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Abroad in the time of Corona

“The whole world is in the same situation”

München, 06/08/2020

When the Covid-19 crisis began, many LMU students were already studying abroad. The majority opted to return home, but some decided to stay put. Here, three of them report from Italy, Japan and Spain.

Owing to the Covid-19 pandemic, the campus of Osaka University is deserted. – All courses are now being taught online.

Nicola Hillmer of LMU’s International Office has noticed a pronounced sense of uncertainty among students who had planned to study abroad next term. The current situation confronts them with the question of whether or not to stay in Munich during the coming Winter Semester 2020-2021. It’s not an easy decision to make.

“In many institutions, it remains unclear whether the curricula in the coming Winter Semester will be taught by means of conventional classroom instruction, blended learning or fully digital courses – or indeed whether tuition will be available at all. So many of our students are trying to postpone their planned term abroad until the Summer Semester of 2021,” Hillmer says. In fact, partner universities in Hong Kong, Canada and the US have already decided not to cater for exchange students in the Winter Semester at all, because of the coronavirus crisis. Universities in other countries have yet to make a decision on the matter, she adds.

The 627 LMU students who were already abroad when the pandemic broke out only had the choice between breaking off their stay altogether or returning home, and continuing to study virtually via e-learning at their host institution. Meanwhile, many of those who took the second option have gone back to complete the summer term.

Others decided to stay for the duration of the semester. In the following, three of them tell us why they did so, how they have fared over the past several weeks, and what they have learned from their experiences.

“I was particularly touched by the solidarity”

Lisa (23) is doing a Master’s degree in Film and Media Studies. Her original plan for her Erasmus Semester in Bologna was to make new contacts, improve her Italian and explore the country.

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“I’ve heard the comment ‘I’ll bet you never expected that your international semester would look like this!’ from several people. And it’s true that I had a fairly precise idea about what I wanted to do during my Summer Semester in Bologna. I hoped to refresh my knowledge of Italian, to become better acquainted with my Italian roots, and to explore the country itself. All of that fell by the wayside. – Up to a few days ago, it was impossible even to go out for a walk. Nobody was allowed to leave home without good reason. And although I am studying for my Master’s degree in Film and Media Studies, and suddenly had all the time in the world to watch films on my laptop, it wasn’t long before I got bored with the program.

The coronavirus pandemic broke out a fortnight after the new semester began. For several weeks, I had no idea how my Erasmus Semester would work out – but lectures then resumed on March 9th – online. I was particularly touched by the sense of solidarity, not only among the students themselves, but also on the part of the lecturers, who readily discussed issues like deadlines and course requirements with us, and were aware of the effects of the psychological pressures that the whole situation brought with it.

My decision to remain in Italy was not made lightly. But I had sublet my own apartment and had no intention of spending several months in the role of couch surfer. Most importantly, my mother is currently undergoing chemotherapy, and I did not want to unwittingly put her at further risk. So after considering the situation from all angles, I decided it would be better to stay where I was.

I have the good fortune to live with a local family. Although I speak Italian, newsreaders sometimes speak too fast for me to keep up, and government decrees are sometimes difficult to understand because they are full of specialized terminology. A few days ago, shops and restaurants were allowed to re-open under strict conditions, and according to the current information (May 15th), travel within Italy, as well journeys into and out of the country, can be undertaken from June 3rd. So I now have time to reconsider whether I should stick to my original plan or return home – of course, the answer will also depend on decisions made in the Bundestag.”

I felt very close to my ‘unfamiliar’ neighbors

Konstantina Loulli (24) comes from Cyprus and is doing a Master’s degree in Intercultural Communication at LMU. Her Erasmus Semester in Madrid began in February.

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“The countrywide lockdown began on March 14th, exactly a month after I arrived. And every evening at 8, we all stood at our windows to applaud the work of caregivers, medical personnel and those responsible for essential services. So I felt very close to my unfamiliar neighbors. I don‘t know their names, but we say hello to each other every evening and ask one another how things are going. We have celebrated birthdays, played music, sung songs at the tops of our voices, exchanged food and much else. Every evening, I felt a strong sense of solidarity, which was very gratifying.

The fact that I lived with five other students when I first arrived is one reason why I have stayed in Madrid. In the beginning there were six of us, from four different countries. Now, only two of us are still here. The others decided to fly home in the early stages of the outbreak. I felt that the risk of being infected, or worse still bringing the virus home with me, was too high. Luckily, my Italian co-tenant and I got on very well from the start and, after 2 months, we have become very good friends.

At the outset of the lockdown, I thought I’d die of boredom and that the whole situation meant that I was ‘losing’ time. But my university program continued as usual, so I have been kept occupied. And it’s been possible to go for walks or engage in sports since last week. – Prior to that we were only allowed out to buy groceries or go to drugstores. I’m lucky enough to live beside a huge park, which makes my walks even more rewarding. We can now be outdoors from 6 to 10 AM and from 8 PM until 11 PM, which is a lot better than before. I think it should be possible to explore much of Madrid on foot, and I hope to be able to visit some of the city’s sights, at least those that are immediately accessible and not locked up.

I am pleased to be here and, on the whole, I believe I have made productive and creative use of my time here so far. Of course, there have been some difficult moments and bouts of low spirits, but that’s quite normal, in my view. That sort of thing would also happen if I weren’t in Madrid at the present time. After all, the whole world is in the same situation.”

“I never even considered returning home”

Raffaela is doing a Master’s degree in Sinology and has begun her second semester at Osaka University in Japan.

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“I very consciously decided to stay, because I wanted to make the most of this chance to live and study abroad, irrespective of the prevailing conditions. And to be honest, I regard the current situation in Japan as more favorable than that in Germany at present. Furthermore, in Germany I have only my Master’s thesis to look forward to, and for that I need a functioning university infrastructure – above all, access to libraries. That’s why I felt that it made more sense to stay here, improve my Japanese and enroll in a few courses.

Japan officially declared a state of emergency relatively late, although people had already begun to take their own precautions, staying at home and wearing face masks outdoors. Nevertheless, lots of people were out and about, especially in March for sakura, when the cherry trees were in flower. After the declaration of a state of emergency, Osaka turned into a ghost town. Even our campus, which is usually full of students, who are either learning, having a coffee or involved in the activities of their student clubs, was largely deserted.

Somewhat surprisingly, I have had little trouble following my courses. Some work very well online, others lose something in digital form. In spite of that, I’m learning a lot. When I’m not studying or doing assignments, I read, watch films, exercise in my room, or go for walks or on climbing trips. That’s still possible for individuals, provided one keeps one’s distance.

I live in a student hostel, so I have plenty of contacts among international as well as local students and, I must say, I feel pretty comfortable here. Some of my friends had wondered about going home, but the thought never occurred to me. In the meantime, I’ve learned to keep myself occupied. I still have friends here, and can get out into the open air regularly, so although the situation is unusual and I miss the usual bustle on campus und the trips into the city, but I don’t find the restrictions burdensome. Since the state of emergency was lifted on May 21st, there’s time to take stock of things. And if everything goes well, I’ll be able to travel a little at the end of my semester.