When Corona Ruins Your Plans
A Rucksack Full of Friendship and Independent Decisions
Three German Exchange Students Share Their Experiences
By Floria Herget participant of the eCommemoration Campus 2020
Every year many students decide to pack their life into a suitcase and spend a year abroad, living with a host family or in a boarding school. However the exchange students of the school year 2020/21 had a very different experience. Just as the last and most exciting months of the exchange year were starting the Corona virus had started to spread all over the world.

Suddenly, life abroad completely changed and many of the exchange students had to return to their home countries meaning the end of their one-time experience. Three exchange students talk about best decisions, feeling closer together and pain combined with self-reflection.
7 months in USA
"I learned to show gratitude"
Moritz, 18, was supposed to spend ten months in Saint Louis County, Missouri, USA. He lived in a host family and attended an American high school.
On March 13th, 2020, three months before his original departure date back home, Moritz got the information that in four days he had to return back to Germany.
"During these last four days I cried a lot, everything was falling apart, but these days also became some of the best days of my whole exchange year. I experienced so much love; it was incredible.

My friends organised a little prom for me because I was missing the real one, I had a party with my best friends, drove around the city with my host brothers and went to places I wanted to visit. They even planned a big surprise party for me, where so many people from my school came and I had the chance to say goodbye to all of them. When I left for the airport, I was overwhelmingly happy and deeply saddened at the same time!

It was not until I was sitting in the plane and it took off that I comprehended that my time here in America was over. After that I wasn't doing well at all, I was devastated. In this moment I really had troubles finding hope I was angry, sad and just feeling down. Germany was also in lockdown during that time, so I wasn't even able to see my friends when I returned home.
"All of it brought us even closer together"
In these difficult times I learned to show gratitude even in situations in which it seems like there is nothing to be grateful for. I had to go home early; however I had such an amazing time before. By that I don't mean toxic positivity and forcing happiness on yourself, but to show a realistic gratitude which gives you support in difficult times.

I also experienced in that time how caring and amazing people can be. Until that moment I didn't grasp how truly wonderful my friends were! They organized all these things for me, and all of it brought us even closer together. It was just so nice to really feel that people appreciate and care about you."
7 months in England
"The support of my family helped me a lot"
Lotte, 17, decided to spend ten months abroad in Suffolk, England. As a boarder she studied at Saint Felix School in Southwold. On the 18th March she flew home early.
"It all happened very fast. On Monday evening my parents called me and said, 'Lotte, you are flying home either tomorrow or the day after tomorrow'. It was a huge shock, because I didn't expect it at all, at least not that quickly.

My parents explained to me that borders might close in two or three days and that afterwards I would not be able to leave England. Therefore we made the decision that I take the plane on Wednesday. At least I would have one day to say goodbye to my close friends.

When I was boarding I was very sad especially because I couldn't say goodbye to all my friends. But in that moment I still thought, 'Fine, you are going home for three weeks, maybe five and then you will just come back and everything will go back to normal.'
"I needed it as a closure for myself"
I really didn't think it would be that long. In the end I missed a whole term, basically a third of my exchange year. A lot of time with my friends that I knew I wouldn't see again that easily was simply taken away from me.

In that time the support of my family helped me a lot to find hope. Until the last moment they assured me that if there was the possibility to go back I would, even if it was for only two weeks. In addition, I attended the English online school until the end of the year. I was still in all my classes and participated in the video conferences.

I didn't want the year to end this abruptly. I needed it as a closure for myself knowing that I at least attended the school until the end. In addition I saw my friends during the classes. I really think that was one of the best decisions I could have made."
10 months in Canada
"I enjoyed the wonderful moments I had"
Sophia, 17, spend 10 months in Victoria BC, on Vancouver Island.
She was able to stay in Canada during the pandemic but her exchange year was heavily affected by the pandemic as well.
"When it all really started, I think almost every exchange student saw the possibility of maybe getting sent home by our school or the organisation. I was scared too, but I just hoped that it would not happen.

I think it was Friday and I woke up to messages from my parents telling me that they just booked a flight for me in a few days. My parents, especially my mum, were scared that borders would close and that I would not be able to return home anytime soon, that I would be stuck in Canada.

At that time, I was missing my family a lot, especially under these circumstances. That was probably one of the reasons I was actually considering flying home.

In the end, the argument that convinced me to stay was that when this exchange year was over, it was over and I would never be able to have that kind of a life again. If I decided to go home now I would always ask myself "What if?" and regret my decision. I am so happy I decided not to fly home early, especially because in the end when restrictions lifted a bit I did have a nice time.
"I wrote myself to-do lists"
A lot of things for which I decided to go to Canada were not happening anymore, school was closed, and trips got cancelled. In general I just missed the summer on Vancouver Island, which I was so excited for. Usually, as long as I was occupied, I was happy but as soon as I remembered all the things I missed out on in my exchange year because of the pandemic I always got sad. Therefore, I wrote myself to-do lists of a minimum of things that I would have to do every day; it was a way for me to cope with this difficult situation.

I once heard an equation in a podcast that said, pain plus self-reflection would lead to growth. I agree with that. By finding a way to get through the difficult situation I grew stronger and more mature. I opposed my parents and convinced them to change the flight back from the one they had booked without discussing it with me beforehand. I would say, what happened obviously wasn't ideal.

Nobody wants anything like that happening in their exchange year. I missed out on a lot of things I know I will never get back. But at least I can say I made the best out of it and enjoyed the wonderful moments I had. And I'm proud of that!"
Credits: portraits private; header photo: Nea Matzen