German students defy coronavirus to study abroad

Thousands of German students head abroad every year — but university experience and exchange programs have altered beyond recognition in the pandemic. With term starting, DW spoke to students who chose to stay overseas. 

“Student life just came to a sudden stop,” says Celal, a German student at Columbia Business School in New York. “I am doing fine adjusting to the new situation — but obviously it’s not going to be the same again.” 

Celal is one of at least 134,000 German students who make the leap to study abroad each year. The US is a popular destination, but the majority who study abroad do so through the European Union’s ERASMUS exchange program, staying within the visa-free EU, which included the UK until January 2020. There were over 13,000 German students in the UK in 2019 and at least 9,000 in the US.

The coronavirus pandemic caused university life to move largely online in the middle of the spring semester, dramatically changing campus life. While some students returned to their families in Germany ahead of lockdown, others chose to stay on. With the autumn semester about to begin, they have been forced to make difficult decisions about whether to remain abroad in places with higher rates of coronavirus than Germany. 

Read more: Canceled by COVID-19, US-German exchange students face an uncertain future

Academic challenges 

Amid the uncertainty of a second coronavirus wave, one thing is for sure: Classes themselves will look entirely different this semester. 

“The university is planning a hybrid model — partly online, partly in-person classes,” explains Alexandra from Wiesbaden, a Sustainable Development student at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. This approach is typical of most universities in the UK and the US. 

“I have the advantage that I am a social scientist, so I don’t need to go to the laboratory or anything. I think that would be really difficult,” Alexandra adds. 

For Daniel from Stuttgart, a researcher at the UK’s Sheffield Hallam University going into the second year of his Ph.D. in Sports Engineering, the laboratory and equipment are far more vital. 

“We won’t be allowed back in the normal office and lab space will be restricted to one person at a time,” Daniel says. “So there won’t be many opportunities for chats and exchanges with other researchers — which is something I really enjoyed.” 

Daniel Haid, the German student ambassador in the UK (Privat)

Daniel is among those whose student lives changed dramatically

Even students who are able to do their work from home are anticipating a difficult semester. Vincent, from Bremen, is on a Master’s program in Visual Arts at the University of Chicago in the US with funding from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).

“We lost studio access and are forced to work from home which can have a big impact on our artistic development,” Vincent says. “It is not necessarily a bad thing — but many people in my program are unable to produce art and express themselves like they normally do.” Vincent also mentioned a lack of resources from the university for students forced to work from home. 

Read more: How Germany is helping international students in times of coronavirus

Loneliness is common 

But students going abroad often do so for reasons other than academics. 

“Suddenly there were no more campus activities or student initiatives,” Celal explains. “Before, this was a huge component of my experience here in the US.” 

Based in New York, Celal stayed in the pandemic-stricken city during spring, barely leaving his apartment for five months. Even once the lockdown was lifted, most of Celal’s fellow students and friends were not in the city and he still mostly remains at home. The worst-hit state in the country, New York has recorded over 32,000 deaths from coronavirus. 

“I do not regret staying here,” Vincent in Chicago says, “Even though it is very lonely because many of the students from our group of 16 [on the program] left the city.” He is not sure if everyone will be returning in September. 

Alexandra, who is entering the final year of her Bachelor’s degree in Scotland, is more optimistic about the upcoming semester. 

“I think it will be difficult for people who are just starting university — people who haven’t learnt how to work independently, or are not as confident to ask questions,” she reflects, considering the impact of online student life for students. “And it might be difficult to make friends. But I think I am well-prepared.”

Moving online 

The UK and the US may have seen higher numbers of coronavirus cases and longer and more intense lockdowns than Germany, but students report that their universities were better prepared to move online than German institutions may have been. 

“We already regularly worked with lots of online software, so we were ready. I have the feeling that German universities are not so great with that,” Alexandra says. She briefly considered taking a semester off, but decided even in the event of a second lockdown in the UK she could still complete her degree working online. 

Celal also managed to take on a summer internship in New York with his university as planned — entirely online. He thinks the university was better-prepared for digitalization than German universities were. 

But Vincent, the art student, says his course will only work if his cohort can meet face to face. 

“Zoom classes just don’t work for art,” he says.

Read more: Coronavirus: Foreign students on online courses are denied visas to Germany

Will fewer students study abroad? 

The DAAD estimates that because of the pandemic more students will choose to stay in Germany. Statistics compiled by the British Council show that fewer EU students, including Germans, are heading to the UK this fall — but that trend may have more to do with increased student fees owing to Brexit than the pandemic. 

“Fundamentally, the ERASMUS program is going ahead as planned in the fall semester,” says Michael Flacke of DAAD. “We still have a large number of applicants and interest — but, of course, we cannot predict how student life will look in each European country in the case of fresh coronavirus restrictions.” 

And many university exchanges to the US have been canceled — Flacke said fewer German students will be leaving Europe.

But even for German students abroad for whom visas and funding are already secured, the situation is not any more transparent. 

“It’s been an interesting time and having this change of perspective has been very fruitful,” Vincent says. But he is still anxious, as he comes out of four months of near-complete isolation in a foreign country. “I can’t wait for term to start,” he admits.


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