“I need to leave now”: Queen’s exchange students recount coming home

Students talk being abroad amidst a pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically changed student's exchange experience as the virus spread across the globe.
The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically changed students' exchange experience as the virus spread across the globe.
Photo: 
Credit: 
Hailey Rodgers, Dakota Johnston, Liv Fitzpatrick, Mark Hamilton, Michael Sambasivam.

This story was updated with a statement from Smith School of Business on May 5 at 4:35 p.m.

Hailey Rodgers, Comm ’21, had been back from Cambodia just a few days when her exchange university in Thailand announced that anyone who had left the country in the past 10 days must enter quarantine. 

It was Feb. 27, and the novel coronavirus was sweeping across Asia. “If you didn’t go into this quarantine period, there will be punishment,” Rodgers said.

“[Thammasat University] was implying we would be sent to jail if we went to class. I freaked out, because you do not want to end up in Thai jail.” She worried that, if imprisoned, her only way out may be bargaining with prison guards.

Shortly after, Rodgers received a worried call from home. “My dad contacted me and said, ‘You have to get out of [Thailand] now’ […] It was a 60-hour trip back with me fleeing the country.”

Like many others, Rodgers was only halfway through her studies abroad. While she watched the world turn upside-down around her in Bangkok, hundreds of Queen’s students headed home from their exchanges across the world.

Every year, more than 600 students leave Kingston to study at hundreds of schools across the globe. 

While every exchange experience is unique, this year’s class experienced something unprecedented: the cancellation of exchange programs worldwide due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Journal spoke with eight Queen’s students about being abroad amid borders closures, cancelled flights, and lockdowns.

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“There are serious differences in experience depending on where you went on exchange,” said Mo Assaf, Comm ’21, who was studying in Madrid, Spain, at the IE Business School. “In Spain and Italy and Canada and America, people were joking around about it. In other places it wasn’t a joke, even from the beginning.” 

Students described a domino effect at the beginning of March, as the virus swept from Asia to Europe. “In Asia, there was an immediate impact. There was lots of temperature scanning and travel declaration forms. I’ve been dealing with [COVID-19] on a very low level for pretty much my entire exchange,” said Mark Hamilton, Comm ’21, who was studying at Singapore Management University.

As the virus progressed out of Asia, the next students affected were in Southern Europe. 

“We got an email from my school on [March 10] saying we [were] going ahead with classes,” said Liv Fitzpatrick, Comm ’21, studying at Católica Lisbon School of Business & Economics in Portugal. “I was in a morning class [the next day] and suddenly this email comes out, completely in Portuguese, saying we had seven minutes to evacuate the premises, the school [was] shut down effective immediately […] It was chaos.”

As daily new infections approached 100 in Italy on Feb. 25, Emily Nolfi, Comm ’21, received an email from Bocconi University in Milan announcing classes were transitioning online. But things still felt relatively normal. “At that point, no students were freaking out. It seemed like they were taking a precautionary measure.”

Within a week, cases in Italy had surpassed 2,500. 10 Italian regions were put under lockdown and the country’s schools and universities were closing.

It started to become clear to most students that their days on exchange were numbered. “Every student went through the exact same pattern of, ‘I’m fine, things are great […] I’m fine, I’m a little bit worried, but I don’t want to leave exchange […] Oh my god, everything’s upside down and I need to leave now,” Nolfi said.

Nolfi was one of the first students to return to Canada. She said leaving Milan was “probably the biggest decision [she’d] ever made in [her] life.”

Meanwhile, others stayed put. Dakota Johnston, ArtSci ’21, remains in Istanbul, Turkey, where she was on exchange at Boğaziçi University. Johnston felt staying in Turkey was the right decision since classes weren’t cancelled until March 20. However, on March 28, Turkey suspended all international flights.

“I’m physically trapped in the country. It’s not on my own free will,” Johnston said.

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Decisions to return home brought more challenges. Booking or changing flights last minute was expensive for many. Rodgers paid [$1,900] for her flight home from Thailand—triple the ordinary cost—and felt let down when she asked Queen’s for reimbursement. “[Exchange] has been extremely expensive, and the fact that [Queen’s] is only willing to give back the difference of cancelled flights is slightly ridiculous,” she said.

In a May 5 statement to The Journal, Smith School of Business' Director of Communications and External Relations Amber Wallace said the University is reimbursing Rodgers for the full cost of her flight. 

"Queen’s has been very supportive and is working closely with students to ensure their flight costs are reimbursed," Wallace wrote. 

While flying home, students experienced vast differences in airport operations. 

“At the Madrid airport, you wouldn’t have known anything was going on,” Assaf said. 

Similarly, Rodgers experienced few precautions at Asian airports. “They didn’t do any temperature checks, they didn’t examine me. I got through security in five minutes.”

By contrast, Nolfi’s departure from Milan was permeated by fear of COVID-19. Taxi signage restricted her from touching the door handles, and stickers on the ground at the airport reminded her to stay six feet apart from others.

Students expressed surprise at how relaxed measures were in Canada. They recalled quick customs procedures, crowding, and a lack of masks or gloves. 

Fitzpatrick landed in Toronto on March 21, at which point 18 coronavirus-related deaths had been recorded in Canada. Her passport would have indicated that she had been in France, Germany, Spain and Portugal within 10 days of her return. “I should’ve been blacklisted right then and there. But the customs agent was like, ‘Oh, you were on exchange? Are you from Queen’s?’” Fitzpatrick said. 

“No wonder it’s getting so bad [in Canada]. It’s all talk, no game. I absolutely should have been grilled, and I got nothing.”

*** 

Back in Kingston, the University focused on student safety.

In a written statementSandra den Otter, associate vice-principal (Research and International), told The Journal that decisions related to international travel and exchange were based on travel and health advisories issued by the Government of Canada and International SOS, Queen’s safety and security contractor.

According to den Otter, decisions have also been guided by the Off-Campus Activity Safety Policy (OCASP), which “helps to ensure that all off-campus activities are conducted in as safe and as fully aware a climate as possible.” 

OCASP doesn't include pandemic-specific protocol. Queen’s Emergency Support Program, which supports students participating in international activities during emergencies, must be registered for separately.

“Financial support is being provided to returning students to help them with the costs of returning home,” den Otter wrote. She did not provide The Journal with specifics on flights and other expenses.

Many students praised the International Programs Office (IPO) and Smith School of Business’ handling of the situation.

“Queen’s has been absolutely stellar in terms of handling me coming home,” said Michael Sambasivam, ArtSci ’21, who was on exchange at Tecnológico de Monterrey-Santa Fe in Mexico City. “They’re making sure no one is wasting a whole semester’s tuition.”

But many felt communication from Queen’s was delayed, leaving them to fend for themselves as fears mounted. 

“Queen’s didn’t reach out to us for a very long time, which was a source of stress and anxiety. We didn’t know if we were able to book flights home and if our credits would transfer back,” Fitzpatrick said. “[Queen’s should have been] starting to think about [COVID-19] before it became an emergency situation and everyone had to get out of Europe in three days.” 

Hamilton expressed similar concerns about the ambiguity of Queen’s initial messages. He reached out to the Commerce office when he began to worry about COVID-19 and was told to follow the guidelines of his host university. However, Singapore Management University had directed exchange students to follow protocol set by their home universities.

Most students chalked the communication issues up to the unprecedented nature of the pandemic. Assaf and Nolfi said they hope Queen’s develops a pandemic-specific crisis management protocol for students before they embark on international study in the future.

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Alongside their peers around the world, students have been adjusting to online learning once home.

Impressed with how his school accommodated the shift, Hamilton noted that Singapore had a pre-existing protocol for moving online, established after the 2003 SARS outbreak.

But finishing school thousands of kilometres away has created unique challenges. Time changes mean classes run late into the night and start early in the morning. Some universities have accounted for this by recording lectures, but not all students have been afforded these accommodations.  

“I have two classes that are at 8 A.M. [Lisbon time], so I have to get up at 3 A.M.,” Fitzpatrick said. “I wrote two exams my first week back, both of them at 6 A.M.. They won’t accommodate us.”

According to Johnston, her university in Istanbul, Turkey, is planning to run in-person exams in June because many students lack access to technology. “The financial means and access to technology in general for people [in Turkey] are a lot different than at home,” she said. 

Since returning home, the ultimate challenge for students has been re-orienting around a semester that looks drastically different from what they’d envisioned.

“Exchange was the reason I chose Queen’s Commerce […] I’d worked so hard for two years to get good grades to be competitive in the process [of applying for exchange],” Fitzpatrick said. “There have been so many decisions over the last couple years, all relating back to these four months.”

Assaf, however, sees the last two months as a learning experience about the interconnected world we live in. “We have to help when things happen in other places, because eventually it will get to your backyard,” he said. “People’s issues across the world are as important as the ones in the city next to you.”

Nolfi spoke of camaraderie amidst difficulty. “We’re all going to remember being the year that exchange got cut off, and we’re all carrying our battle scars from that experience,” she said. “It was nice knowing that you’re a Queen’s student abroad, because you felt that sense of community in a time of hardship.”

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