Exchange during COVID-19: Students’ dream experience ‘torn apart’

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By Emma Sandri

On March 18, Veronika Wiszniewska flew home to Canada, donning a mask. 

The third-year graphic communications management (GCM) student was supposed to be spending her semester on exchange in Stuttgart, Germany—but her time abroad was abruptly cut short due to COVID-19. 

“One of the reasons I was the most reluctant to come home was that I just didn’t want to fly,” said Wiszniewska. “I didn’t want to sit in an airport for hours, go through the really long lines, sit in a plane of 8 ½ hours and be exposed to [COVID-19].”

On March 16, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters that Canada would be shutting down its border to non-Canadian citizens—with exceptions for permanent Candian residents, the immediate family members of Canadian citizens, diplomats and aircrews.

For Ryerson students who were supposed to spend their semester on exchange, the pandemic turned a dream opportunity into a mental and academic burden.

“I just [thought exchange would be] a really cool experience. I love travelling and I love getting the opportunity to learn things and experience things that I normally wouldn’t,” said Wiszniewska. 

Exchange plans ‘torn apart’

Wiszniewska arrived in Germany at the beginning of March to start her semester abroad, but she never actually got to attend any classes. 

“Over the two weeks that we were there, things changed so quickly,” she said.

While the novel coronavirus seemed like a distant concern at first, the spread of the virus quickly worsened. In the 4 ½  weeks since Italy first detected signs of an outbreak, the country has lost more than 8,000 people to the virus, according to the Washington Post. In Ontario, 170 cases were reported on March 26—bringing the province’s total to 858. 

Wisniewska said she started to receive multiple emails from Ryerson a day, keeping her updated on the situation abroad—and suggesting she come home. 

She says that at some point, she realized it might be a good idea to stock up on food, because the idea of having to self-isolate was starting to “become more of a reality.” 

“If we were to be stuck in our residence I needed to be prepared,” she said. “The thought of me coming home didn’t really occur to me. Just because I felt so secure in where I was.”

But the emails from Ryerson kept getting more urgent. 

“It basically became, ‘I strongly encourage you to come home,’” says second-year urban and regional planning student Nicholas Klymciw. 

Klymciw was staying in Cardiff, Wales, until he flew home on March 22. 

According to Klymciw, his exchange was “torn apart” in a matter of weeks. His planned trip to mainland Europe in April was altered, then cancelled—along with his exchange. 

“My exchange has essentially been cancelled. Cardiff [University] has gone completely online, just like Ryerson has. So I will still be completing the academic portion of my exchange back at my home, just outside of Toronto,” he said. 

“I’ve been looking forward to it for a year and I was, you know, anticipating a five-month, six-month long experience, but for that to be shortened to 2 ½ [months] is very unfortunate.”

As Wiszniewska explains, one of the reasons she chose to spend her exchange at Hochschule der Medien (HDM) in Stuttgart, was because it was the most affordable.

“It was something my family really supported, and we all worked really hard to make it happen,” she said. 

While HDM has confirmed they will be returning Wiszniewska’s school fee, she says she is going to get in contact with Ryerson to see if her tuition will be refunded—as she never got to start her semester. 

“We were able to get some financial support to get us home if we needed it,” she said. She also noted that Ryerson specified there will be information in the future regarding how students can get some of their other expenses covered. 

Klymciw says that after initially denying his refund requests, Cardiff University has agreed to give him back residence fees for the time he will miss—because he left almost three months early. 

As for his trip, the travel company gave him a credit to use before December 2021. “Unless I wish to lose a lot of money I will be back in Europe sometime in the next year-and-a-half,” he wrote. 

Coming home 

Klymciw says he initially wasn’t planning on returning home after receiving an email from Ryerson which strongly encouraged students abroad to return. Instead, he emailed the university to ask if he had to return, to which Ryerson said the choice was still up to him. 

“I was facing more pressure from my academic exchange manager,” he said. “He sent me a couple of emails under the assumption that I was coming home, but I said that I still [wanted] to stay for the time being.”

According to Klymciw, his advisor sent him another email with a quote from Trudeau, which urged Canadians abroad to come back to the country.“Eventually, I made the decision that it’s time to come home,” said Kylmciw, adding that he felt relief after finally making his decision.

“The fact that Ryerson couldn’t give a straight answer isn’t surprising to me,” said Wiszniewska. “No one knows what’s going to happen tomorrow or what’s gonna happen in an hour. So I think they handled things pretty well.” 

In an email to The Eye, Ryerson International—which manages student exchange and mobility programs—confirmed that students on exchange have the choice whether to return home. 

“We have done our best to strongly urge all community members abroad to return to Canada. These are adults, we should remember, and the decision is ultimately theirs to make. We are working around the clock to provide as much information as possible to allow individuals to make informed decisions,” they wrote, adding that they’ve sent out 19 emails to community members informing them on how to stay safe, and how they can support them.

While Klymciw will be continuing his classes for Cardiff University online, in Ontario, other students like Wiszniewska will have to retake their entire semester.

Two weeks after her arrival, Wiszniewska said the university pushed the semester’s start date from March 16 to April 20. 

“We were all kind of waiting for that to happen and then obviously, before [we got to start], it got a lot worse and we were forced to go home,” she said. “[I] didn’t get any credits or anything, because we didn’t officially do any classes there.” 

As Wiszniewska explains, her program is hands-on and requires students to physically be at school to complete course-work. 

She hopes to be able to return to HDM later, to pick up where she left off. 

“Just a lot of feelings and a lot of disappointment,” she said. “It was only two weeks, but I do feel really different…It just sucks…knowing that I’m missing out on so many different experiences.” 

While students abroad continue to come home, Ryerson International says that “decisions” regarding the status of Fall 2020 exchanges are “forthcoming.”

“Right now our focus is on supporting students who are trying to return home, whether that is Canada or another country. We continue to monitor the global situation every day,” they wrote.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated Wiszniewska was studying at the University of Stuttgart.

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