Studying abroad is a rite of passage for many university students, and for some is a bucket list item that they have been eagerly awaiting.

This year, the students who were due to head on exchange were handed a scenario that no study abroad hopeful wants to face; a global pandemic, and no international travel.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the University of Canberra has been forced to rethink the future of student international exchange programs.

With international travel currently not permitted, and to keep students safe during a time of great uncertainty, many students have had to postpone their exchange or withdraw from the global learning program completely.

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All international travel is banned and exemptions are made on a case by case basis.

In February, UC’s Global Learning program sent an email notifying students in the program that their exchanges would not take place until next year.

However, at the beginning of September, a follow-up email was sent, informing students that they will have to wait until semester 2 of 2021, though it is expected that exchanges could be postponed again.

With no end to the pandemic in sight, UC says they are working with their partner universities to deliver the experience of virtual exchange. They are currently discussing how to navigate time zones and the challenge of replicating the social and cultural experience.

UC’s Global Learning office noted that a shift to the virtual aspect of exchanges would allow a greater number of students to benefit from a global learning program with institutions overseas.

“Studies show that students who undertake these experiences are often more motivated when they return home, which can lead to higher academic performance and a higher likelihood that they will complete their course,” they said.

For students who were on exchange when the pandemic hit, their experience is one of an entirely different nature.

Having experienced studying abroad, and getting the social and cultural exposure firsthand, these students had to decide whether they would return home or continue their exchange.

All UC students on the exchange were strongly encouraged to return to Australia but were provided with the relevant information so they were prepared if they decided to stay.

enoshima beach
Anja de Rozario at Enoshima beach.

Anja de Rozario, a Journalism and International Studies student at UC, was on exchange in Japan when the pandemic hit and chose to remain in Tokyo for the remainder of her exchange.

Anja, who has only recently returned to Australia, said she was provided with immense support from her host university, Tokyo Gakugei University, and the Japanese government.

“My university took really good care of me, they said they would extend my dorm lease, they even started the application process for a new visa for me.”

“The Japanese government did a lot better [than other countries] with exchange students, your visa was still considered valid if you couldn’t go home, you were given an allowance of $1000 AUD, there was a supplement for everyone, and exchange students weren’t excluded from that.”

Due to Japan’s excellent handling of the pandemic, the biggest challenge Anja faced was getting back to Australia. She said, “it was dumb luck and also a bit of begging the flight agent that got me here now.”

With many Australian students still stranded abroad and flight prices rising, those who have been able to get back have had to face many flight cancellations and long waiting periods.

tokyo skyline
Anja looks out over Tokyo’s skyline at night.

Anja’s flight was cancelled twice before she was able to get a flight out, and she says she has friends who are still waiting to get a flight back to Australia.

UC’s global learning program organisers have remained in contact with each student who has remained overseas and said they ‘applaud the tenacity of students who were caught in this scenario’.

The future of other global student programs are also growing increasingly uncertain as to the pandemic and the wait for a vaccine continues.

Many students have had to miss out on international study trips that would provide many professional, social, and cultural experiences to those partaking.

Each year, Dr. Shaun Cheah, a senior lecturer at UC and the discipline lead for the Communications and Media (Marketing Communication) degree, takes students on a study tour to Malaysia and Singapore annually.

“Until we have a vaccine, these types of programs won’t be able to go forward,” Dr. Cheah said.

Dr. Cheah also highlighted the benefit of the trips and the impact they have on the networking skills and career opportunities provided to students who were previously involved in the study tours.

He also noted that students have been able to use their professional connections made during the study tours to secure internships throughout their degrees, which later have led to careers within companies such as Nestle, Nissan, and Coca-Cola.

The benefits to students who partake in these programs are apparent, which is making universities adapt to ensure the academic, professional, and cultural benefits can still reach students, even during a global pandemic.

With the future of the programs remaining uncertain, students who wish to partake in a study abroad program will have to wait and will hopefully be able to take advantage of a virtual alternative soon.

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