Breaking off your exchange because of corona: ‘I was really unsure’

31 Mar 2020 ,

When you are a Radboud student abroad, the decision to come home because of the corona crisis can be a tough one. Kjartan van Driel came back, Veerle van Winden decided to stay. ‘As long as there are flights to Amsterdam, I will stay here.’

When the corona crisis reached The Netherlands, many Radboud students were on an exchange or internship abroad. The international office asked them to get in touch, to see where everybody was, and check if everybody was safe. ‘We strongly advise people to return home,’ says university spokesman Martijn Gerritsen. ‘But we cannot force anyone. Eventually, it is up to the student.’

Kjartan van Driel, photo: own archive

When Kjartan van Driel (22), bachelor student Mathematics and Physics, went to Seattle in the US, he intended to stay for four weeks. ‘I was supposed to do research at a local university, as part of the Honours Programme,’ he says. ‘When I arrived, the city was a ghost town and the university was just as deserted. The people who were there talked about corona a lot, and everybody was washing their hands.’

During his first week there, the US announced that it was going to close its borders, and shortly after that Europe wanted to do that too. ‘The prices of flights, especially to Italy, skyrocketed,’ says Van Driel. ‘I felt like it was escalating too much.’ He sent an e-mail to the Honours Programme and to his parents. ‘I was really unsure about what to do. But one of the people at the Honours Programme, Nicolette Poelen, talked me through every step of the way. Not just organisationally, but also emotionally. It was quite stressful.’

‘I had a slight panic attack after the US borders closed,’ says Kjartan. ‘But what helped was that my supervisor there said I could stay with her when a lockdown was announced. I was touched, because I only knew her for a week.’ Eventually, he re-booked his flight and came back. ‘Because I came early, I had to pay for the flight back myself. I have faith me and the Honours Academy will figure it out somehow.’

Attractive

Veerle van Winden (25), master student Computer Science and Data Science, decided not to come back to The Netherlands, for now. She is at the island of Svalbard, between Greenland and Nova Zembla. ‘This island never really belonged to any country, but officially it falls under Norwegian jurisdiction, so we follow those rules,’ she says. ‘That means the universities closed two weeks before The Netherlands. I have worked from home since then.’ She was in touch with the international office and her study advisor. ‘I let them know what the situation is here and discussed staying in Svalbard with them. They agreed that it was safer for me to stay.’

Veerle van Winden, photo: own archive

The island of Svalbard holds 2500 people and is so far in the North that you have to look South to see the Northern lights. At the university, there are students from all over the world. ‘We talk about the situation in our home countries a lot,’ Van Winden says. ‘The stories I hear from the Netherlands are not making it more attractive to go home.’ Many international students left, and there are no new students coming. ‘Also, tourists were evacuated from the island, and people who live here are advised not to go on ambitious trips outside. We are basically all in quarantine together.’

Polar bears

On the island, there are other risks, she says. ‘Upon coming here, we learn to handle a rifle, ride snowscooters and we get lessons in saving people from crevasses in glaciers. The rifle handling is for when you run into a polar bear outside the village. It is a totally different world.’ So sometimes, it is hard for her to imagine what life in The Netherlands is like now. ‘I do follow the news and I check if it would still be possible to go home when needed.’ In the meantime, she actually benefits from the online classes and exams Radboud organises. ‘I would have missed some things this semester, but I can actually do them now because everything is online.’

Students who were planning to go on exchange, need to get permission from the dean to get credit for an exchange. ‘This is always the case,’ says Gerritsen. ‘Before, we always checked the travel advice from the government. Now, we would advise against it and the students would not receive credit when they decide to go anyway.’

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