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Mia Hammersley from her apartment
Mia Hammersley (21) studying from her apartment in Amsterdam
Students 24 September 2020

Online struggles and moments of loneliness

Exchange students during the pandemic
Did the lockdown crush exchange students' dreams? Ad Valvas asked three of them about their experiences. 'It’s not that easy to engage with new people in an online environment.'
BY Emma Sprangers

You may have always dreamt about it, parents and teachers extol its positive influence on your resume, and other students rave about their experience with it: studying abroad. But then came Covid19. What did that mean for exchange students?

Mia Hammersley (21) exchanged her university housing in the UK for an apartment in Amsterdam

Having always been drawn to the city of Amsterdam, Mia was torn between working or studying abroad. She eventually chose the latter, and found herself an apartment. “I had already had the experience of living on campus at my home university, so I decided to look for my own housing. For me, this exchange is mostly about having the city experience. I wanted to live somewhere new where I didn’t know many people.”

From her apartment, which she shares with another girl from the UK, she aims to stick to a nine-to-five schedule for her online classes. Her evenings are free for exploring the city. So far, it hasn’t been a problem finding people to go exploring with. “I’ve been lucky enough that friends back home have put me in contact with people they know here. So far I haven’t had to rely on the university for socializing. I can see how that could be difficult, especially if you can’t go to class and don’t live on campus.”

'The element of meeting other international students is missing'

Mia therefore thinks the university should put a little more effort into planning activities specifically for exchange students. “The buddy programme has been very helpful, especially when it comes to more practical things like how Canvas works and how to submit essays. But I haven’t been on campus yet, that feels really weird. And not everything from the introduction programme seemed as relevant either. A tour through the city doesn’t seem that useful at a distance, and things like explaining how to write a paper – I would hope that I know how to do that by now.”

“The VU has been very supportive and forthcoming in answering any questions I have. But the element of meeting other international students is missing. There’s a list of the exchange students’ names in Canvas, but nothing has been put in place for us to meet up. Perhaps they gave us these names so we can organize something ourselves, but we haven’t got around to that yet.”

 

Georgie Rubega (21), is taking American Studies courses from her home in the UK

Georgie from her boyfriends' home in the UK

She was planning on doing a full year of exchange, but when she applied for the programme back in November, she couldn’t have pictured things going more differently. When it became apparent around March that the world was about to shut down, she was confronted with the dilemma: staying home or taking the plunge.

When the university’s email arrived, stating that all classes in the first semester would be online, her mind was quickly made up. “I was worried I would just be in my flat on my own if I decided to go.” Because she was planning on doing a full year of studying abroad, she decided to change her stay in Uilenstede to January and move back in with her parents. “I had already given up my apartment and hadn’t sorted anything else out – thinking I would be in Amsterdam.”

'My parents lift my spirits when it's needed'

Moving back home has been quite an adjustment. “My friends are slowly going back to uni again, I get a little jealous seeing everyone leave. But my parents are very understanding, and they lift my spirits when it’s needed. I work in the local pub, so that gets me out of the house.”

As for the online classes, it hasn’t been too hard getting used to studying from home. In her history studies there are barely any contact hours anyways. “It does require a little more self-discipline though. No one is checking in. The online studying does get a little lonely at times. I can tell that the university has done its best with the introductory week and encouraging people to mix in with one another, but it’s not the same. I just hope when I get to the VU in January there’s another chance for people to get to know each other.”

 

Sophie Horneber (25), decided to come to Uilenstede for her first year of the Sociology Master’s

Sophie from her room at Uilenstede campus

For Sophie, cancelling her plans for studying abroad was out of the question. Through several mails, the university kept her updated on corona measures and online plans for the first semester. Dropping out of the programme was possible up to one day before the start of term.

“But I didn’t want to be at my home university in Germany. I really liked the courses the VU was offering, and this was my last chance to experience a semester abroad. It’s an opportunity you’ll never have again, to live somewhere for so little money with people from all over the world. I wanted to take this chance either way. Even under these circumstances.”

'I wanted to take this chance either way. Even under these circumstances'

One of Sophie’s concerns was feeling lonely during her time here. But with thirteen other students on her floor at the Uilenstede campus, that wasn’t something she had to worry about. “If living on campus had not been an option, I might have considered staying home. Although the VU did well with organizing the introduction activities, I mostly just hang out with the people from my floor. It’s not that easy to engage with new people in an online environment. Casual chatting is not really possible.”

Something she has had to adapt to, is online learning. “The teaching is completely different from what I expected when I applied. I was looking forward to sitting in lecture halls and listening to different professors with varying perspectives. But now I’m just sitting in front of my laptop. It does make my daily routine more flexible, though. I can plan activities during the day like exploring the city and enjoying the weather, and then I can still watch the recorded lectures later on.”

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