What an absolute whirlwind of an exchange! A lot has changed since my last post. Following the devastation of Covid-19 on the world, I made the extremely difficult decision to head home and actually withdraw from my exchange. This blog post will be very personal reflection to give you a glimpse of what went down in the last few weeks for me. This post is intended to be brutally honest and hopefully provide support if you are ever in a similar situation or are needing to withdraw from exchange for whatever reason. I will also include a few “what I wish I knew before going on exchange” tips at the end!
THE DECISION TO WITHDRAW
I had finished almost all my coursework in Scotland when the University of Auckland notified me that there was the option to withdraw and enrol in papers back home. The semester was well into week 3, but due to the circumstances, returning exchange students would be offered the chance to enrol even though the deadlines had passed. This meant that all my time and credits spent overseas would not be transferred back. I would resume semester 1 2020 in Auckland, as if I had never left.
I had to make this decision without guidance on whether exams would be moved, or whether there would be flights home to New Zealand at the end of my exchange.
I decided to withdraw because I was quite worried that there was a possibility that once lockdown period ended, I might need to come back to Europe to sit final exams. I had also taken an honours paper for history and was quite worried that moving the exams online would be a severe disadvantage for me as many of the resources I need were physical books in the Glasgow library. I was also far more familiar with the coursework and examination styles of UoA compared to Glasgow.
From a personal perspective, I came home because I would no longer be able to travel Europe during my mid-semester break as I had planned. A major element of my decision making for going on exchange was being able to travel through Europe in their summertime with my friends. With flights being cancelled everywhere and borders closing all through the continent, this dream seemed further and further away. It didn’t really make sense for me to be paying rent up until summer time without a reason to be staying until the summer anyway.
Another major factor in my return to New Zealand was the international impact of the virus upon available flights. I actually booked a flight to leave from London on the 28th March 2020, but following New Zealand’s closure of borders to non-nationals, I paid for a new flight that left directly from Glasgow almost a week earlier than my planned departure date.
My biggest recommendation during such times of uncertainty is not to delay. I was extremely lucky to even get a flight home – I know of a few friends on my original flight that ended up being cancelled, and they were unable to find another one home in time. I did pay a lot more to book an earlier flight, but the amount of time and worry saved was priceless. I remember waking up every day fearing that my flight would be cancelled, and I would be stranded in the UK. I think when it comes to emergencies like this, having peace of mind was more important than a few hundred dollars.
Finally, loneliness was also important to consider as all my flatmates had to go home too. American borders had shut to non-nationals, and several of my fellow American exchange students were told that they had to come home immediately, or credit would not be transferred. I think this was partly because they had come on their university’s insurance policy so if they had caught Covid-19, their home university would be liable for costs. I knew I did not want to be stuck in an empty flat by myself for the next three to four months when there was such widespread panic and fear.
THE JOURNEY HOME
I booked almost the next fight home from the day that I withdrew from Glasgow and re-enrolled in Auckland. My flight was scheduled to leave from Glasgow and stopover in both Dubai as well as Bali. My biggest worry at this point was that one of those borders would close during the stopover, leaving me stranded halfway as I would no longer be allowed back into the UK.
It is important here to emphasise the need to stay flexible and aware. Although I was extremely sleep deprived and overly nervous upon my stop overs, the airports during Covid-19 was a complete mess. I literally made it through security for my transit with an extra 5 minutes to spare – the flights were leaving on such tight timing that there was no room for mistakes. Make sure you are speedy through transits and do not spend that much time shopping if you are not sure where your gate is. Dubai airport was pretty enormous, and I ended up having to run from one end to the other. I’d recommend maybe downloading a map ahead of time if your transit is less than an hour – with the added number of passengers and stricter security screenings, I ended up needing every extra minute.
Several people on my original flight from the UK to Dubai faced sudden visa issues half way, owing to a change in flight plans as countries closed their borders. I was very lucky to be travelling on a New Zealand passport as we have visa waivers with a large number of countries. Please do remember to triple check that your stop overs do not require a transit visa!
THINGS I WISH I HAD KNOWN:
- Withdrawing from exchange is NOT a waste of time or money!
Originally, I was quite upset to be withdrawing because I felt that the exchange was a waste of effort. I didn’t manage to get any Glasgow merchandise because the visitor shops had shut, and I didn’t get any acknowledgement of my time spent here on my academic transcript or anything. I really didn’t have anything to show apart from the experience and a lighter wallet.
But the amount of life skills that I learnt during this time was absolutely priceless. I had such a unique exchange and faced situations that I probably will never see again. I originally wanted to go to the UK during Brexit because I wanted to witness history in the making – I guess I got that wish!
I had to make decisions during a time of uncertainty based purely on my own judgement. I learnt to trust my gut feeling and that it was always better to be safe than sorry. I formed friendships that will continue long after the exchange is over and experienced life to the absolute fullest (we went to Ireland for St. Patricks day literally in the middle of their lockdown. All the pubs were shut, the parade was cancelled, AND our hostel dorm had one fellow in the back bunk coughing his brains out at 4am. It was a miracle we didn’t catch coronavirus to be honest!). I wouldn’t have learnt any of this from a lecture or textbook!
2. Double or triple check your insurance!
I never even knew such a clause would exist, but many travel insurance policies include an ‘epidemic or pandemic exclusion’ where disruptions caused by an epidemic or pandemic would not be covered under their policy. I had taken out the more comprehensive option and was pretty annoyed to find that I was still excluded under this clause. I know that situations like Covid-19 happen very rarely and that pandemics are not expected to happen for every exchange, but many of my friends were relying on their insurance to pay for flights if theirs was cancelled. Unfortunately, some of them had to learn about the exclusion clause the hard way.
One friend in particular was very disappointed as she had booked three individually connecting flights throughout Europe to return to the US. The first one was delayed which caused her to miss the next few, and due to the insurance clause, she was not covered at all. Later she told me that if she had known it was not covered, she would not have chosen those flights.
Therefore, be aware that even if it all turns to custard, insurance may not always work through the way that you want it to. Always make sure you have excess funds in case of emergencies like these, and do not assume that insurance covers all everything. Being flexible is SO important!
3. Pack light and always assume you will buy more things than you expect
I showed up with one 30kg bag and left with almost double the amount of clothing that I came with. I do recognise that Scotland was freezing and so half of my new wardrobe was warmer clothing, but shopping in Europe was so much fun! There is much more variety, especially towards the semi-formal and formal side of the spectrum. Plus, it is always raining so hiding in the department stores became a social event. I could go on and on about their specialty discount bargain stores (think Rebel Sports but for high end brands like Dior and Gucci), and because of we were in Europe the quality of goods was also much higher for things like Italian leather.
4. Bring wet weather boots
Waterproof shoes are so important. Enough said.
5. You are not alone!
It feels so isolated and scary being half way across the world away from home during such scary times, but I learnt a lot about people and their willingness to help.
A massive shout out to both the 360 International team here in Auckland, as well as the international exchange team in Glasgow. They gave me unbiased advice and their full support for every step of the journey.
If you are ever feeling lonely or confused or start freaking out like I did when I first realised that Coronavirus was actually really serious, know that there are people out there who are willing to help! I was running around like a headless chicken and emailed the exchange teams like 5 times each and was given such reassuring and professional responses that I never once felt like I was left on my own in high water.
I really appreciated the other exchange students checking in on me, and in return I know I went to check up on a few of them too. We are all in this together so look after one another.
6. HAVE FUN AND BE SAFE!
This is my last post, and I hope that you have enjoyed this wild ride with me! If you are considering going on exchange I wish you the very best experience. I had the time of my life in the 3 short months that I was in Glasgow and I cannot recommend it enough.
Take care all – sending love from my bubble to yours,
Kia Kaha New Zealand!