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Semester Abroad in Times of COVID-19

Studying abroad during the COVID-19 pandemic? Three students share their experiences

In spring, we reported on how the COVID-19-related lockdown changed everyday life at WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management. In this extraordinary situation, many students began their semesters abroad. But what is a semester abroad like in times of a pandemic that changes our everyday lives so fundamentally?

Hybrid semester in South Korea

Kira is an example of how a semester abroad can succeed even in 2020, a year overshadowed by COVID-19. The Bachelor’s student had already decided last year to spend her fifth semester at one of the largest universities in South Korea. Since the end of August, she has been taking courses in business administration at Korea University and quickly became part of student life there. As the 21-year-old recalls, she was lucky to be able to fly to Korea at all: Many students from other universities would not have been able to enter the country in the first place and would now attend lectures remotely. Even though South Korea had the virus well under control for a long time in international comparison, Kira's lectures are mostly hybrid. In addition to a general mask requirement on campus, there would be a limited capacity in the lecture halls, and study rooms close as early as late afternoon. She and her fellow students would therefore often go to the 24-hour cafés, which are typical of a Korean lifestyle, and prepare their lectures over a glass of chai tea.

However, alongside the actual university courses, an integral part of a semester abroad is getting to know another culture, which by definition requires exchange and contact with people. In times of a pandemic, meeting people can become a challenge. Paradoxically, Kira says that she is perhaps getting to know South Korea even better thanks to the current situation: "Korea and Seoul have so much to offer," she describes with great enthusiasm. To prevent the pandemic from spreading, she refrains from traveling to other Asian countries and mainly explores the nearby region. Currently, South Korea is particularly authentic, she explains, as the entry restrictions prevent a rush of tourists.

Remote lectures from Germany

Tibor made a completely different experience during his semester abroad. He chose Kansas University in the same-named US state. Unlike Kira, he was unable to travel to the USA and complete his semester on-site due to the entry restrictions and visa regulations imposed by the US government. Instead, he is currently staying with his family in Germany and takes online courses. Although his university would go to great lengths to compensate for the lack of face-to-face interaction by organizing virtual social events, this would not be comparable to studying in the US. "A semester abroad thrives on interactions with a culture and the people living it," he outlines. For this reason, one of his highlights would have been the first call with his fellow students in Kansas. Getting to know everyone virtually would have given him the feeling of an actual semester abroad, at least for a short time. However, Tibor does not want to entirely forego a semester abroad. The 23-year-old is already considering to study in the USA for a term during his Master's degree.

An alternating course system in Madrid

Theresa was more fortunate when she chose Madrid for her studies abroad last year. Although the Spanish capital was one of the “COVID-19 hotspots” this summer, the situation improved greatly due to a full-scale lockdown in the subsequent months. Before leaving for Madrid, Theresa was nevertheless quite insecure and did not know what to expect. On-site, however, she now feels very safe and is even experiencing something like a “semester abroad feeling.” Similar to Korea, there is a comprehensive mask requirement and distance rules in Spain, she reports. At her host university, the lecture halls and seminar rooms are disinfected between each course unit. Moreover, there even have been installed new entrances in the building.

Despite all the precautions, classes at Theresa's university also take place in a hybrid system, where students are only allowed on campus every other week. Even though exchange students may not be able to engage in many activities this year, Theresa recommends keeping a “positive attitude” and trying out as much as possible. For example, she joined a running club and has been studying Spanish intensively over the past few months, which, in turn, allows her to get to know the Spanish culture much better. All in all, she has learned to “appreciate the little things.” As she would meet fewer students, she would be able to make closer friends and thus be able to experience a real semester abroad.