As lockdown in Ireland drags on, the frenzy of college and school closures last month now seems a distant memory.
But, while Trinity students in Dublin were scrambling to empty lockers, book flights home and clear out accommodation, another cohort – students abroad – were quietly dealing with their own problems.
While students in Italy – at the time the global epicentre of the coronavirus – received some media attention, conversations with students elsewhere in the world reveal that they were largely left unnoticed as the crisis deepened. Many Trinity students on exchange witnessed the crisis unfold in places hardest hit by the virus, and found themselves trying to get home safely while also navigating the question of how their studies and assessments would be affected by college closures.
Kate Collins, a student of history and politics who was on a study abroad programme in Georgetown University in Washington DC, recalls that the number of cases rose rapidly as students were on spring break.
“There were rumours before we went on spring break that the campus wouldn’t be re-opening, but at that stage, DC actually hadn’t had any cases. So I was like: ‘This is just scaremongering’”, she says. “And then as I was away, things were getting worse and worse in DC. There was a pastor in Georgetown who was diagnosed with coronavirus like two days after he had had a massive mass and shook everyone’s hand and gave people communion and stuff.”
I know about 10 people now who have coronavirus or had it. It was just so intense, the amount of people we all knew who had it
In recent weeks, the US has overtaken China and Italy as the country with the most coronavirus cases. But European countries haven’t escaped either: Lucy Sherry, a history student who was on Erasmus in Barcelona, says being in Spain – which has the second-highest number of cases worldwide – was “really, really scary”.
“Barcelona was awful to see. just because I know about 10 people now who have coronavirus or had it. It was just so intense, the amount of people we all knew who had it. It was way worse than Ireland in that sense.”
Both students say communicating with their host universities is proving challenging. In Collins’s case, operations in Georgetown are five hours behind Dublin, and Sherry is receiving all of her correspondence in Catalan.
“All my professors are only in the office and I email them and they reply eight hours later”, Collins says. “And then I reply and then I have to wait till the next day or whatever.”
Sherry says: “There’s still a bit of a language barrier between me and the college because they send out all their emails in Catalan. They do send translated emails a few days later, but it is a little bit confusing.”
Students in host universities with different academic year structures to Trinity are in a particularly tricky situation, as delays to their academic year could result in an overlap with the start of their final year back in Trinity. In Germany, the summer semester is due to start around now and continue until August, but most Irish Erasmus students usually go home in late July to avoid such a clash.
Niall Alsafi, a student of economics and German, was due to start the summer semester in the University of Cologne on April 6th, but the university repeatedly pushed back the start of term as the virus spread.
“They were kind of like: ‘Oh, well we’re gonna just extend the starting date further and further back.’ They kept pushing it back and [gave us] no real clear info. Eventually I got an email from Trinity and they basically asked me to come back. So I was like here, I think I’m just gonna come back.”
Landlords in Europe were not really understanding of the whole situation. A lot of them were just worried about the contract
“Then luckily enough about two days later the university actually recommended all international students go home”, he says. But this brought its own set of problems: “Landlords in Europe were not really understanding of the whole situation. A lot of them were just worried about the contract.”
Alsafi is now unlikely to get his €400 deposit back after he cut short his contract: “I just kind of left it, because I just think at the moment there’s no point trying to sort anything out. Everything is just kind of up in arms at the moment.”
Beyond monetary matters, students who had to suddenly leave their rental accommodation to return home now face the problem of the belongings they had to leave behind. With most airlines only operating a fraction of their usual flights, flying back to clear out an apartment is currently out of the question.
Kathleen Jones, a computer science student on exchange in the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, brought only a small suitcase of her belongings when she returned home between semesters. Everything else she brought for her year-long exchange is still in her flat in Munich.
When she left Munich, Jones says, “life was going on as normal. You’d see an odd mask on public transport but that was it. So when I left on the 14th of February, I had my student accommodation, still, so I left all of my stuff basically in situ”.
“So a lot of my coats, socks, jumpers, books, photographs – loads of stuff is just gathering dust in that flat in Munich for the moment and I’m still trying to figure out how to get it back. That’s kind of my next big task is trying to figure out how to get that safely over here again, but I don’t know if I can”, she says.
Some students are attempting to claw back what they can of the Erasmus experience even with the universities closed. Fiona Molloy, a law and German student whose family home is in Freiburg in south-west Germany, intends to return to Berlin soon where her host university is, so she can work remotely from her accommodation there.
A lot of my coats, socks, jumpers, books, photographs – loads of stuff is just gathering dust in that flat in Munich for the moment
“The reason why I’m going back to Berlin is because a big part of the whole Erasmus experience is to just be in that city and be in that place or whatever and experience the whole thing. It’s kind of sad that that’s not really an option anymore, so I guess I just want to be in Berlin for the rest of the semester.”
Iain Gallagher, a BESS student who was supposed to be going on exchange in Heidelberg, never made it to Germany at all. His semester was due to start on April 19th, by which time most of Europe had been in near lockdown for several weeks.
“I kind of still say ‘supposed to be going to Heidlberg’ with a little bit of hope I might get out there by the end of the semester or something like that”, he says. “I kind of realised mid-February that this isn’t going to happen, really. So it’s just been a bit of a nightmare.”
Most students, it seems, have acknowledged that Trinity have done their best to assist students abroad, given the extraordinary circumstances. Collins remarks: “I generally thought the College’s response was really good – they were mostly like: ‘Guys, just focus on getting home and we’ll check with academics later.’”
“I think initially I can’t really blame them”, she adds. “It’s a crazy time for everyone.”
But Trinity’s administration wasn’t without cracks – Sherry notes that friends of hers from Edinburgh had a much easier time navigating the next steps when they returned home from Barcelona: “Edinburgh were so much better than Trinity in asking them if they were going to go home or stay or if they wanted to terminate their Erasmus. So they kind of had a clearer vision.”
Collins says students abroad were essentially forgotten about when it came to Trinity’s measures for assessments in the current circumstances.
I kind of still say ‘supposed to be going to Heidlberg’ with a little bit of hope I might get out there by the end of the semester
She explains: “I just have my assessments as normal with Georgetown. I was really hoping for no detriment … but all they’ve done basically is say that you can change your grading to pass/fail until the end of term, but Trinity as far as I know converts a grade of a pass back as a 40, so obviously I’m not going to do that.”
“And then Trinity has unveiled all of these policies to make everyone sitting their exams in Trinity easier, but that really leaves exchange students at the short end of the stick because we can’t avail of sitting the assessments in August if we’re not happy with our grades now.”
“And at the end of the day”, she adds, “we are Trinity students, but we’re not being helped by these new policies, so that is frustrating”.
All round, it’s a disappointing way to end what is, for most Erasmus students, a highlight of their college experience. But, as Gallagher points out, they are counting their blessings too: “I suppose you have to put it into perspective when you look at all the shit going on.”