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An Erasmus exchange under quarantine

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A student exchange: the semester during your studies in which you plan to go abroad to immerse yourself in a new culture, learn a new language and meet other students from all around Europe. But what happens if a pandemic crosses your way?

Moving to a capital city with a population of four million, becoming best friends with the Google Translate app, hanging out with other foreign students, travelling around the country: it all sounds pretty much like a typical student exchange experience.

And so it was for Ardian Ameti, a student of business informatics, who in February left Ljubljana, Slovenia for an exchange semester in Kyiv, Ukraine. After a month and a half, it arrived: the smell of disinfectant on the corridors of his dormitory, police control on the streets, the rushing ambulances, the rumours that doctors were asked to pretend a new virus from China was just a normal flu.

On March 12th, Ardian attended a football match. The day after, Ukraine cancelled all public events. Not long after, he decided to leave the country, as did the only other two Erasmus students he met at the hosting university, and took a repatriation flight home from Warsaw to Ljubljana. “I wrote to the university that I left because I wasn’t feeling safe,” he says. He continued to attend classes at the hosting university from home, finishing his exchange experience at the beginning of May.

Keeping up with the adventure

There were some, however, who just decided to stay. “I knew I wouldn’t be alone, so I just decided to continue the adventure,” says Marysia Lewinska, a student of Russian philology in Wroclaw, who met her boyfriend on her exchange semester in Skopje, Macedonia. Back then, she also thought it was safer to stay, as there were less confirmed COVID-19 cases in Macedonia than in Poland.

Her fellow student Anna Gomza, on the other hand, simply didn’t have anywhere to go. When she moved to Zagreb for her student exchange, she moved out of her Wroclaw apartment completely. She was thinking about leaving Croatia after the earthquake that hit the capital at the end of March. “We got really scared,” she says. Her international flatmates left. Yet, she and her boyfriend stayed.

"I felt very alone as the classes started during the lockdown, and I started to slide into anxiety, depression"

Martina Kvapilova from the Czech Republic, stayed in Kaunas, Lithuania, where she was attending social science courses. At first she couldn’t even leave: she returned to Lithuania from a trip on the same day the country closed its borders in March, and was at first confined to fourteen days of quarantine. When she was able to leave her apartment, she nevertheless decided to stay in Kaunas because she was afraid of having problems with paperwork. “I didn’t take the repatriation bus as I thought that it doesn’t matter if I have online classes here or back home,” Martina says.

“It was a bad decision,” she adds as we talk in the end of May, after a long trip with little sleep that brought her from Kaunas through Frankfurt to Vienna, where she waits for a bus to take her to her home village.

“I felt very alone as the classes started during the lockdown, and I started to slide into anxiety and depression. The university provided some support, some webinars, but there was nothing new for me, I knew everything from my first year of psychology studies.” The fact that she moved out of the dormitory to an apartment didn’t help; with the lockdown, her Lithuanian flatmates went home, and she stayed on her own. “I'd say people in dormitories could play games, talk to each other, like before,” she says, “But people not living there, like myself, couldn't enter.”

Studying from home away from home

Lessons resumed in online formats pretty quickly for the four students, and professors were adapting to the digital learning environment. Some professors started sending assignments that had to be done during the lessons hours. Ardian, for instance, had to post a plus sign in a common chat in Telegram to confirm his presence at the lecture.

Most of them, however, adapted to teach via Zoom. Limitations imposed by distance learning even brought some unexpected creativity. Ardian cannot but chuckle when he describes how one of his professors showed the students around her apartment before going to the kitchen to prepare a souffle as part of the lesson.

“I feel online classes are less productive”

The new learning environment became a challenge not only for the lecturers, but also for the students. “Professors started to give us more assignments than they used to,” notices Martina, most probably because students weren’t as active in online classes as in those at the university.

It also became more tiring. “I feel online classes are less productive,” says Marysia, “It’s harder to concentrate.” For Ardian, it also became more challenging to understand what exactly the professors required him to know for the exams.

Anna, on the other hand, realized that studying from home was in a way more comfortable than attending lectures at the university. “We usually have lessons throughout the day, and you never know where to go in between. When you’re at home, it’s easier to do other things.”

Exploring from home

Being locked up in an apartment might be a barrier for networking, but it didn’t make it impossible to keep in touch. Students which Martina met before the lockdown taught her not only about their cultures, but also see what it’s like to live in their home countries.

Thanks to her friends and her boyfriend, Marysia has also got to know a lot about the Balkans despite limited opportunities to travel around the peninsula, especially about its cuisine and history. She was also able to improve her Russian as she uses it to communicate with her professors, because she doesn’t speak Macedonian.

Ardian stays in touch with the other Ukrainian students from his class, mainly through Telegram group chats. Despite leaving the country in a rush, he says he learned a lot from the exchange and definitely wants to visit and travel Ukraine again - at least to pick up belongings that still are waiting for him in his Kyiv dormitory.

Image credits: Veronica Snoj