A University Year Abroad During a Pandemic

Second Year of University Plans

So, where to begin? During my second year (late November 2019) at university, a deadline was set for students to submit their year abroad travel plans. Study or work. The choice was simple. The coronavirus, although wildly reported on the news, was something of a distant worry for those living in China to solve. It did not take long for us to discover, that this virus was more than something China alone could make evaporate. Forget plans to travel abroad, plans to even get to university were challenged. Lockdown on the 23rd of March 2020 should have put me off making any travel plans. Options were given to interrupt my year, go straight to final year or risk planning everything only to be required to return before the end of first term in the event of another lockdown where it was deemed unsafe to stay abroad. As a logical person, who does not take risks, I chose the third option. I signed my contract with the school I was allocated to work with by the British Council on the 8th of May 2020. I was set. There was no going back now, extraordinary circumstances or not, a contract is a contract.

Dotting the I’s and Crossing the T’s

Of course, embarking on the journey was not easy to do. Regardless of the measures put in place, COVID-19 was still a constant all through summer. Arranging travel insurance was a last-minute thing. It had to be. Without this insurance however, I could not travel early to view any apartment. Luckily, the agency I worked with were extremely kind and blocked my apartment a month before I even paid the deposit. Having not viewed the property, having it removed from the agency’s website and not paying a dime for this service…it really was too good to be true. Luckily after a quick LinkedIn search and cross-checking numbers with the website, I was able to settle my mind that it was not a scam and celebrated by enjoying the August sun in my parents’ garden.

November Blues? Not when you have applications to send…!

My first week in Switzerland was beautiful. The sun was still shining, and I enjoyed reading Donna Leon novels by the local pond. I could not believe that I was finally on my year abroad despite a global pandemic haunting everyone’s behaviour. Having a routine was just as important, especially through the November months, where apparently most year abroad students end up feeling lonely. As an aspiring solicitor however, this time is crucial for application sending!

I made lots of friends from the agency who helped arrange our schools we worked in. There were numerous group chats to join on WhatsApp as well, where British Council and Movetia assistants would arrange hikes or excursions around St. Gallen. I clearly was not the only one who decided to take up a year abroad during a pandemic!

… and Glühwein!

One day I spotted the Glühwein hut, got myself a drink and started chatting to a local. There are positives to being a Londoner in a European country, where everyone is so curious about life in the big city. Of course, the conversation started with COVID-19, as all conversations do these days. “How’s the weather?” has become more of a rhetorical question now. Once the gloomy conversation ended – all in German of course – he introduced me to his Goddaughter who is studying Medicine at a prestigious university in Italy. I finally made another local friend – Anna!

So, it is safe to say that these months went incredibly fast. On the weekend of the week I left Switzerland for England for the Christmas holidays, the UK introduced more stringent rules for travellers. I was lucky, yet again, as I had the chance to spend the holidays with my family.

Online Teaching – Teams Edition

Coming back to Switzerland was made even more difficult due to the rise in cases over the Christmas break. Countries were introducing new quarantine measures like Willy Wonka handing out chocolate in his chocolate factory. Some countries had a 7-day quarantine period for returns, some 10, others 28. Regardless, schools turned online. The joys of online teaching(!) I think it is safe to say, that for the first month after the Christmas Holidays, teaching was difficult. Sometimes I would stare at a black screen because no one wanted to put their cameras on. It lasted for only 1 month. Funny how one month of working entirely from home seems like a walk in the park nowadays! Safe to say, I had an amazing set of students, who despite the odd non-existent face on Teams, still persevered and engaged with the learning.

Red Tape - Brunetti Style

My luck in terms of quarantine, although still aflame was dimming down. On the day I was due to travel back for a 10-day quarantine in Switzerland, I found out that if I had travelled just a couple days later, it could have been only 7. This was the beginning of February, where rules were flip-flopping between countries. I came back to a very quiet Switzerland. Non-essential shops were closed, non-essential items in big stores like Migros, were bordered off with plastic tape and a laminated note on why we cannot buy these items. It was like these items were cordoned off for an investigation as part of a crime scene in a Donna Leon novel. The already quiet Sundays turned into Ghost Towns.

Shops, hikes and Zürich

Well, that was until 8th of March 2021. I am pleased to say, that on this day shops opened, restaurants were offering takeaways, and everything seemed normal. No slow transition, just full-on shopping and people behaving just as they would if there was no pandemic. In fact, I even went to the shops that Saturday and could not believe the number of people out and about.

I started going out with my friends on hikes, explored cities like Zürich and visited new places since then. It all seems, at least until this moment, like a close to normal year abroad. Yes, perhaps I have skipped the skiing for this year, which is quite a bummer. Having left my kit in Austria – a place I frequently travel to as a Ski Instructor, I would need a negative test result and quarantine for 10 days just to get it. Instead, I have used those weekends attending online events, doing online courses, entering online competitions. It is not the same as skiing, but it is a good way to do something constructive when you have left your skis in another country during a pandemic and flip-flopping quarantine rules.

Back to England for Easter?

Now, what is my next step? Well, my plans have not changed to return to London for Easter. I have managed to travel back and forth until now with no problem. I was not called back to England during my first term, so this year, I am pleased to say, does count! And yes, my year abroad is not filled with Beer Fests, Christmas Markets or Carnivals, but I am lucky to even have it at all. Thank you UCL for not cancelling University Year Abroad! For that I should be proud. Given the fact that society events are also online, I am not missing out on uni life either. So how is my year abroad during a pandemic? My answer is…as well as it could have been given the circumstances.

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