Lessons from studying abroad during pandemic

Photo collage of three students
Pictured from top, clockwise: Julia Wilkinson ’21 in Australia, Sophie Dubois ’21 in New Zealand and Sydney Murphy ’21 in Germany

Students managed, embraced experience of adapting to unknown

When the impact of the pandemic began to hit worldwide in spring 2020, there were 90 Wheaton College students studying abroad. The staff in the Center for Global Education worked with each student individually and offered them the option to continue their studies abroad (even if remote), provided that they felt safe to do so and their study abroad program or institution allowed it.

While most returned home to finish their courses remotely, about a dozen decided to stay overseas to complete the semester.

“I know all Wheaton students were impacted last March, but the experience of our students around the world truly was next-level. They were resilient and resourceful as they faced the unknown really well,” said Alida Gomez, associate director of the Center for Global Education, which aims to meet all of these goals through the college’s study abroad programs.

(On March 4, Forbes featured a story about precautions to keep students safe while traveling and studying abroad and featured comments from Gretchen Young, dean for the Center for Global Education.)

We asked a few of Wheaton students to share their experiences. (These students are back on campus for in-person learning this semester.)

Sydney Murphy ’21

Neuroscience and German studies double major
Studied abroad at University of Regensburg in Germany

“During the outbreak of COVID-19, I was studying at the University of Regensburg. I improved my language proficiency, took courses in neuroscience and remained attentive to the cultural differences in my surroundings while occasionally staying in the homes of locals. The feeling of wonder I encountered when in quarantine in a foreign country was an indescribable moment of truth. I experienced the contrasting response to the pandemic of European countries compared to that of the U.S. I brought back activities for the German Club at Wheaton in an effort to expand awareness and understanding of the unique aspects of German culture to Wheaton students. I will continue to use storytelling and cultural awareness to make connections between cultures and to spread cultural awareness in my graduate school experience and future career.”

Sophie Dubois ’21

Anthropology major
Studied abroad at University of Auckland in New Zealand

Sophie Dubois Class of 2021“It was really interesting and weird studying abroad during the pandemic. I had elected to stay in New Zealand with my three roommates from France instead of going home to be with my family. Together we made the best of it, by baking French goodies, me teaching them how to make fried rice and watching several Netflix shows, including ‘The Good Place.’ It was rough for all of us because we had to stay in our tiny apartment together, but we made it through together and we saw the end of lockdown. To celebrate we went to Piha Beach, which is one of the most exquisite beaches in New Zealand.

“I think the major challenge was having to be restrictive inside, but fortunately our apartment was right next to the biggest city park in Auckland, so I would go and walk there every day. The main thing that helped me throughout the pandemic was to be adaptable. Throughout the experience things kept changing very fast, I found that I needed to be adaptable if I was going to get through the pandemic away from home. In the end, I’m happy to have chosen New Zealand. After four weeks of lockdown, things went back to almost normal and I was able to travel through the North Island with my friends.”

Julia Wilkinson ’21

Psychology major
Studied abroad at University of Wollongong in Australia

Julia Wilkinson Class of 2021“It was crazy at first being there at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. But, it became clear that I was much safer in Australia, so I decided to stay. I live in Massachusetts and my county alone had more cases than the whole entire country of Australia. We had a stay-at-home order for about six weeks, which was not so fun. However, in May things started to gradually open back up and by June most stuff (besides bars, concerts, clubs and across-state travel) was open again. Plus, even the stay-at-home order there was still a lot better than the chaos that I came back to when I returned home. [I work in a grocery store in a city with an 8.5 percent positivity rate.]

“The major challenge was isolation since most of the friends I had made had gone back home when the campus switched to remote learning and the time difference made it hard to stay in touch with my friends at home. However, Australia has such beautiful nature and unique flora and fauna that I was still able to go outside for hikes and for taking pictures, which helped me not feel too isolated. I also did Zoom and FaceTime calls with my friends back home when I could, and texted with the Australian friends I had made.

“I think the major lessons I learned were to just go with the flow when you can’t control the circumstances and to try to always make the best of things. I was still able to get a lot of sightseeing in despite the pandemic, which was awesome. I also learned how to manage my time well. I had a feeling more things would be opening up before I left, so I tried to cram all of my pre-recorded lectures into the period during the stay-at-home order. This gave me a lot of free time once restrictions had been lifted to go sightseeing and make the most of my time in Australia.”