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How I Studied Abroad in a Pandemic

By Anna M

Updated June 25, 2021 Updated June 25, 2021

Over the past year student life has changed unrecognisably for young people across the globe. We have all been faced with obstacles since the pandemic began: online learning, accommodation closures and isolation, to name but a few. However, given that simply returning to study at your own university has been such a challenge, students who intended on completing a ‘Year Abroad’ in 2020 or 2021 have been faced with constant upheaval. 

Nevertheless, travelling abroad as a student during the pandemic is something that myself, along with many of my classmates, have proven to be somewhat possible. My university, Durham, even publishes a monthly newsletter detailing student’s experiences living abroad. I think most of these students would agree that attempting a year abroad during a global pandemic has been one of the most complicated, uncertain, and crazy experiences of their lives.

To travel or not to travel?

As a language student, I have been imagining what my year abroad would be like for years. It’s such an integral part of my degree and the key to achieving fluency in your target language. I received an offer for an internship in Salamanca, Spain, in January 2020 – before I even knew what Covid-19 was. At that time, I thought I had completed the hardest part of planning a year abroad by finding a job, and all that was left to do was simply finding a flat and booking a flight. Evidently, by the time I was meant to travel in September the world had changed unrecognisably, and I was very unsure whether to go.

Travel anxiety is not something I had ever experienced before. I have lived and worked in various countries and am always planning my next adventure abroad. However, travelling whilst trying to understand and respect international restrictions was very overwhelming at first. Fears of not being able to meet people due to social distancing restrictions and even getting stranded abroad made me reluctant to travel at all. However, at the last minute, I decided to book a flight as I knew that any type of experience abroad would be an improvement on not being able to travel at all! Just three days later I boarded a flight to Spain.

Pandemic culture shock

Upon arrival in Madrid Airport, I began to question my decision further, as what would usually be a bustling hub of people was an absolute ghost town. After finally finding the metro, and then the coach station, I somehow made it to my destination of Salamanca! I felt proud that I had achieved this, but I was slightly discouraged again when my taxi driver greeted me by saying “what are you doing here in a pandemic?”, but I simply responded with a nervous laugh and a shoulder shrug.

I quickly began to take note of the differences between the social distancing rules in Spain compared to those in the UK. The most notable being that you had to wear masks everywhere, in the parks, the streets, schools and the shops. The one I found the most confusing was the rule that you could only remove your mask at a bar or restaurant whilst you were eating or drinking. I interpreted this to mean that you could only take your mask off once your food arrived and had to put it back on as soon as you finished your meal. However, after being yelled at by a police officer whilst sat with a pizza and a glass of wine in front of me, I realised that the attitude towards masks in Spain was much stricter than in the UK. 

Socialising or social distancing?

Apart from these confusing and at times embarrassing moments caused by the Covid-19 regulations, I did get the hang of it in the end and began to enjoy life in this ‘new normal’. However, building a new social life from scratch whilst obeying social distancing was a daunting and seemingly impossible challenge. Luckily enough, my Spanish flatmates were lovely and introduced me to their friends. My fluency improved every day I spent with them, and having a casual chat was well within my language abilities. But I did begin to long to meet some English speakers, mainly when something I had had a stressful day and wanted a to mindlessly rant at someone to get it all off my chest.

Usually, the way to meet English speakers abroad is through Erasmus meet ups and parties. Sadly, the number of Covid safe events was limited and there were generally much fewer international students in the city. However, if there is one thing I have learnt as a year abroad student this year, it is that things do seem to work out in unconventional ways …

Whilst sitting in a café catching up with a friend, I noticed 2 girls waving at us. They were students from the University of Edinburgh who were as keen to meet another English-speaking friend as I was. Thanks to this unplanned encounter, I ended up with exactly what I wanted, a group of both Spanish and English-speaking friends to go through this experience with.

What I’ve learned

Now that my time is Spain is over, I finally feel I can now answer the question that taxi driver asked me. The reason I was there to discover Spanish culture and improve my language skills! As is the motivation of every study abroad student every year. Covid may have changed the process and the outcome of my year abroad, but the motivation and reason for doing one remains the same.

Unfortunately, my region of Spain was the first to go back into a lockdown in November. Because of this, I decided to return to the UK earlier than planned, bringing my Spanish experience to a very sudden end. Even though I was disappointed to have to leave, it was an amazing experience whilst it lasted. I’m currently trying to make the most of a virtual year abroad course, mainly by watching European Netflix and have started a year abroad themed radio show. Meanwhile, I’m ready and waiting to hop on a plane as soon as the borders open again!

This article was originally published in June 2021 .

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