Last year, in the midst of a global pandemic, eight out of 13 T4 study abroad programs were forcefully cancelled due to tightening restrictions around the world, sending many students’ plans into disarray. However, after a whole year of exposure, everyone has gradually adapted to COVID-19, including universities and governments, giving room for a new “normal” in these abnormal times. Fortunately for Wellesley students, this means the process of applying for a study abroad program has just become much less volatile than those applying a mere six months ago.
Even before COVID-19 emerged in the US, Maggie Brandes ’22 and Jennie Kim ‘22 knew they wanted to study abroad during their time at Wellesley. While Brandes was aiming for a dual degree at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Kim wanted an opportunity to reacquaint herself with her Korean culture. By delaying their plans of studying abroad to their senior year, both were able to avoid the worst of COVID-19 and its resulting travel constraints. However, this didn’t mean there weren’t challenges. For both, obtaining travel visas and responding to local COVID-19 policies became difficult obstacles in their plans to study abroad.
“When I was accepted to the program, [they told me] to apply for [my] visa right away, because it can take a very long time… The document packet was [very] thick because they wanted triplicate copies of all these different papers and a printed out version of your curriculum [etc.],” Brandes said, who is currently in Geneva.
What made matters worse was that the cantons, or states, in Switzerland often had different policies than the country’s central government.
“There were a lot of documents that I had to send to the federal government, but then also other [documents] that [were] going to the Geneva government,” Brandes said. “I had to put a letter in there that was like ‘If you’re getting this in the federal government, this is for Geneva, don’t just throw them out because you don’t know what they’re for.’”
Although Korea did not have two sets of policies, things were equally as hard for Kim because of her recent citizenship transferral. Since the government of South Korea does not allow dual citizenship, Kim decided to transfer to an American passport right when COVID-19 hit. With the impact of the pandemic, her citizenship status became stuck in an unprocessed hiatus.
“I had to give up my Korean citizenship, but apparently that process was going to take three months,” Kim, who is currently in Korea, said. “Without [the transition of citizenship] in the system yet, I couldn’t apply for a visa, and [to apply for a] visa, I had to book a reservation with the consulate of Korea in Boston… and because of the limited amount of openings to begin with, getting the reservation was also really hard.”
Both Brandes and Kim were able to obtain their visas by beginning the official application process long before their programs began. However, for both countries hosting study abroad programs, the COVID policies enacted were drastically different from those in the US. In Korea, for example, a personal QR code must be scanned in all places to track close contacts for COVID-19 cases, amongst other policies.
“When I first came here, no more than two people could meet at a time, so that was hard because that is like saying you can only meet with one person at a time,” Kim said. “The regulations [are] actually frequently changing, and it’s been hard for me to keep up with if I don’t keep my eyes glued to the news.”
The legitimacy of the official vaccination card provided by the American government was also questioned by Korean business owners.
“[Since] I got my vaccination in America, the restaurant owners have been very reluctant to let foreigners in, especially because the document is just a floppy piece of paper,” she said. “It doesn’t look legitimate, so precautions [are being taken] by restaurant owners because they don’t want [to risk] the chance.”
On the other hand, the policies in Switzerland have been much more relaxed.
“Geneva had their own tighter restrictions, but now they’ve decided to get rid of their specific restrictions and just go with their general [federal] guidelines because the situation is improving,” Brandes said.
This would have been a greatly different scenario, however, if they were applying for their programs last year. For Grace Chen ‘24, who wanted to go to Copenhagen in the midst of COVID-19, everything was much more chaotic. Though Chen was initially optimistic, her program to Denmark eventually got cancelled. However, she was able to switch programs to Greece. But things didn’t exactly play out the way she expected. Not only was Chen tested at the airport, but she also had to quarantine for a week upon arrival. When she exited her apartment, she was legally bound to text both her address and her reason for activity to the government every two to three hours.
“Masks were mandatory in every building and on the streets, and there was curfew [that] got pushed back [from 6:30 onwards.],” Chen elaborated.
This year, programs have largely switched back to being in-person.
“By the [Spring of 2020] people knew how to control the pandemic more…. The vaccines weren’t out [yet] but it felt a little more controlled because people knew more of what was happening…[and although my study abroad program] got delayed, I am here,” Kim declared.
This doesn’t mean that everything has returned to normal for these programs.
“There are still remote options for students who can’t get to Geneva right now, but…in-person classes [still require] masks, and my student apartment will also require masks in the common spaces,” Brandes ’22 remarked
Although COVID-19 has made normal things seem strange and strange things seem normal, students are still extremely excited for the opportunity to study abroad. And with a full-campus this year at Wellesley, students are finding a new “normal” in the post-pandemic world.