Exceptional exchange studies
Applying as an exchange student always changes the everyday student life a great deal. The exchange students of spring 2020 underwent an exceptional amount of surprises due to the coronavirus pandemic.
In March–April, the Finnish National Agency for Education has collected situational data from higher education institutions on student exchange and international students in Finland. Despite the discontinued exchange periods, it is however estimated that many students can complete the started exchange studies with remote connections. This applies both outgoing and incoming exchange students.
There is a lot of variation between higher education institutions on how many of the students who have been completing their student exchange abroad have returned to Finland. At the highest, the rate of returned students is 85%, whereas in some higher education institutions the share of the students whose return has been confirmed is only about 20%. The average share of exchange students who have returned is about 50%.
At least 43% of exchange students in higher education institutions have discontinued their student exchange in Finland and returned to their home countries due to the coronavirus pandemic. The number of those who have returned to their home countries is about 2 000. As for those who have decided to stay in Finland, the rate is 33% or about 1 550 students. In addition, the situation of 24% of the exchange students has been a bit uncertain at the time of collecting the data.
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The international services of Turku University of Applied Sciences have monitored and reported on the situation of exchange students on a regular basis to the Rector and the Security Manager of TUAS and the Finnish National Agency for Education during the entire spring term. In the last week of January, the exchange periods of students completing their exchange in China were decided to be discontinued due to coronavirus. Little by little, the recommendation to return to Finland was extended to more and more countries.
“Now, at the end of April, the majority i.e. about 60 TUAS’ students have either cancelled or discontinued their student exchange. Now there are still 24 students abroad, who have decided to continue their exchange periods, mainly with remote studies at the country of destination”, says TUAS’ Head of International Affairs Anu Härkönen.
The practical training periods of students in the field of social services and health care in Turku and Salo had to be discontinued for the spring, but other exchange students have been able to continue their studies at TUAS if they wish. About 80 of them have returned to their home countries, but there are still about 50 exchange students in Turku.
Because now the campuses are closed and the studies are conducted remotely, we have wanted to ensure that exchange students also get support for their everyday life in the coronavirus situation. In addition to the guidance provided by international coordinators, exchange students have been provided the opportunity to e.g. utilize the Study Counselling Psychologists’ services and Student Union TUO’s Discord discussion platform, where they can participate in chat groups in English.
“For many students, the exchange period has been a long-awaited break from the study routines and everyday life in the home country. The coronavirus situation has unexpectedly changed, postponed and cancelled plans, but despite of the disappointments, both our own students and the students from our partner institutions have been astonishingly positive and flexible in this uncertain situation”, Anu Härkonen continues.
“Cooperation with foreign higher education institutions has been fluent also in these exceptional circumstances. The information on the situation of cities, campuses and exchange students and the opportunities for distance education has flown quickly and professionally. Our partner institutions have taken good care of our students and amidst all unpleasant coronavirus news, it has been a joy to discover how much colleagues around the world help and support each other”, says Härkönen.
We interviewed two students from Turku University of Applied Sciences who are currently abroad and two Spanish exchange students in Turku.
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The exchange destination of Iina Niemi, a student in Library and Information Services, is Mount Royal University in Calgary, Canada. Elisa Varalahti, who studies journalism, is completing her exchange period in Hamburg, Germany.
How do the exceptional circumstances show in your studies and in your everyday life?
Iina: All contact teaching has naturally ended, which means that the remaining courses are completed remotely online. I live here on campus, and almost everyone else who lives on campus has travelled home. Most of the exchange students have also returned to their home countries. However, I decided to stay and complete my studies.
Even though everything is done online, including exams, it is easier to take care of everything here, if only for the time difference.
In the everyday life, the exceptional circumstances are probably shown similarly to everywhere else; you should stay home as much as possible. The only place where I go, in fact, is the grocery store. For the time being, we are allowed to go outside, and I have continued to admire the local nature here by the Rocky Mountains.
Elisa: Over here, the school has been closed from 16 March. The semester didn’t even properly start. I think I went to the campus twice. The campus will remain closed until the end of the semester and my exchange.
I have four ongoing courses, of which two have online classes. The online classes are regular theoretical teaching, at the end of which we always get an assignment to be completed independently. From the two other courses, the teachers have sent assignments by email. We have also gotten the feedback on the assignments by email.
Most of my classes focus on shooting videos and making movie sounds, so the teachers have really had to think how these practice-oriented courses can be implemented. Short film projects are implemented with own equipment, which most of us luckily have.
In my everyday life the exceptional circumstances are of course shown in that nothing is open, except for grocery stores and pharmacies, of course. However, I have often gone outside alone or with one friend at a time, because gatherings of over two people are forbidden here. Otherwise I have spent my spare time e.g. by learning new skills, such as coding. I have also learned new songs on the piano and taken a lot of photographs. Tried to do things I normally feel I don’t have enough time for.
How are you feeling?
Iina: I’m still feeling positive. Of course, there is a lot I can’t see and do in the exceptional circumstances, but I’m nevertheless happy to get to be here. I was able to do all kinds of things before the exceptional circumstances started. The most positive energy for me comes from spending time outdoors and music. I like gaming and reading a lot, so spending time at home suits me quite well.
Elisa: So far, I’ve been feeling good and positive. Sports and spending time outdoors give good energy. Luckily, it’s still allowed, I don’t know what I would do, if a curfew was imposed. Learning new things has also given me positive energy and the fact that on several days, the temperature has been over 20 degrees.
Of course, I’m bummed about coming a little short of the exchange experience. Luckily, I was able to make some friends before things escalated, and for a few weeks, we attended student events. I hope that the situation will pass before I have gone home. It would be nice to tour the museums and gorgeous churches in Hamburg, as there are lots of them. I would also like to get to know more new people and experience the student culture here.
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Pedro Perez-Chuecos Alcaraz is a student of telecommunication systems engineering from Universitat Politècnica de València. Noemí Jiménez is a business student from ESIC Business&Marketing School in Barcelona.
How has the pandemic influenced your studies and everyday life in general?
Pedro: This extraordinary situation has influenced a lot, we can no longer go to the university, which is necessary for these circumstances, but I miss going to classes because the atmosphere was excellent and fun. Luckily right now, I only have left to finish my studies to submit my thesis, and thanks to today's technologies, I can continue working practically the same from home. I am in constant communication with my teachers, both in Turku and Valencia.
The life of the exchange student in Turku is very cool. We always had many different activities to do, from excursions to know all the corners of Finland, sports activities in the CampusSport, to make a picnic in the riverside in the Aura river, to go to the Walo rooftop to take a coffee. At the same time, we saw the impressive sunsets in Turku or to spend the weekend in a cottage with lake and sauna.
I live in the Student Village, and the atmosphere within the circumstances we are living in is ok because we are like a big family, and we support each other even though we are taking many precautions. We have built strong friendships that, after our exchange year, we will stay somewhere in the world to see each other again.
Noemí: Things have changed a lot since a month ago. The day to day is very limited since many establishments have closed and there is not much to do.
Now we are carrying on the rest of the course of the university in online way. We perform all the presentations and sessions via Skype. Despite that, we have adapted quite well and quickly to this change, and, on the part of the university, we have been offered all the help to continue the course as normally as possible
How are you?
Pedro: Here in Turku, I am fine, but I am a little worried about the situation in Spain. I do a lot of video calls with my friends and family, and the truth is that I love to share fun moments with them by video call. I also love being able to run around in the woods and disconnect after a long day of studying.
I would like to say that despite this circumstance, I will always remember my exchange year as a wonderful year, where I met amazing people, did a lot of networking that has helped me to find job opportunities in Finland. I will always remember the trip I made with 15 friends to Lapland, where we could see for the first time spectacular northern lights, ride a sled, or visit Santa Claus.
I also believe that this experience has given me a lot of things as a person and future professional since I have had the opportunity to work first hand with the latest technologies such as 5G for my thesis. Besides discovering why the Finnish education system is considered one of the best in the world, and I would love to see it adopted in Spain in the future.
Noemí :As I am still in Finland, despite the situation, I am spending more time with my friends of Erasmus who are in the same situation as me too. So, we try to do things together and seize the time with the best way we can.
At first, just after the pandemic announce, it was such a shock to see how from one day to the other, all the plans, trips, schedule, that I had been programming for a long time, suddenly changed, without further ado.
Now I just try to adapt to the new situation we are in and make the best of it.
I am getting to know other people around me (Erasmus students too), who are living in the same situation as me; And we probably would not have established such a relationship if we had not found ourselves in these circumstances.
Definitely, we are living in a moment in which none of us would have imagined, but I have to say that I am learning many things about myself and, from the people I am living with now, that make me reflect on how to deal with a situation from so many different ways.
In pictures from left to right: Iina Niemi, Elisa Varalahti, Noemí Jiménez, Pedro Perez-Chuecos Alcaraz