Changing planes and altering plans: studying abroad in the wake of the pandemic

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By Holly Beaumont, Investigations Editor and Teddy Coward, Co-Editor-in-Chief

Epigram speaks to Bristol students whose study abroad plans have been caught up in the pandemic. Faced with tough choices and moments of panic, students have shown their resilience and ability to adapt – the skills many had originally hoped to gain from their overseas trips.

For University students who enrolled on to courses with study abroad options, such foreign expeditions typically form an exciting and liberating time. Indeed, the University of Bristol’s Go Abroad web page cites it as ‘one of the most exhilarating and rewarding experiences of your University years’.

A total of 51 of Bristol’s 160 partner Universities have presently withdrawn from exchange agreements | Unsplash / Gary Lopater

With the allure of added independence, it’s little wonder that UNESCO’s ‘Global Flow of Tertiary Level Students’ counted some 35,250 UK students who studied abroad in 2017-18. Yet in the wake of the coronavirus, national lockdowns and increasingly precarious international travel has led to many study abroad cancellations.

As reported by Epigram, a total of 51 of Bristol’s 160 partner Universities have presently withdrawn from exchange agreements, whilst 17% of its students with study abroad plans have opted to stay in Bristol. Two-thirds of such students, meanwhile, are choosing to go only when it is safe to do so.

As indiscriminate and long-lasting as the coronavirus has been, its effects have taken a toll on two sets of study years – cutting short previous plans and curbing future arrangements. The testimony of a handful of Bristol students demonstrates its impact and the difficult decisions many have faced.

Amy Cartledge, a French and Spanish student heading into her fourth year at Bristol University, recalls sitting on the plane on 17 February, about to embark on her study abroad semester in Nice, France. A man next to her coughed.

‘At the time I thought: "coronavirus is bad but it’ll never be as bad as it is in China"’ | Epigram / Amy Cartledge

‘I can remember that really distinctly,’ she says, ‘but apart from that, at the time, I thought: “the coronavirus is bad but it’ll never be as bad as it is in China”, which is now obviously a really stupid thing to think’.

Amy’s self-deprecation seems obvious with hindsight but at the time could be forgiven. Once she arrived, it would take a month before French President Emmanuel Macron decreed a nationwide lockdown.

Amy had a choice to make: withdraw from her study abroad plans or remain over a thousand miles from her family home in Leeds during a global pandemic.

‘I had possibly the worst anxiety of my life,’ she says openly. ‘It was horrible because everybody was fleeing from Italy and Spain had also gone into lockdown, so lots of people were leaving their study abroad countries. I knew one girl from Bristol out here in Nice but apart from that I didn’t really know anyone from the UK.’

Amy had a choice to make: leave her study abroad or remain over a thousand miles from her family during a pandemic

Fortunately, Amy’s internship was at a magazine, giving her the mobility – should she have chosen – to leave France and carry on her work.

Harald Lummis, meanwhile, a fourth-year French student, who was studying in Paris, didn’t quite have the same bonne chance.

With an internship at The Claw Models agency, he found himself in the eye of the Covid storm. As Paris Fashion Week preceded Milan’s, the worst hit spot in Europe was sending its models right to the agency. Unable to work remotely, this then marked the beginning of the end for his study abroad.

‘I felt really angry at the world,’ he says, ‘I was having the most incredible time, there was no part of me that wanted to come back.’

'I was having the most incredible time, there was no part of me that wanted to come back' | Epigram / Harald Lummis

Like Amy, Harald confesses a lack of realisation at the time as to the impact the coronavirus would have.

‘I definitely didn’t register the seriousness of the situation. My friends and I were just wondering ‘what is everyone going on about?’ – an understandable mindset, perhaps, when immersed in the fast-paced fashion world of Paris.

When leaving the French capital, which ‘felt like an action film’, Harald thought his return to the UK would be brief, only taking one bag and telling his Parisian friends: ‘I’ll see you guys in a couple of weeks when this blows over’.

Both Amy and Harald, along with all study abroad students, were told by the University their studies would not be penalised if they decided to return home. For Amy, however, her decision-making rested on her ability to learn the language she had gone abroad to pick up.

‘I couldn't decide what to do because I knew if I left France, I couldn't speak French at all at that point. I can completely understand why people left [their study abroad programs], but for me personally, I didn’t want to finish a languages degree and not really be able to speak the language.’

As a result, she explains to Epigram, during a socially-distanced walk along the French coast, she chose to stay put in Nice.

And with the pandemic still casting its near-invisible grip on our everyday lives, it’s not just past plans that have been impacted. Going forward, some students have decided to take matters into their own hands, calling off their study abroad plans in order to be sure of upcoming arrangements and not subject to the uncertainty wrought by a global pandemic.

Izzy Moulding, a soon-to-be third year Liberal Arts student, is one such student, having withdrawn from her year abroad in Prague. Given that physically being in Prague in September can’t be guaranteed, Izzy decided to ‘change tack and rethink things’.

‘In the whole span of things, I’m not old; I can travel and do so much more later. I shouldn’t think of it as closing doors’ | Epigram / Izzy Moulding

‘I had to write a pros and cons list,’ she explains. ‘It was a decision that took me a week of intense thinking, which was horrendous because it was having to think about the future every day, when you want to be living in the moment.

‘I actually cried when I decided because I had all these plans and felt like I was closing a door. But after thinking about it and seeing the news, it’s definitely okay. In the whole span of things, I’m not old; I can travel and do so much more later. I shouldn’t think of it as closing doors, I’ve made the decision and now have to go with it.

Once over all the sadness of the new change, I accepted it

Now settled on her decision, Izzy is excited by the prospect of remaining in her University city. ‘What’s good is it’s another year to spend in Bristol. And if I went on my year abroad, most of my friends would have graduated by the time I came back – so there’s more time to spend with some of the people I know. Once over all the sadness of the new change, I accepted it.’

Second year History student, Toby Barnes, meanwhile, has had to deal with his plans being changed not once, but twice, having originally planned to spend his next academic year in Hong Kong.

'I’m trying to do some fun things because the last year’s been tough, especially with the study abroad being cancelled' | Epigram / Toby Barnes

When this was cancelled in January due to civil protest – a sure reminder of the world’s present political challenges, in addition to its health crisis – he set his sights on Tokyo, only for the pandemic to prevent that too.

‘Study abroad was one of the reasons I wanted to come to University in the first place so although I kind of knew it was going to happen, it definitely hurt when I received the email saying it was cancelled’, he remarks.

Faced with this frustration of not one, but two study trips being cancelled, Toby has decided to embark on a self-made travel plan.

‘I’m going to be taking next year off and hopefully live in Australia,’ he explains. ‘I’m trying to do some fun things because the last year’s been tough, especially with the study abroad being cancelled’.

I’m going to have to make extra effort to make friends – it’ll be different but I’m definitely happy I’m doing it

Despite the lack of ‘structure through doing it with a University’, Toby is approaching his new, self-governed year abroad with a positive outlook. ‘I’m going to have to make extra effort to make friends. It’ll be different but I’m definitely happy I’m doing it’.

Like watching planes take off and land, Amy, Harald, Izzie and Toby have all had different and unique routes. As with every student their safety is paramount; Bristol University and its Global Opportunities team have had to work hard, balancing student’s personal choices with a global pandemic.

Whatever decision has been taken, it’s clear the coronavirus hasn’t much cared for ‘one of the most exhilarating and rewarding experiences’ of a student’s University life; that said, having overcome and adapted to the challenges, students have certainly developed in making their choices.

Featured Image: Epigram


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