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Sep 24, 2020 | School of Business

Student exchange in 2020 – the phases of a "grieving process"

The Corona pandemic has brought with it significant disruption to student exchanges in 2020. How have the affected students experienced this? Reflections from the International Office.

By Sabine Künzi, Head of the International Office, FHNW School of Business

The Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (1926-2004) taught that we overcome grief and loss in five phases. She was referring to grieving a deceased person, accepting one's own mortality and separation from loved ones.

In recent weeks, the 160 HSW students who wished to study abroad in the academic year 2020/2021 have had to go through a similar "grieving process". Students always really look forward to their exchange semester, having read many enthusiastic reports from former exchange students. They participate in the International Afternoon run by the International Office (IO) and talk to students from abroad. They discuss opportunities with employers, and many invest time in a well-crafted application on Mobility-Online. For them, the exchange semester is one of the highlights of their studies at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts, FHNW.
And now this! Something unforeseen, a virus that turns everything upside down and upsets the well-established, tried and tested mechanisms of international mobility. Now everyone involved is living with great uncertainty. This is not easy for us in Switzerland, where we are used to a high degree of planning security.
The International Office team has been supporting the students during this time. We imagine that the "grieving process" could have followed a pattern like this:

Phase 1: Not wanting it to be true / Denial and isolation

My exchange semester, which I spent a lot of time preparing for, is now not definite!
I was one of 160 students who were assigned a place on the "Study Abroad Placement" by the International Office in the middle of March, and like more than 80% of my fellow students, I was even given a place at one of the first three universities on my list. Although the IO pointed out uncertainties ahead in their information mail, I was nominated for the partner university and started to inform myself about my academic programme and accommodation. After that, I drafted my Learning Agreement together with my academic coordinator.
But now the IO has informed me that my partner university will not be able to accept local students in the fall semester of 2020 and will instead only offer online classes. Some partner universities did not even respond to the requests of the IO or students between March and August. Others sound optimistic, but are in countries that now seem dangerous to me. How has the country in question dealt with the Covid-19 virus? What is the health system like there? Do I have to go into quarantine when I arrive? Is it still possible to get a visa? But I have the confirmation! My semester abroad is "compulsory". This is unbelievable!

Phase 2: Anger

What is actually going on? What mistakes were made? Who is to blame?
My dreams are going up in smoke and the disappointment is great. I feel angry because I find it hard to cope with the uncertainty and don't understand why there are long waiting periods in which I’m not getting any information. Sometimes I have the impression that nobody cares about me and my situation. What is the IO actually doing? Autumn is a long way away - why can't they just offer me another place? I have a right to it - the University of Applied Sciences FHNW advertises its extensive network of partners. Now they should be making this possible!

Phase 3: Negotiation / bargaining

What options do I have?
The IO has informed me about what options I now have. I can give up the idea of a semester abroad altogether and register for an "Intensive Program Abroad" or a "Summer School", for example, in order to gain international experience. I can travel on my own as a free mover. I have to talk to my employer and see how much flexibility is possible. I can consider whether I am willing to travel to the location of the exchange semester, but then study exclusively online at the partner university. I can apply to the IO to postpone my exchange semester until 2021. My academic coordinator can find a new place for me in consultation with me.

Phase 4: Depression

I didn’t expect this!
I have the impression that the IO is working really slowly and does not always take care of my individual needs, that some partner universities are unreliable, that some information is lacking and that some is not correct. And in June I have to concentrate on my exams and I’m still not sure what exactly will happen in the autumn. I feel insecure, stressed, disappointed and sad.

Phase 5: Approval / acceptance

I’m beginning to realise what’s going on in international student mobility worldwide.
A solution is emerging. I can see that in this crazy year, 2020, I have to decide for myself on a solution for which I will receive support from the IO, my study programme and the university. New ideas are emerging, and suddenly new regions, countries and partner universities are also proving to be promising. I still have to wait and see, but I’m coming to terms with it. There is no other way.

I’m beginning to understand how international student mobility works: That the opportunity to study at a partner university is based on contracts and is also determined by financial conditions. Because I continue to pay the low semester fees at the FHNW during my exchange semester, this financial balance also requires that students come to the FHNW. In 2020, students abroad will face exactly the same challenges as I do. The University of Applied Sciences and Arts FHNW is being asked about exchange places, is trying to stay flexible and make exchange semesters possible. Only this cooperation makes my exchange possible.

There will be an autumn semester 2020 - abroad or at the FHNW! I have had a hard time and have learned a lot. I’m ready to move forward.