Without study abroad, I would have struggled to make it through third year

The author Aaliyah Harris at the top of a skyscraper
Aaliyah Harris

I recently expressed the words above to friends as we reminisced about our four-year degree journey.

For many students, these past few months have involved countless overnight study sessions, hours of self-teaching as lecturers took part in strikes, and now a ceremonial-less graduation due to the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. Study abroad was the break that I thought I needed. But I now know it was critical for my degree, career, and mental health.

I won’t lie. Applying to spend a WHOLE year living in another country wasn’t an easy decision – especially at the age of 20. The application process took weeks of gruelling administrative work, preparation meetings, personal statements, and anxiously waiting for call back interviews all before the offer and acceptance stage. As someone who’d never travelled alone and abroad before, choosing to study at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada was a huge milestone. And when I tell you that two weeks leading to my departure boarding from London Heathrow to Pearson International Airport that I still didn’t have any accommodation secured… the stress was real.

However, after all the apprehension I can wholeheartedly say that the opportunity was more than just a young ‘traveller’s dream’. Yes, unforgettable travel trips were included, but my year was also filled with a unique teaching experience learning subjects that were only available in Canada. I developed long-life international friendships, built a network of inspiring people that I may otherwise have never had the chance to meet, and I immersed myself in a completely different culture to my own.

Aaliyah, Elise, Zarina and Maree in Toronto

 

I gained crucial life skills, independence, and most importantly, a much-needed break from the education system in the UK. I felt exhausted after studying so hard for two years and with the lifted pressure of not having to worry about grade percentages that would impact my degree, I ended up achieving some of my highest results ever. There was even a moment where I was able to connect with distant family members who I had never met before including a cousin who was also attending my university! Study abroad is a vital and irreplaceable life experience that should be offered to all students.

But the uncertainty of whether such exchanges can take place is just the tip of the iceberg for students struggling with the pandemic.

Does anyone care about students’ mental health?

The Department for Education stated in its guidance report published on 10 September that:

there is no scientific basis that face-to-face teaching is unsafe as long as COVID-secure plans are in place.

It added:

The SAGE group has made clear that teaching in person is important and fully online provision would have an impact on students’ mental health. Where practical work occurs in close contact like medicine, dentistry and performing arts, universities should follow advice for the relevant professional environment.

World Mental Health Day takes place on 10 October and aims to raise awareness about mental health issues alongside fighting social stigmas. Now is the time, more than ever, to address how university students are being unfairly robbed of their education and how coronavirus is impacting their health.

Kooth is an NHS-funded digital mental health and wellbeing organisation. In August, it released data about how the pandemic is affecting the mental health of children and young people. It showed:

The number of CYP presenting with mental health concerns has risen by 97% since 2019.

A report from June showed:

Children and young people from BAME backgrounds are showing greater increases in depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicidal thoughts than white peers during COVID-19 pandemic.

It also noted:

BAME CYP reporting 159% increase in concerns over school and college.

And according to The Office of National Statistics’ Opinions and Lifestyle Survey about coronavirus and the social impacts on Great Britain:

This week, nearly three-quarters of adults (74%) were very or somewhat worried about the effect of COVID-19 on their life right now. This is the highest proportion since restrictions started easing at the end of May (67% over the period 21 to 24 May). The main concerns reported by adults were a lack of freedom and independence (54%), and personal travel plans being affected (54%).

No one planned to entirely work from home… It’s a scam!

This year’s students and exchanges are in the midst of instability as teaching, financial costs, and guidelines about what we can and cannot do are being constantly updated by the UK government.

Jack Boag is a third-year studying history and international relations at the University of Aberdeen and told The Canary:

My uni life is being conducted from a desk in my bedroom. Until about a week ago the plan was to have at least one on-campus politics class but now everything is entirely online.

Jack Boag

Although the Scottish government has its own coronavirus guidelines, students across the UK have been voicing their concerns on social media about the U-turn of “blended learning” which combines online and in-person teaching.

Emma Ferrier tweeted:

Another student Georgia tweeted:

Bullying into submission

You may think that major changes in studies, online learning, and coping with the pandemic would be enough to disrupt the balance of a person’s health. But thrown into the mix now are warnings of expulsions and penalties.

Jack shared an email that he received from his university on Twitter that mentions, ‘£250 fines’, “suspension and/or expulsion”, and that landlords will be contacted for enforcement if the Scottish Government guidelines are not obeyed.

As a university fresher moving into campus halls for the first time, or for students with little rental experience, having a looming threat that someone is monitoring your behaviour in the one safe space available is what some may call inhumane.

Jack told The Canary:

I rent privately and have a decent relationship with my landlord. However, for other students renting it will fundamentally affect the landlord-tenant dynamic because now landlords will have an extra bit of power to exercise over the tenant. They can say, ‘if you do or don’t do this, I can report you to the university’ even if students haven’t done anything wrong which is concerning.

In a time when everyone is already worrying about looking after our health, finances, and the economy, scrutinising people in their own homes only adds unnecessary fuel to the fire.

Jack added:

Rather than writing quite angry emails to students to try and scare them into submission surely, it’s better to talk about the guidelines in a more supportive way.

“I’ve been thrown into the deep end”

For study abroad students who signed up for a sandwich year as a part of their degree, this usually happens before the final year of study and provides an additional qualification. Sarah Hussian, a psychology student at City, University of London, applied to complete her sandwich year at Seoul National University in South Korea.

After taking the necessary steps and passing all the stages, she was due to start the academic year this September.

Sarah Hussain

Sarah told The Canary:

The university abroad were fine with accepting international students, but it was mainly City’s [University] decision that there would be no exchanges for safety reasons. I get where they are coming from, but I was so sad, and City didn’t offer any alternatives.

Although it varies across universities, for a third-year studying in England, any assessments and exams are often weighted at around 67% of the entire degree total. This means that for many students, regardless of their achievements during the first two years of their study, the third year is what will determine the final grade result and so the pressure is on:

For me living in London, everyone’s just so fast on their feet, they know exactly what they are doing. I’m in third year and I still don’t know what I would like to do. I thought that I would have an extra year studying abroad to process everything but I’ve been thrown into the deep end.

“If I didn’t think fast, I would have been left behind”

Universities have a responsibility to support their students during the pandemic. It’s understandable that there will be some uncertainty as the outbreak continues. But when so many students are paying thousands of pounds and accruing debt for higher education, there must be a reputable outcome. Across the UK, students have felt a lack of support and guidance especially at times when the coronavirus was at its peak. Tofunmi Ayedun-Alase told The Canary:

I thought I was moving to Madrid from January to July 2020. I’d heard about this thing called coronavirus in China and it was right before me and my sister were meant to leave for the airport.

Tofunmi’s international relations and law placement in Spain was cut short as she navigated through university emails and news articles to update herself about the outbreak.

Tofunmi said:

I went from a weekend of joy in Ibiza to being back in the UK a few days later. I saw articles online about panic buying in the UK and things like tissues running out… it got to a point where I couldn’t even ring my family to ask what was happening because it all escalated.

During March, when Tofunmi was focusing on her studies in a foreign country, the only source of consistent coronavirus updates was from online news sources or word of mouth conversations:

There was a lack of reassurance from my university. If I didn’t make executive decisions myself or follow other people [friends abroad] the situation would have been very different. If I didn’t think fast, I would have been left behind.

In a confusing situation, Tofunmi felt the university was “de-sensitising the situation”:

My uni at home were like ‘don’t panic’, de-sensitising the situation saying they will keep us up to date. Nothing was making sense and I made the decision to go home.

The uncertain future of Study Abroad

Melissa Beld, an international creative business student based in the Netherlands, is hoping that her plans to complete a semester in Sweden next year won’t be cancelled due to the coronavirus.

Melissa Beld

Melissa told The Canary:

I got accepted to study in Sweden and I think they want me to come but I’m afraid my home school won’t let me. I think that it’s really unfair because every country is different and the decision should come from the school that we are travelling to.

Jack also had plans to study a semester abroad in Amsterdam and told The Canary:

About two weeks ago I got an email that the university were going to cancel all exchanges for a year but offered to postpone it, for me that’s not an option. In 2022, I will be neck deep in my dissertation and the options for an exchange are only possible in your 2nd or 3rd year.

As the countdown to Christmas begins and potential campus lockdowns hover in the air, people are reflecting on their experiences of 2020. As study abroad exchanges wait to hear back about their pending placements, many can only hope that it will be safe to resume travel at some point next year. For now, it’s very much a ‘wait and see game’.

Featured image via Aaliyah Harris

Get involved

  • There are many online services to support students through the coronavirus pandemic, including Student Space led by Student Minds.
  • You can also sign up with the mental health and wellbeing organisation Kooth.

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