Martha is currently on her year abroad in Bamberg, a town in Northern Bavaria, Germany.
More than six months after the outbreak of COVID-19, life has changed in innumerable ways. As summer waned and a new term began, students faced alterations in university life, teaching, and exams - but something that also hung in the balance was the fate of those embarking on their year abroad.
The year abroad has been, for some, entirely swallowed up in the chaos of this year. Many universities chose to suspend the year abroad requirement due to the tremendous difficulties students experienced in the wake of the pandemic, as flights were cancelled, work placements rescinded, and internships moved online. Other institutions have at least reduced the number of months students must spend in their target country in order to accommodate for these complications. And yet the Erasmus programme still stands.
While most German universities have moved their teaching online, with students given the option to attend their courses from home, Erasmus has emerged from the pandemic relatively unscathed, with students permitted to fly out to their universities, take up residence there, and complete their study programme as originally planned.
Especially with Germany boasting far fewer coronavirus cases than other countries, studying here is thankfully still possible and arguably much more preferable than remaining at home - but Erasmus still looks very different this year.
What have we lost as Erasmus students in the time of Coronavirus?
Perhaps what first springs to mind is the effect of Germany’s recently-introduced lockdown. With restaurants and bars closed until December - and perhaps beyond - socialising with other students has become a lot more difficult. It also means there are fewer opportunities to enjoy a night out and sample the local cuisine. With rules reducing social interactions to small groups and only two households, getting to know both fellow Erasmus students and locals is more of a challenge (we are, for instance, unable to practice the infamous ritual of lengthily making eye contact when toasting Germans before enjoying a beer). This certainly makes the beginning of the year abroad feel slightly more intimidating.
Coronavirus guidelines also mean a lack of sightseeing opportunities; it isn’t quite as easy to get stuck into German culture with social distancing measures in place. Additionally, with travel severely restricted to prevent the spread of infection, we are unable to easily visit our friends completing study exchanges or work placements in other regions of Germany.
The experience of studying itself has also been drastically altered. In-person teaching arguably offers a higher standard of education, allowing us to concentrate more easily and remain motivated, something which can be tougher with hours spent in online seminars. The social aspect of learning has suffered now that classes are virtual, meaning we have sacrificed an ‘authentic’ German university experience (even if this simply means we miss out on the spectacle of banging on tables after a lecture finishes). As international students, we have faced huge challenges and near-constant uncertainty about our study programmes in Germany and even our ability to return home. With the added complications of government restrictions, quarantine requirements, and testing, the already demanding task of moving abroad and settling into student life has only been made more challenging during the pandemic.
Erasmus in the time of COVID-19 has evidently taken a huge blow. Yet perhaps there are advantages to such a unique situation. With fewer opportunities to socialise we gain time to comfortably settle into student life in Germany: there is certainly less pressure to go out, reducing the risk of feeling like we are missing out on exciting plans. Virtual teaching means no mad rush to get to classes and less stress in navigating new buildings, sparing us from a lot of the worries that usually come with starting university.
Crucially, as Erasmus students we still have the chance to go abroad, as well as the funding that enables us to live and study here. This means we are granted the most fundamental parts of a year abroad, as we can experience German culture and improve our language skills. Despite the ever-changing rules, heightened anxieties, and the seemingly boundless stream of paperwork required to begin our study programmes, we at least have the opportunity to do so.