[COVID-19 Report] Struggles of Studying Abroad in the face of Covid-19
June 18, 2020 by Eunje Kim
With the number of Covid-19 cases soaring to more than 5 million globally, a vast majority of universities worldwide have decided to conduct online classes for the rest of the spring semester, while some until the end of the year. Both professors and students continue to adapt to the new circumstances, making the effort to maintain quality education despite various inconveniences, such as experiencing technical difficulties and frustrations arising from lack of face-to-face interaction. One of the student bodies most severely affected during the pandemic, however, are study abroad applicants who have had to cancel or defer their applications after years of waiting for this very opportunity. Meanwhile, those who left to their host universities before the outbreak of the coronavirus express their disillusionment upon realizing that soon after their arrival they would be confined in empty dormitories.
In an interview with three exchange students enrolled in different programs, they convey their experience before and after Covid-19. They explain their high initial expectations, having filled out their travel bucket lists and hoping to make new friends from different cultural backgrounds.
Yoon Hyung Jung, Sustainable Development and Cooperation major
Host university: Amherst College, United States
“Well, I had tons of expectations for my exchange semester as this had always been part of my dream since I was a teenager. I wanted to experience different cultures in America, travel during the weekend and spring break, and maybe do some kind of internship, if things worked out. I was especially looking forward to making precious memories with my new international friends.”
Kailey Jung, Economics major
Host university: University of Sydney, Australia
“My expectations for this exchange program were very high… I was hoping to meet a lot of new people and make lots of friends from all over the world. I had plans to go to Melbourne, New Zealand for spring break, and the Great Barrier Reef to snorkel and swim with the dolphins. I had actually bought my plane ticket for Melbourne before the coronavirus entered our lives but my flight got cancelled as the pandemic got serious.”
Yebin Kim, International Studies major
Host university: Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona, Spain
“I was hoping to travel a lot especially within Spain to get to know the culture better. I also wanted to learn Spanish and interact with local students.”
Subsequently, the students illustrate how they had to adjust to the new harsh realities after Covid-19 became a worldwide public health emergency. Among these difficulties, self-isolation in a completely foreign environment seems to have been the most overwhelming challenge.
_“Amherst was one of the first colleges in the United States to shut down the campus and send students back home. My ordinary classes turned into online zoom classes, and all the school facilities closed. I petitioned to stay in the dorm since I had nowhere to go. Luckily, all international students got approval to stay, but except for the dorms and dining hall, I did not have access to anything. Later on, even dorm food was delivered to our rooms. The entire city of Massachusetts was locked down. This meant, of course, that I had no opportunity to make new friends since almost everyone went back to their homes. It meant all my travel plans and internship opportunities that I had looked forward to got either cancelled or postponed. I think I almost spent a month without leaving the town of Amherst until I returned to Korea. I had to cope with all kinds of changes without relying on others' help, which was a very harsh reality.” _
Yoon Hyung Jung
“Although I was able to befriend some students, I never really got a chance to become close because almost all of them left back to the States not even a month after [the exchange program had started]. In my dorm, I would literally see people standing in the lobby with their suitcases ready to go home almost everyday throughout March. To be honest, it was very depressing to see so many people leaving. My dorm, which was known to be the most social dorm house on campus, became so empty and dead. We took social distancing very seriously. Only two people were allowed to ride on elevators at once, and only one person per table was allowed in the kitchen. Outside of campus, I could see the police wandering around to check if everyone was obeying social distancing rules. So, I was basically in my room almost all the time. That’s pretty sad.”
_“Before Covid-19, I was travelling a lot within Barcelona, and making plans to go to other regions in Spain. A month and a half after my arrival, the country was placed on lockdown. For the last 2 months and a half, I have mostly stayed inside the dormitory. Since I was only allowed to go outside to shop at supermarkets, I spent a lot of time inside home-cooking, watching movies, and doing indoor exercises. I had a few friends inside the dormitory who were in the same situation as I was… The biggest challenge was staying healthy since going outdoors was strictly surveilled. Fortunately, since May, we have been allowed to do exercises outside. Right now, my host university is offering online lectures and we are turning in assignments from home for the rest of the semester.” _
Despite facing unforeseen circumstances and undergoing burdensome adjustment processes in their exchange program, the students also demonstrate gratitude and optimism. Self-quarantine has been a time for self-reflection, discovering new hobbies, and standing in solidarity with others amidst the crisis through words of encouragement. Moreover, the UIC office has tried to help Yonsei exchange students in practical ways, contacting multiple partner exchange schools to make special accommodations. Amherst College, for example, provided masks, safety kits, individual refrigerators and microwaves, boxes of food, and many other basic necessities to international students during the quarantine period. They also funded all the expenses for booking plane tickets and limos for exchange students who had to return to their home countries. At other partner universities, exchange program advisors have actively made appointments available to respond to questions and concerns from students. In the future, the exchange students suggest that the Yonsei school faculty facilitate communication channels so that they can be more open-eared to the situations exchange students experience.