Studying Abroad in the Time of COVID-19

Authored by:
CIEE Toulouse

CIEE Toulouse

Based on an interview of Mia Merk, CIEE Gap student in Fall 2020 (September 28-December 19) in Toulouse, France

As early as her Junior year of High School, Mia had decided to travel to France for a Gap year after completing High School in California. Unlike her schoolmates, the prospect of going to college right away did not appeal to her, on top of not knowing precisely what she wanted to study. Mia felt that focusing on improving her French in France was a better use of her time and a great way to educate herself by experiencing the meanders of cultural adaptation.    

Like everyone else, the outbreak of Covid 19 took her by surprise and shook her determination to travel. Also, she did not think that any program was likely to host US students during the pandemic. Instead, she started to look for a job.

In the meantime, CIEE decided to shorten their semester-long programs to under 90 days to avoid what appeared to be a long and complex visa request process. This new plan got Mia thinking and re-considering her initial travelling plan as a possibility. She reflected that she might feel safer in France than in the US where case numbers were rocketing. She believed that she had “less of a chance to get Covid in France” and appreciated the fact that the French government “takes care of its people and takes more action than the US government”.

Mia has been in France for over two months now and, in retrospect, part of her wonders if it were a little irresponsible to travel during the pandemic! When President Macron announced second lock down starting October 30 , she started thinking that this was karma and that she had been fishing for trouble. She had in mind the first lock down in the US, during which time she had felt her mental health decline. Was this French version going to have a similar effect? Was a “confinement” as different from a lock down as it linguistically sounded to be?  

To start with, unlike the first month of the program, “I had strong feelings of homesickness”, Mia admits. And when that happened “I could not go hangout with friends anymore”. The timing of the lock down unfortunately coincided with Presidential Election in the US. The fatigue of staying up late to follow the nerve-racking suspense of ballot counting added to her stress.

However, this is only one part of the story. The country has now been locked down for a little more than a month and Mia still sees great value in what her experience has taught her so far. For one thing, she has developed a very close relationship with her host family than she would have otherwise; in the context of the one-hour authorized walk every day, she has gone to places she had not explored when she could move freely around Toulouse. During one of these walks, she had a long discussion with her host mother about love and marriage. “Now we are friends”, Mia realizes.

As far as students’ schedule was concerned, CIEE managed to continue with the same one as before the lock down. Except it all shifted online. Students have continued with intensive French classes every morning at Alliance Française for three hours. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday afternoons have been devoted to cultural activities as well as an intercultural course. So far, students have participated in several cuisine workshops; with the help of their host families, they gathered all needed ingredients and utensils and cooked while watching online demonstrations from an expert guest. They have also attended several sessions on art, they did a couple virtual visits of Toulouse museums and got some practice in basic drawing. They also had a session on contemporary French song scene and one on the role and place of hip hop in the country. 

Needless to say that this did not go without challenges and pushed us de facto to be creative. Our technological skills were definitely put to the test! All the same, students have deeply enjoyed all CIEE offered and Mia insisted that the presence and support of staff has been particularly meaningful in this period of time. For us, it remained quite important to stay connected, to feed their curiosity and meet their need for learning.

Undoubtedly, it takes unusual students to travel during a pandemic. As much as we try to prepare students and monitor their expectations prior to travelling, we know that the better armed students are those that have the skills to manage, work around and eventually benefit from the unexpectable. This could not be truer than in the uncertainty area we are living these days.

Mia acknowledges that she has grown a lot and that her self-assurance has tremendously been boosted. “I can do anything afterwards” she firmly commented. In this context “you really need to push yourself”.

The current context has also allowed for some cultural discoveries.  Even though Mia regrets that the lock down and its implementation came up brutally, she believes “this was the right thing to do”; but also that such a national regulation applying likewise to all parts of the country would be “impossible in the US!”

Mia also had plenty of opportunities to reflect on French sense of law (or thereof lack of!) as she observed what the French around her were making of government covid-19 measures. Only two days after lock down announcement, her host family invited guests over for lunch! Her host family has complained about having to wear a mask; they do not seem worried about health, Mia explained with affectionate irony, but rather about the possibility of getting a fine, thus identifying one of French favorite sports of systematically questioning and challenging authority.

All in all, Mia feels her study abroad has been largely positive and that it has provided the education she was seeking. The experience turned out to be quite different from what she had expected but shouldn’t this be the case of any study abroad?

Of course, it would be a huge twisted stretch and intellectual dishonesty to conclude that the pandemic has created the right conditions for an immersive experience! For one thing we first need students and schools to regain confidence in travelling for them to have any experience at all. However, Mia’s and her friends’ experience in Toulouse this semester show that, even in this context, students can have an enriching cultural experience, one that allows for intimate human relationships. Mia’s host parents have made her promise to come back at a better time to show her areas outside Toulouse.

Mia has planned to go studying in Prague after this semester. When asked if the context of her current study abroad had put a damp on her enthusiasm to continue travelling, she replied “not at all, without any hesitations, it is even more exciting to go!”

For now, she is going to take advantage of the recent relaxation of measures to go Christmas shopping.

A post by Isabelle Jaffe, CIEE Toulouse Center Director

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