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Exchange studentsTiL Worldwide

Exchange students vs Covid-19: USA Edition

Reading time: 9 minutes

After having dealt with European destinations, in the second article of the series “Exchange students vs Covid-19″, we decided to interview four final year bachelor’s students who are doing the exchange in American universities: Marianna Cacace, University of Texas at Austin, Pietro Tonoli, Babson College (Massachusetts), Giovanni Berlin, University of South Carolina, and Andrea Napoli, University of Michigan.

Marianna Cacace, CLEAM 3rd Year, University of Texas, Austin

Many students gave up exchange programs in 2020 because of the pandemic. Why did you choose to leave?  

The exchange experience was very important for me but, on the other side, when the coronavirus started to spread in my country, I was so scared to leave to another unknown country alone. As the destination I chose Austin, Texas in the USA, so I knew that my trip wasn’t going to be easy. I thought a lot about the pros and cons about the experience and finally the pros were more numerous. I couldn’t lose this opportunity, I needed it for myself, to grow up, to improve my English and so I chose to leave.   

Did Covid-19 influence your exchange destination? Why did you choose this country?  

For my exchange program, I wanted to go to the USA; this was my objective since the beginning of university. I chose Austin, Texas, because the University of Texas was pretty high in world rankings, and the college is big and really nice. I also liked the country and the weather. Regarding the COVID pandemic, in Texas the situation is completely different from Italy: bars and restaurants are open, there is no lockdown, the mask is not mandatory outside. Nevertheless, my experience is influenced by the virus because many lessons are only online, the university can’t offer the same services as last year like sports, orientation events to get to know other people, and there are fewer exchange students. Many students couldn’t come because of the different limitations in the different countries and they are also scared about the situation. 

Do you have to face daily restrictions when you are on campus?

Unfortunately, many lessons are only online so we can return to the campus only a few days a week and there are many limitations due to Covid-19. In the classes, the mask is mandatory and there is a minimum social distance that you have to respect. The classes are almost empty because many students prefer to follow them from home. 

 Is there a blended format for the lessons or are they 100% in presence/online? How are they managed? 

At the University of Texas there are three different types of lessons: online, hybrid, and in-presence. Some courses are available only online so you can’t go on campus, but they are a good solution for the exchange students who decided to not come here. For the students who are now in Austin the best alternative is in-presence classes because all the lessons are on campus. Unfortunately, only few courses are available in-presence. For example I don’t have any classes in presence. Most of the classes are hybrid, a blended and flexible solution to face the uncertainty of this period. In this case the professor chooses for which lessons the students can go to the campus. In any case, the students can choose to stay at home and follow the same lessons online. 

Regarding lessons in presence, how have the restrictions impacted them? Do you think that without them they would have been better?  

In-presence classes are affected by the COVID restrictions: students have to wear masks, and there is a social distancing to be respected, so some seats are unavailable. I think that without these limitations the lessons would have been different. The professors’ teaching skills and the courses’ content are the same but the experience for the students has changed. Many people are scared and the classes are almost empty, and the professors are also scared and often decide to give the lessons online for the hybrid courses. So our life on campus is limited; we can go there only few days a week and for few courses and there are fewer possibilities to get to know new people on campus. We have to respect social distancing, so the discussions in class or the group works are less effective than in past years. 

Do you think that your experience will lack quality because of the pandemic?  

Surely, the pandemic is affecting my experience and is restricting the life on campus, that is the heart of the exchange program. Nevertheless, I think that the quality of this experience is still high. I’m experimenting a new way to learn because the lessons here are completely different and I’m meeting so many exchange students from different parts of the world. Then in Texas it’s all open, bars, restaurants, shops and there are so many activities to do and places to visit. 

Related:  Finding Facts Among Fiction: Guest Speakers Reflect on Relationship Between Information and the Pandemic at Tra i Leoni event

Is it possible to travel in the country where you are right now? If it is possible now or when it will be possible in the future, would you like to visit more of your exchange destination?  

Fortunately, in Texas It’s possible to travel without limitations. I would take all the advantages from this experience and visit the main cities of my country. I think that the most exciting solution is to rent a car, book an Airbnb and leave for the weekend. With the other exchange students we have already organized one weekend in another city, Houston, and it was amazing. I would visit other states in the US but this is more complicated since some states are closed because of the pandemic. But one good news: Florida is open and I think that we are going to spend spring break there! 

Based off what you have lived until today, how would you judge this experience? Would you do everything again?  

For sure! At the beginning I often wondered if coming here had been the best choice. Now I’m sure about the answer: it was and I would do everything again. Here there are many difficulties: you are alone, without your family and friends, speaking a different language, and the classes are completely different. Although the advantages are higher: I’m growing up, I’m meeting new people from other parts of the world, I’m improving my English ,and, last but not least, I’m having so much fun. There is a different party in a different house almost every day, there are so many places and cities to visit. I’m sure that this experience will change my life! 

GIOVANNI BERLIN, BIEF-Fin, 3RD Year, University of South Carolina

Many students gave up exchange programs in 2020 because of the pandemic. Why did you choose to leave?  

I have always dreamed of taking part in an exchange program and I promised myself I would have never passed up this opportunity, even during a pandemic. In retrospect, I made the best decision of my life. 

Did Covid-19 influence your exchange destination? Why did you choose this country?  

I chose the United States because I wanted to live a totally different experience from Bocconi and learn more about the American culture and lifestyle. This was not my first choice, but it is one of the very few American universities that didn’t cancel the exchange program and I will always be grateful for this. 

Do you have to face daily restrictions when you are on campus?

Compared to Europe, I can’t say that the United States imposes restrictions of any type, except for the use of masks. Thanks to an impressive vaccination campaign, over the last two months cases have been decreasing and the situation is under control. 

 Is there a blended format for the lessons or are they 100% in presence/online? How are they managed? 

It depends on the course. Of the five courses I enrolled in, two of them are 100% in presence, one is 100% synchronous online whereas the last two are blended, meaning 50% online and 50% in presence. 

Regarding lessons in presence, how have the restrictions impacted them? Do you think that without them they would have been better?  

Professors try to do their best to stimulate discussion in class even with students following online, as participation is often part of the final grade. I don’t think that the social distancing rules and the use of masks impact the quality of teaching. 

Do you think that your experience will lack quality because of the pandemic?  

I don’t feel I am missing anything from the normal exchange experience, it is simply different under some minor aspects, at least in the US. I am perfectly aware of the privilege I had to take part in an exchange program during a pandemic, and I am trying to enjoy every moment. 

Is it possible to travel in the country where you are right now? If it is possible now or when it will be possible in the future, would you like to visit more of your exchange destination?  

Related:  Return to Campus: the 2021 Spring Semester

It is possible to travel inside and outside the United States, except for some countries such as Canada. I have already done a couple of road-trips on the East coast and I plan to visit many other places in the next weeks. 

Based off what you have lived until today, how would you judge this experience? Would you do everything again?  

This experience has been by far one of the best periods of my life and I would do everything again ad infinitum. The University of South Carolina is the perfect place to live the American college life, with its amazing campus and its southern hospitality that makes you feel at home. 

Pietro Tonoli, CLEAM 3rd Year, Babson College (Wellesley, Massachusetts) 

Many students gave up exchange programs in 2020 because of the pandemic. Why did you choose to leave?  

I chose to leave because I didn’t want COVID-19 to prevent me from living the exchange experience. As a matter of fact, the exchange program is allowing me to explore a different culture and to see things from a different perspective. When I chose the USA as an exchange destination, I didn’t expect that the health situation was going to be as critical as it is right now. Fortunately, Babson College opened thanks to its strict anti-COVID code of conduct that includes the prohibition of parties and gatherings as well as the obligation of wearing masks and frequent swabs.  

Did Covid-19 influence your exchange destination? Why did you choose this country?  

The pandemic didn’t change my exchange destination list. Boston always fascinated me because of its livability and affinity with European culture. These characteristics, together with the high-quality education of Massachusetts, were a perfect compromise for me. 

Do you have to face daily restrictions when you are on campus?

We always have to wear masks in common spaces and keep the distance from each other. Furthermore, students must be tested with swabs twice a week.  

 Is there a blended format for the lessons or are they 100% in presence/online?

Babson College adopted a blended format. Every class is made up of about 40 people, divided into two different turns of 20 students. However, for those classes in which the maximum number of students isn’t reached, it is possible to attend lessons in a 100% presence format. All the lessons are recorded, but attendance is strongly recommended, since in-class participation is taken into big consideration. 

Regarding lessons in presence, how have the restrictions impacted them? Do you think that without them they would have been better?  

Without restrictions this experience would have been much more stimulating and richer, thanks to the contact and the support of students and teachers. I think that even socializing would have been easier for me and I could have lived the campus life in a fuller and more cheerful way. 

Do you think that your experience will lack quality because of the pandemic?  

Concerning my experience, the pandemic has a very strong impact at a psychological level. The restrictions, as well as the different health care system and the distance from home make this situation very stressful for exchange students.  

Is it possible to travel in the country where you are right now? If it is possible now or when it will be possible in the future, would you like to visit more of your exchange destination?  

In Massachusetts and in the USA people can travel freely. Anyway, Babson College students must be quarantined if they stay away from campus for more than 5 days. Because of this, I would like to visit more of the USA after exam session in order to make a longer trip. 

Based off what you have lived until today, how would you judge this experience?

Babson College is a very small college and students are very focused on their educational path. These traits, together with the critical health situation and the consequent restrictions, give little space for amusement and socializing is also more complicated. Besides the initial difficulties I would do everything again. My objective was to get out of my comfort zone and it is exactly what I’m trying to do day-by-day, adapting to new routines, meeting new people and learning new things. 

Many students gave up exchange programs in 2020 because of the pandemic. Why did you choose to leave?  

I chose to take part in this experience mainly for academic reasons; in fact, living the exchange semester entirely online inevitably cancels out all opportunities for social interaction and fun. On the other hand, from a purely academic point of view, the online experience, if of high quality, guarantees learning standards equal to those of the traditional ones. 

Did Covid-19 influence your exchange destination? Why did you choose this country?  

Covid-19 did not influence my choice of destinations at all because last summer, when we made our choice, there were no particularly obvious lockdown prospects in the various countries of Europe and the world. Certainly, if I had known in which countries it would be more likely to experience the exchange physically, this would have been a crucial factor in my choice. 

How are the lessons managed? 

The lessons of the courses I am taking are entirely online, which is inevitable as I am in Italy and the host university is in the USA. The classes are conducted exclusively via Zoom and, despite this, are extremely interactive. 

Did you meet new people even with the online format? Do you think that making connections is more difficult with 100% online lessons?  

I met a lot of new people, especially in group work. However, as I said before, it is extremely more difficult to build real social relationships. 

Do you think that your experience will lack quality because of the pandemic?  

It is clear that the pandemic era has made my experience much worse in every aspect. Probably the least affected point, however, has been the academic one. 

What are the principal difficulties that you have to face with the online exchange 

Firstly, the 6-hour time difference makes the organization of every aspect more complex. The Italian time in which I attend classes is afternoon, evening and sometimes night. But the difference in organization that I have ‘suffered’ most is the presence of so much group work. This difficulty is probably accentuated by the fact that the many meetings take place exclusively online. 

Based off what you have lived until today, how would you judge this experience? Would you do everything again?  

It is definitely an incomplete experience, where the only aspect not affected is the study. Nevertheless, I don’t regret having accepted to live this exchange: it gave me the opportunity to come in contact (even if virtually) with a different reality and culture and to understand how different the American academic organization is from the European one, or specifically the Italian one. So, the overall judgement is positive. 

Author profile

I’m an Economics and Management student at Bocconi University, coming from Puglia. I’m interested in all forms of art, cinema, literature and culture.

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