had been to Wuhan (or were travelling from Wuhan) and got sick during the next two weeks, you should go see a doctor. But it was not a very serious poster and it looked like those normal public information posters and it wasn’t noticeable anyway. 

When I got to the U.S. I realised how serious it was and they had posters everywhere in the arrivals/immigration/customs area with more information. Being outside of China and using a UK sim card on my phone again I could access normal news websites and social media (all this is blocked in China). During my first week there I got an email from the University of  Sheffield saying that they were looking into the situation and they asked if any of us were still in China. There was a lot of waiting and uncertainty for a while. On January 30th, I got an email from my home university saying that they had decided that we could not return to China and they would get back to us with more information. On February 14th, the University of Sheffield emailed us saying we could either return to Sheffield and take not-for-credit second-year classes or we could go home or wherever we liked and write three essays relevant to China and our Law with Chinese Law degree. 

I decided to come home to Norway, where I am working on my essays and have got a part time job to save up money for next year. I am quite happy with the options we got, although it did interrupt the year abroad experience. All my stuff is still in China (I don’t think I will get it back), and my travel plans in Asia this semester have been cancelled.”

  1. Having to be under forced quarantine

Another student who was now under quarantine as one of the neighbors tested positive described the situation as this:

From a British exchange student at the University of Copenhagen: 

“Naturally the coronavirus has shaken the world, but what has shocked me more is the reaction to it. The day Denmark went into lockdown, there was fighting in stores, shelves being emptied, panic buying until within an hour everything had gone. It frightened me. It still does. I’m currently in quarantine and there’s little much to do other than look at my phone or my laptop, but that makes me feel even more hopeless. All I’m seeing is scaremongering, spreading fear, pictures of hospitals overflowing, videos of people collapsing on the street, news articles and reporters telling me how much worse it is going to get. Isn’t this already worse? It feels wrong to complain about the impact on my year abroad when people are sick, and people are dying. I keep telling myself it’ll get better, that in a couple of weeks there’ll be a cure, or it will magically go away, that it can’t last forever. That’s why I’ve stayed in Denmark rather than return home. But now the borders are closed, I’m scared I’ve made a mistake, and maybe I won’t have that choice anymore. All I can do now is wait.”

It is undeniable that all this chaos and uncertainty has been overwhelming on the students, but also on the universities as well. 

  1. Affecting the universities and students’ studies

From a British exchange student at the University of Lyon in France: 

“Over the last couple of weeks, the Coronavirus has grown in severity. Both my home university and host university in Lyon have been trying their hardest to reduce the effects of the virus on our health and studies. They have managed up to now to keep the university open, however, due to government instructions my university in Lyon will be forced to close indefinitely. Luckily, I am currently home for half term and the effects of this have been reduced. It has, however, massively affected many of my friends. Especially those travelling from the Americas. At the moment we are not sure what will happen with lectures and exams, but both universities are keeping us well informed and we should have more information in the days to come. It is most likely that these lectures will be online and depending on the coming months and weeks, if we don’t return to Lyon, we may have to take our exams at our home universities. 

Personally this virus has worried me like it has everyone else. I have family members and friends who are in high risk categories and they too are worried about what will happen in the coming months. Some family members are currently in isolation and I am trying my best to look after them as best I can. Being unable to continue my study abroad has been very frustrating considering everything that has happened this year.

4.Crossing Borders before lockdowns away from home:

From a Spanish exchange student at the University of Geneva, who was travelling to Copenhagen:

“We could not leave the plane when we arrived in Copenhagen. We were held up at the plane for 3.5 hours, but we were told it was because of the winds. Meanwhile, we got a call from my friend’s mom telling us that Denmark was closing its borders. We were quite nervous about it, we called the Spanish Embassy and learned that the cases were multiplying by 10 in Denmark. After a while, we were let off the plane. On our way to the city to take the train, we were told that because of the coronavirus the public transportation required pre-booking which was compulsory. Then, the next day I got on the next plane back to Geneva where I am doing my exchange, an hour after my arrival my parents called me, telling me that I should immediately go back to the canary islands because the President announced that Spanish borders were due to close soon.

Even though I was not forced to go back, it was the most sensible decision given that anytime our dormitory could be shut down. I don’t know how I am going to be continuing my Erasmus, or even have a chance to go back to Geneva. My home university told us that if we wanted to come back and continue to study at our home university, then it could be arranged. But I do not want to end my Erasmus year in this way. At the moment, I am just waiting for everything to get better so that I can go back to Geneva.

From a British exchange student who was placed at the University of Geneva, but was visiting Poland for a trip:

She was in Poland when the Polish government announced that the borders were going to be closed that night. A planned trip that was supposed to be fun and relaxing quickly turned out to be a race back to England with her mother’s warning phone calls.

“As soon as we walked into the airport the panic hit – there were masses of people, all queuing up to speak to two people that were behind the only counters open. All of the café workers were packing everything away and closing up shop. Whilst we queued we were ringing the airline with absolutely no chance of getting through. The people around us said they had called and been cut off after 2 hours on hold and that they had contacted the airline on all social media with no response. We had been queuing for maybe an hour when suddenly lots of people at the front started leaving the queue…

At this point we quickly became the front of the queue and an airport official (seemingly the only one in the entire airport) came up to us and said that because of the border closure the airport would close at midnight. She said that all flights for that day out of Poland (to any location – not just England or Switzerland) were sold out, and that there was no point staying in the airport as at midnight everyone would be kicked out. At this point the man who had queued behind us came back to find his wife and said that although he couldn’t hire a car that they could drive all the way into Germany, they could drive it to the border and walk over into Germany, to then try and get home from there. It was then we realised that we needed to quickly find an alternative way home before everything sold out.”

Taking a bus to Germany with her boyfriend, they were split up to different buses as there were many people trying to flee the country before the borders were closed.

“My GPRS was still working, so I could check where I was, and ten minutes before the border was due to close we were still in Poland. I was genuinely terrified that there would be masses of border control there and that I would be stuck in the outskirts of Poland, without my boyfriend.

Luckily, that wasn’t the case and we crossed the border just after midnight. When I arrived in Berlin, my boyfriend was there waiting. His coach had stopped far less than mine and he had arrived 1h45 before me, so had been waiting outside in the freezing cold for me. We got back to the hotel and I broke down — I am not someone who cries, but that was a terrifying experience, especially being split up from my boyfriend and not having 3G (only having bus wifi 5mins of every hour) or any way to organise the rest of our way home / contact people.

The stress of having to get home before borders are closed, she was faced with the same issue in Germany as the German borders were closing at midnight just before their flight back home. While leaving the countries were permitted, the chaos and urgency had caused so much distress. Having the uncertainty from her home university was definitely not helping.

Overall, the University of Sheffield has been supportive and prompt in responding. However the University of Geneva has failed to effectively communicate and support its students – what seems to me a recurring theme of my year abroad. I was supposed to hear by today what is happening with my exams – lo and behold I still haven’t heard anything.”

Find this blog at: LegallyInternational

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