Three students look back on a semester abroad that didn’t exactly go as planned

A semester abroad is about getting to know a new culture, a new university and new friends. But for many exchange students this spring, their semester abroad took an unexpected turn when the coronavirus pandemic hit. Meet three of them here.

[Translate to English:] Terese Hartmann-Petersen valgte på grund af coronavirus at rejse hjem fra sit udvekslingsophold ved Sheffield Hallam University efter blot to måneder, hvor hun kun lige nåede at smage på alt det, hun havde glædet sig til ved at skulle på udveksling: nye venner, en ny kultur og nye undervisningsformer. Fotos: Private

Ever since Terese Hartmann-Petersen started studying psychology at AU, she’s known that she wanted to do an exchange as part of her education. Because of how the psychology degree programme is structured, the best time to do an exchange is generally the eighth or ninth semester. Terese chose to go abroad in her eighth semester to take courses on criminology at Sheffield Hallam University. 

“I’d really been looking forward to it, because there are courses we don’t have in the same way in Denmark, and classes are workshop-based and very different over there,” she told me.

READ MORE: Hundreds of students will have to cancel their foreign exchanges this autumn

She travelled to Sheffield in January, where she very quickly got settled in at her residence hall and made friends from all over the world. And while the authorities here in Denmark were advising people to practice physical distancing and good hand hygiene, Terese and her new international friends partied on without a care.  

“Well, there were no restrictions here in England, and even though I talked to my parents and saw the prime minister’s speech where she shut down Denmark, I had the sense that they might be going a bit overboard in Denmark. Because at that point, no one was concerned here,” she told me.

Go home. Now. 

But soon her fellow international students started getting letters instructing them to return home. Terese was also aware that the Danish foreign ministry was advising all Danes travelling abroad to return home. But because she was registered as residing in England, she wasn’t classified as a traveller, which means she also didn’t receive a letter from AU instructing her to return. She spoke to the Danish foreign ministry, an international coordinator at AU and her parents about her situation.

“For quite a while, I felt sure that I was going to stay here until the crisis was over. But suddenly the dorm was almost deserted because most people had gone home. And my mother also made the very good point that I couldn’t know for certain when I would be able to come home.”  

14 days in quarantine

So on March 25, Terese reluctantly packed her suitcase and flew back to Denmark – from the close-knit community of the dorm to fourteen days of solitary self-quarantine.  

“I landed in an almost empty Kastrup Airport and took the metro to my sister’s apartment, where I could live alone while I was in quarantine, because my sister and her boyfriend had gone to my parents’ house on Funen. That was something of an anticlimax.” 

Finished the semester online

Her classes at the university in England continued online, and fortunately she only had one exam – a multiple-choice test that was converted into a take-home assignment. She also had to turn in three papers to pass the semester. 

“Of course, I could write those here just as well as I could have in England, so I’ve been lucky and have been able to finish the semester with no problems, even though I had to come home early. But I missed out on a lot of the classes and the new ways of learning I’d been looking forward to so much.” 

Terese is going on vacation with a sense of bitterness: the exchange that she’d looked forward to with such anticipation ended before it had really even begun.

“I don’t regret that I came home early. And I also know that it really couldn’t have been any other way, but it sucks!”

Should I stay or should I go?

Villads Leer Jørgensen, a political science student at Aarhus University, faced the same dilemma as Terese Hartmann-Petersen early this spring. In early February, he travelled to New Zealand with his girlfriend to study political science at Victoria University in the capital city of Wellington for a semester. Barely a month into the exchange, which he had organised and paid for himself, he got a mail from the Danish foreign ministry advising all Danes travelling abroad to return home as quickly as possible. 

“We were a group of four Danish students who all got the same mail early one morning when we were actually just getting ready to leave for a day trip to Tongariro National Park to see some of the locations where the Lord of the Rings movies were filmed. None of us knew exactly what to do. So we decided to go and deal with the mail later,” Villads told me. 

Coronavirus – that’s not our problem, is it? 

At that point, while the students had certainly heard of the coronavirus, they mostly thought of it as something happening in China and northern Italy. 

“None of us really wanted to go home, of course, because we’d been looking forward to our exchange. And we did talk a bit about whether we should be considered ‘travellers’ when we had moved to New Zealand to study and had also changed our addresses,” he explained. 

Trust in New Zealand’s response to the crisis  

Soon afterward, the decision was virtually made for him: plane ticket prices skyrocketed. And then New Zealand decreed a lockdown.

“My girlfriend and I live together in an apartment here in Wellington, at we haven’t felt unsafe at any point. Our sense is that New Zealand has handled the coronavirus crisis really effectively. They shut down the country fast, and have been really consistent in how they approach things. We haven’t had any doubt about what you’re allowed to do and not allowed to do. And right now, there’s actually only one infected person in the whole country.”

The university did a bad job of handling the crisis

But Villads was not impressed by how Victoria University handled the crisis.   

“The university has handled it really poorly. There were no classes at all for four weeks. And when we finally started having classes on Zoom, it seemed like our teachers didn’t know what they were doing. The way they’re dealing with exams over the next weeks also seems really random.” 

While students who are starting at the university next week have been informed that they can get a refund due to the coronavirus crisis, Villads has no idea whether he can get a refund on any part of the 58,000 kroner he paid to study at the university this semester. 

“Of course, it’s really annoying that the pandemic hit just when I was starting my exchange. But I doubt that there’s ever a good time for a pandemic, and I’m grateful that I’m in a country that’s had dealing with the corona pandemic under control.” 

Far from family and friends

On the flip side, it has been kind of strange to be on the other side of the world, far away from family and friends during this extraordinary time, he told me. 

“My girlfriend and I have been especially worried about our grandparents, and about not being able to come home if something happens to someone in our family. But my family has done a good job of having family meetings on Zoom every Sunday, so I’ve been able to follow how they’ve been doing at home. And clearly, the fact that my girlfriend and I are together has also meant something. If we were in separate parts of the world, I’m not sure I would have decided to stay.”

Villads describes the last few months as surreal. But now things are looking up: Because the infect rate is so low, New Zealand is starting to reopen. He and his girlfriend have taken advantage of that to see more of the North Island, and to just generally get the most out of the tail end of their exchange before returning to Denmark in mid-July.

A double dose of the coronavirus crisis

Jixuan Zhou, a philosophy student from Peking University in China, got a double dose of the coronavirus crisis. She came to Aarhus in late January to study at AU for a semester. At that point, the coronavirus was primarily a Chinese issue, and for the first few months of her exchange she was able to travel freely in Denmark, while her family and friends at home in China weren’t allowed to leave their homes as the authorities struggled to contain the infection. 

But in mid-March, the situation reversed itself: in China, her family and friends started returning to work, while in Denmark Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen sent everyone home to shelter in place.

So Jixuan had to take her AU classes online from the apartment she shares with a Russian exchange student. Shortly after the lockdown began in Denmark, she decided to stay in Denmark and complete her exchange despite the somewhat bizarre situation.

“First of all, I trusted Denmark’s anti-epidemic policy, and secondly, it was hard to buy a plane ticket to China,” she told me.

Making the best of things

Even though her exchange didn’t turn out quite as she imagined, Jixuan has tried to make the best of things.

“I finished my semester at AU, and I also started on my Master’s thesis at my Chinese university. I took an IELTS language test and published a scientific report, and I’ve also explored the possibility of applying for a PhD fellowship.”

Great to see friends again

And now that Danish society has opened up again, she’s also made up for some of the lost time and the social dimension that was missing during the lockdown.

“I’ve been to a potluck dinner with some of my Chinese friends, and I’ve gone for walks with one of my fellow students from AU. So now I feel a sense of enrichment.”

Jixuan is planning to return to China some time in June.

“But we’ll have to see whether I’m able to buy a plane ticket,” she said.

Translated by Lenore Messick