June 4, 2020

'I didn’t get to finish my exchange, and I didn’t get to say goodbye'

Students safe at home, but only after stressful departures from their Study Abroad destinations

It has been an unprecedented year for UCalgary’s Study Abroad team and the 188 UCalgary students studying around the globe when the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted the 2020 semester. Support of the Study Abroad team was critical for a number of those students who rushed home amidst the chaos of the pandemic. Read the following Q-and-A’s for a glimpse into their experiences.

Ecuador

Hibah Faheem (pictured above), an undergraduate student in biological sciences and psychology, was taking part in the Galapagos Academic Institute for the Arts and Sciences program at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito in Ecuador. Two months into the four-month program, she had to return home.

What was your experience like?

My experience was amazing! I got to do hands-on field work that I would have never get a chance to do at UCalgary, such as handling sea turtles and collecting plastic from beaches. I went on snorkelling and overnight hiking trips for class. Also, I got to experience a new culture and observe various plants and animals only found in that part of the world.  Especially in Galapagos, it was a unique experience living on an island and walking across the beach (where sea lions roamed) to attend class.

How did the University of Calgary help you?

Within three days we went from doing field work on the beach to going home. Everything was so rushed and last-minute. The team from UCalgary really helped me stay calm and looked for flights for me. They gave me contacts that I could use to assist in my flights and (Residence Services) provided a townhouse I could self-isolate in for two weeks, covering the cost of the townhouse and all meals. The university also offered to pay any additional costs it took to return home, like hotels and flights. The advisers also helped answer questions about my course schedules for next year. I was very appreciative of everything UCalgary did to assist me.

Singapore

Shanna Hollingworth is an undergrad in computer science and was on exchange at the National University of Singapore when she had to abruptly return home.

Shanna Hollingworth, Computer Science undergrad, attending National University of Singapore semester exchange

Shanna Hollingworth, Computer Science undergrad, attending National University of Singapore semester exchange

What was your experience like?

Unfortunately, I was in a country that had one of the first cases of COVID-19 outside of China. In Singapore, there were official cases at the end of January, just two weeks after I arrived. My lectures went online at the start of February, and the pandemic was a topic pretty much the whole time I was there. That being said, up to the time I left, Singapore had a really good handle on the situation, so I never felt unsafe.

Overall, studying abroad was a great experience, I was able to meet new people and experience things that I otherwise would not have been able to. I was also able to spend time with my family in Singapore and Malaysia and significantly improve my Mandarin. During the recess week, I had the incredible opportunity to travel around Indonesia for 10 days. But there definitely was a shadow cast on the exchange by the pandemic given that all classes over 50 individuals were cancelled pretty much all semester, and I felt like I was missing out on having a real educational experience at NUS.

Germany

Megan Koevoet is studying German and was at the Otto-Friedrich-University, in Bamberg Germany when the pandemic hit

Megan Koevoet, German undergrad, attending exchange at Otto-Friedrich-University, in Bamberg Germany

Megan Koevoet, German undergrad, attending exchange at Otto-Friedrich-University, in Bamberg Germany

What was your experience like?

As corny as it is to say, Study Abroad was life changing in the best way possible. In Germany, I learned true independence while also building an incredibly strong community. I met some amazing people, students from all over the world. I learned German culture, language and identity from first-hand experience. I was able to explore some of the most beautiful places I had never heard of before. I was also incredibly lucky to travel to many new countries, do amazing things, and eat some really great food.

How did the pandemic affect you?

The first indication of my inevitable return was when students from the countries with high numbers of cases were being asked to come home. Then my host university cancelled classes “until further notice.” Luckily my abroad adviser was really supportive and answered all of my incoming questions about what to expect from the University of Calgary. An American friend of mine was required to return home immediately when the borders closed. She barely had time to pack. This worried me because that meant Canada was likely to follow in that direction and close the borders sooner rather than later.

Turns out it was much, much sooner. It’s hard to describe how scary it was to receive that email. Just like that, study abroad was over. I didn’t get to finish my exchange, and I didn’t get to say goodbye. I had to leave Germany. I saw it coming, but to actually get the email, and leave, it was very real and very upsetting.

Global engagement at UCalgary

The Study Abroad team has been working all hours to assist devastated students with mass cancellations in the winter, spring, summer and fall semesters. “I can’t express how proud I am of my team for the work they’ve done these past few months, and the work they continue to do every day to support our students,” says Colleen Packer, director international learning programs.

“Risk Management worked round the clock as well to get students home safely, the faculties bent over backwards to assist students — Stacey McGregor from Haskayne, Gavin Cameron from Arts, Jodie McGill and Erin Scott from Kinesiology, and Heather Clitheroe from Science in particular. It was a true university-wide team effort.”

“It’s been a difficult time for everyone, which is why we thought it was important to offer specialized ‘Re-entry in a Crisis’ sessions in co-ordination with UCalgary Student Wellness for our returning students. International travel may not be possible but global learning isn’t cancelled.

"UCalgary Study Abroad is developing a variety of opportunities, including taking exchange partner courses online, virtual summer programs, research, or internships, and more. We look forward to providing more information as it becomes available.”

UCalgary also had 158 exchange students on campus from around the world. Some were recalled home, but some still remain. You can read Hibah, Shanna and Megan’s complete interviews and other Study Abroad student experiences of the pandemic on the UCalgary International website.

Improving global and intercultural capacity within our campus communities is part of our Global Engagement Plan (2020 – 2025). By 2025, our goal is for 50 per cent of our students to graduate with at least one International Learning Experience that takes place either abroad or at home on our campus.