Being an exchange student in the times of the Coronavirus pandemic

The international student Judith Hörning from Germany joined Eike Plhak, international reporter at Karlstads studenttidning, in a Zoom-meting to discuss the impact of the coronavirus pandemic for international students. Foto: Screenshot Zoom

How has the coronavirus pandemic and the transition to online teaching affected the international students at Karlstad University?

Karlstads studenttidnings international reporter joined a meeting in Zoom to find out.

As students, the Coronavirus has impacted all of our lives. The way courses are taking place are different to what they have always been. Our teachers had to adjust their curriculum to the current situation and we have to find a way to do all of our university work from home. But a special question arose for those of us who are not enrolled as regular students at Karlstad Universitet, but as exchange students.

To leave or not to leave was the question all of us had to answer as this crisis turned out to be as serious as it was. Whilst some of us were forced to come home, like a friend of ours from the US, for Judith and I, Eike, from Germany it was a question we had to answer ourselves.

In order to talk about this and other questions Judith and I met in a place we spend so many hours for university: in a Zoom room.

The right now

Judith: So, hands are washed for 20 seconds, mask is disinfected. I am back from the groceries. Right now it feels kind of normal to see everyone with masks, to walk more than 1.50 meter behind or beside to someone. Well, it’s corona-time. That is exhausting but alright in a way. But I feel an inner tension when I do my groceries – not really my groceries but for my family and an older neighbour who is 80. While I am walking through the rows to find all my stuff I look left and right, my brain is working:  ‘Do I have enough distance to the other persons? Does anyone breath in my way? How can I find a space to go to the vegetables-section?’ I hear the supermarket radio while shopping and can catch some words ‘corona’ and some undefined numbers – did they increase or decrease? But no matter for this moment, don’t stop to walk, just catch your groceries and leave the supermarket as fast as you can. 

Eike: It maybe is also a factor that I worry less, but maybe just in general in Sweden it is more “chill”? I am not really sure which word to use but I was grocery shopping three days ago and sure, there are the signs at the entrance telling you to keep the distance and also only have one family member do the shopping, but as soon as I am inside the supermarket it doesn’t feel like that much different to before the crisis. Maybe there were some small changes and less people went shopping and kept more distance but that was maybe not really recognised by me when I was just doing my more or less “normal shopping”. More or less because I do feel a difference and also the cashiers are behind these plexiglass shields. There is definitely a certain tension and interaction with others just seems a bit more threatening these days than before. But for you it seems more like an immediate feeling of threat.

J: Well this is what I feel in a way while doing groceries. Of course, it was stronger in the beginning – meanwhile Corona becomes an every-day-issue here. For me, it’s okay. We have to where nose-mouth-masks, called ‘all-day-masks’. This is what makes it easier in a way. The cashiers in stores don’t have to wear them because they have special windows they sit behind to be protected and to protect the customers. But while I am choosing the bread and the cake for our neighbour people see me with shocked eyes: She does wear a masks, but just on her chin. My thoughts are running: Why is she so stupid? She does breath on fresh bread for old people? Just: Why??? And in this moment I feel my change of thinking when I remember my time one and a half months ago in Sweden…

When we heard of Corona

E: Do you still remember though when you heard of Corona the first time?

J: Fun fact: Yes, in a way. I remember when I took the train from Germany to get to Sweden a guy close to my seat did read a newspaper with a headline: ‘Mystery virus in Wuhan’ or something similar. I did recognized that, did lean back into my seat and thought: Alright, everything is chilled, luckily I drive to Sweden not to China… Stupid from the present perspective but yeah… But I guessed we “really” talked about it together the first time we were in Oslo together, right?

E: Yeah, the news had been around for a little bit, it was the End of January and just shortly after all of the exchange students coming to Karlstad we had our first little trip: we went to Oslo. And when we were there it was big in the news that in Wuhan they were building that emergency hospital –

J: The way only the Chinese can, right?

E: Yes, somewhat of a stereotype, but that’s what they did. But I still remember talking about the virus back then didn’t really feel that urgent. I remember we talked about the virus after a lot of us had watched that instagram post of the hospital being built in a timelapse. We were fascinated but it didn’t really feel that threatening. In retrospect this was really wrong. Luckily no people I know have been seriously affected, buthalf of the people we had on that trip aren’t in Sweden anymore – like you.

J: Yeah. Thinking back of these more carefree moments of this years really is interesting. So much has changed since then.

A decision to be made because of Corona 

E: We had a quite good time also throughout February. We travelled around a bit more and were in Lapland for instance, but more and more the news of the spreading virus became parts of our life. For me a very drastic moment was the 12th of March. A Thursday.

J: So the usual day to go out?

E: Yes. So I asked in the Whatsapp group for the exchange students where the pre-party for the night out would be and the answer I got was: “Nowhere”.

J: Haha, because the government banned that just the day before, right?

E: That was the case yes. But I wasn’t the only one who didn’t hear the news yet and it wasn’t only me who still planned to go out. First I was confused, then I felt like a jerk. As I then found out there wouldn’t be any open location because of the ban of events with over 50 people.

J: Thinking about this now it really made sense. The situation was already feeling out of control in Italy and also in Germany we had the first region heavily infected and the first measures to socially distance were taken. I heard about that in the German news I still followed while living in Sweden and we talked about it with the others.

E: Was that the time you decided to leave back to Germany?

J: No. That was the weekend before, I was not even thinking to go back but by family skipped their trip to visit me… they skipped it with the words: ‘Just in case if there is an infected person in the train’. It was the right decision because some borders of Germany were closed and my thoughts were more and more circulating around the idea of leaving. Everyone had got a different mind about that topic but was also unsure in their own feelings. A few days later the situation was controlled but becoming bigger and bigger in Germany and my parents wanted me to come back. I didn’t wanted to. But some days later I was thinking about my asthma and what would happen if I would get Corona with it on Campus… I decided that it might be more safe at my parents house. I wanted to stay there for three or four weeks and then to come back to enjoy all the trips we planned, especially the Lofoten, we planned together. So that was when my decision happened. But you had a different train of thought, right?

E: Yes, for me going back home would have been more of a hassle. There were several factors. The first thing that comes to my mind when thinking of going home is that I wouldn’t really have a place to be.

As I don’t belong to the risk group my thoughts were a bit more of the “logistical nature”. I don’t have a flat in my the city I study in and going back to where I grew up would have meant to live in a not too small, but still a bit crammed place with my mother and brother. No real work station, as my mother is working from home and using that now and either sharing a bed with my brother or sleeping on the couch. That didn’t really seem like a good choice. Also I just have so much stuff here in Sweden, as I moved here for a whole year. I basically would need one really really big new bag to put in all of the things I brought up here from my trips back home, like my winter clothes and ice skates, and the few things I bought here. I wouldn’t have really know how to coordinate that but the most influential factor was something else: People from back home weren’t advising me to come back home and that none of my fellow students from my home university were seriously thinking of going home. It really felt like here we would have more opportunities and freedom to still live and explore. 

Reflecting on Corona

E: I think for me it was the right decision: But what about you, are you happy that you went home?

J: Finally I can say I am happy to be back. I do have a kind of freedom while staying at my parent’s house, 10 minutes to walk to the forest on the countryside. The first days it felt surreal but then it changed into a holiday feeling. Now I have all the power I need to start with my Master thesis. I changed my plans now···. But I think it’s this feeling for me because I already have done an exchange during my bachelors. If I hadn’t done something like that before I would regret.

By the way, the German news do criticize the Swedish way like every day. According to the numbers of deaths and the fast increasing number of infections (of course just information I did read in the German news), I am truly happy to be back, it feels more controlled here right now. How do you feel, with knowing what’s been said in Germany, about the Swedish approach of handling the crisis?

E: It’s a bit weird to live here in the “freedom” of Sweden and hear that quite a few people in Germany want to be “a bit more like Sweden” in their approach: so less restrictions. I personally do not agree. Despite me personally benefiting and having the possibility to explore and still do many things that are impossible in Germany I am sceptical of the way it is being taken care of in Sweden. I personally would not want to be in Stockholm right now for instance and really try to avoid being in larger crowds. I am not a professional and can only do my best to try to be part of social distancing efforts, but it makes me a bit uneasy that only Sweden goes with the herd immunity approach. I really hope that no people are dying unnecessarily these days just because this certain approach was chosen here but I still feel safe. The way it is communicated in Sweden and the trust that is shown for the government and the healthcare system eases a lot of my concerns, which doesn’t mean I am acting reckless.

J:  Really hope that, too… It also feels strange for me while thinking back to the application for Erasmus where we had to choose the countries to stay. I think, everybody, who did not choose Sweden had to come by now and you still have that freedom. I can see that it feels very weird.

E: I guess I and the many other exchange students who stayed are very lucky in that sense. However lucky one can be in these times of a global crisis. But for you, would you still say you learned from this semester abroad?

J: Well, for me it was not really “a semester”. Before I left I was so happy to stay 6 full months in Sweden. I already did an exchange semester in Edinburgh but only for four months. What did I learn? I got to know a new culture which I expected to be different before. I tried to learn Swedish and I got so many impressions of different cultures and friends on campus – even different German cultures because we were just a lot of Germans as exchange students. I did really enjoy the Oslo and Lapland trip and I am so sad that I skipped the last day of Oslo just because of a project for my German Uni. And in a way I am still connected to Sweden with online classes and some of the exchanges, of course. It must feel so much different for you, because you could really live in Sweden?

E: I had a different experience than you, as my stay in Sweden already started last year in August and I already had the opportunity to do way more things, but I could learn and I am still learning new things due to the new situation. I am kind of happy I am here at the moment in this more “safe” space and that I have these freedoms I wouldn’t really have in Germany. I can still travel a bit here in Sweden and I get the chance to “learn how to learn online”. That feels weird to say, but we are gaining experiences these days that will and are living through this historic period defining our future. For me it is really a possibility to be more appreciative of what we had before the crisis.

This is a news article. Read more about the journalistic work in Karlstads studenttidning here.