Semester Abroad: Unforeseen Circumstances

As we approach the 4th month of this global pandemic, we here at SBSS decided it would be interesting to look into what life was like for some Sprotties, who were on exchange,at the beginning of the pandemic back in the middle of March. When the news hit that we would be transferring to online classes many of us accommodated transportation back home to continue with learning from a distance, but it wasn’t this easy for some. Each semester many Sprott students decide to travel abroad to study at a different institution to broaden their university experience and learn more about the world around them. Unfortunately for those who went abroad during the winter semester of 2020, their experience was either cut short, or drastically altered in unpredictable ways. We reached out to 3 Sprott students who were abroad in different countries during the winter semester to talk about their experience.

Samantha Gec, who was in her third year of the Sprott Commerce program, concentrating in International Business and minoring in Spanish, spent her winter semester abroad in Spain. Unfortunately,she was only able to spend a month and a half in Spain, but despite this made many memories during this short time. Her favourite of which was spending an afternoon on a beach in Valencia with a few of her friends: talking, laughing and enjoying the sun.

Vidur Suri was in his third year of the Bachelor of International Business program with a concentration in International Marketing and Trade when he traveled abroad to France. The best memory he has from his time in France was winning the Coupe de France for his university division, stating “It was a crazy time to celebrate and playing soccer in Paris was a surreal experience.”

Ceiledh Monk is still overseas in Augsburg Germany, finishing up her third year in the Bachelor of International Business degree with a concentration in Marketing and Trade and a minor in German.. She is no rookie when it comes to travel as she went on a solo backpacking trip in the Balkans last September.

When did the Coronavirus become an apparent issue in the country where you were studying in?

Samantha: “Spain was not exactly proactive when COVID -19 became a serious threat. However, it became very apparent to the citizens of Valencia when a festival called Las Fallas was cancelled. The festival pretty well closes down the entire city for two straight weeks filled with non-stop fireworks, decorations of flowers, and celebration at all hours. It was cancelled the day after opening ceremonies had completed and the city was almost completely decorated for the festival. This was a big deal because Fallas had only ever been cancelled during World War 2. In addition, supermarkets began to clear out, and the streets became extremely quiet (very different from the usual noise of Valencia). I believe the day after I left on March 14th was the first day all businesses closed down and everyone was ordered to stay home. Things seemed normal until one day, overnight, when they all completely changed at once.”

Ceiledh: “The first case of coronavirus in Germany appeared while I was writing exams so around early February. Most people just shrugged it off at the beginning and went about their daily life. The number of cases were growing everyday but there wasn’t much information about the virus until the global pandemic was

declared in March. I was actually traveling for the month leading up to the WHO declaring the pandemic. I didn’t experience the atmosphere in Germany first hand but everyone seemed to be fairly relaxed until around March because the infection rate was obviously increasing exponentially in Italy and Austria and the borders are very close to where I study. In most of Europe, restaurants and grocery stores began to take precautions, accommodations were being cancelled, and transportation was being reduced.”

When were you told that classes would continue online and you were to go home?

Vidur: “I left the exact day that France announced the stay at home orders and that schools were closed. During this time everybody in the exchange group chats was going crazy trying to figure out what to do. Carleton had recommended a couple days before that they wanted us to leave but once it was announced that schools were closed that's when we started to take it more seriously and decided to leave. My plan originally was to travel to London for the week with my friends but the day before I was told that Carleton wanted us home. So just in case I packed all my bags and travelled to London on the off chance I would not be returning to France, and that is exactly what ended up happening. I bought a ticket from London to Toronto to go home. Everybody was wearing masks, some people were literally walking meters away from one another but other than that everything was pretty normal.”

Was it different traveling during the beginning of the pandemic?

Samantha: “Yes, it was relatively different. I was able to switch my return flight to two days after I made the call to go home. Since there were no flights out of Valencia with any room on them, I had to take a flight from Madrid. There were no planes, trains or buses that would get me there in time for my flight on the same day, so I ended up taking a train from Valencia to Madrid the night before and spent the night and morning before my flight in the airport. This was definitely an experience I will never forget as Madrid was the most problematic city for COVID-19 in the country at that moment. Spending so many hours in the airport was nerve-racking especially to be surrounded by people even more concerned for their safety than me. Flights were backed up and a feeling of stress and uncertainty was everywhere. However, I was able to make friends with many other Canadians on my flights just looking to get home like me. It definitely helped ease the stress!”

Ceiledh: “Yes! Absolutely no one knew what to do. Traveling at the beginning of the pandemic was a mess. I remember being in line waiting to go through airport security and some people were wearing masks or scarves or plastic on their heads and social distancing and others were so relaxed. Some people booked last minute flights and had to beg other passengers to skip the lines so they could run through the airport for the final call. I was emotional because I had to leave my mom earlier than expected after such a phenomenal trip and I really didn’t know when I would come home. It was definitely a high stress environment.”

What made you decide to stay?

Ceiledh: “To be honest, it was a tough decision and it was difficult to justify to my loved ones that I did not want to end my exchange and that I felt safe on my own in Germany. I feel comfortable with my decision to stay put because I have the support I need from my family, my close friends, Sprott, and my host university. I received multiple personal messages asking for updates and if I was doing okay and I appreciated every single one of them. Another factor was that my second semester in Germany hadn’t even begun and was even postponed. With all the uncertainty of how my semester would run and how soon things would open back up, I didn’t want to make a rash decision that I would potentially regret. I felt uneasy with my decision at the beginning because no one could really see the light at the end of the tunnel, but I found things to help reassure my decision such as taking part in a research project at Carleton to help students abroad to cope with the situation and I found this coaching style interview really helpful.”

What is the biggest thing you have learned from your experience abroad?

Samantha: “To live in the moment. I had always known this is an extremely important skill however I truly understood the meaning of it when I realized I had to, unfortunately, leave the experience I had waited so long to have. In addition, I would say that I learned to appreciate everything that crosses my path and to not dwell on things. Quarantine was difficult given that I had planned to spend these months living in Valencia, travelling around Europe. I have come to terms with the fact that I won’t get my exchange back, but I also know that it's absence will make me appreciate any other chance I get to travel, at any point in my life even more.”

Ceiledh: “The biggest thing I learned while abroad is that as long as you stay true to yourself, everything will work out. For many, this is the first time you’ll live completely alone in a foreign country which comes with a mix of emotions. The transition period can be terrifying and frustrating but you should turn this energy into optimism, courage to try new things, and a chance to reinvent yourself.”

Overall, these students will never forget the experience they had while studying abroad. Although it may not have been the experience they imagined they still created lasting memories and friendships. The SBSS hopes everyone is staying safe over this time, wherever that may be, and are taking necessary precautions. We would love to know where is the first place you hope to travel to once it is safe to do so again.

Stay Safe & Sprott Love!

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