An unconventional exchange…

Yoana is an English and European Law student who studied abroad at KU Leuven in Belgium mid-pandemic. Read all about Yoana’s experiences studying abroad during a time of social-distancing and mask mandates…

We all remember the last weeks of March 2020. The Coronavirus panic was beginning to ensue everywhere, places of work closed down and public health restrictions were put in place resulting in international lockdowns. Many students were forced to return home, while others were unable to.

For those with an Erasmus placement as part of their degree, such as myself, many of the opportunities for studying abroad were no longer feasible. One of the few remaining chances for an Erasmus experience was at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium. Fortunately, it was the one I had applied for and was able to realise, while many of my fellow students were not so lucky. And so, along with my best friend, another Erasmus student, I embarked on an uncertain journey to ‘the battlefield of Europe’.

The academic year started off with in-person induction classes, lectures and mixers respectful of social distancing and mask mandates. It was beginning to look like a ‘normal’ university experience…until Covid cases surged. Classes were moved online, student activities –suspended, restaurants and bars closed down. Most of all, the rule of a ‘cuddle buddy’ was implemented – I could have close contact with only one other person. You can imagine the state of shock and disappointment I felt at the time. I had built up this expectation of an exchange where I get to meet new people, immerse myself in a different culture, experience something new. This adventurous attitude encapsulated my way of living. I grew up travelling and for the past three years I had lived in three different countries. It was an extremely difficult adjustment, being confined to a single room and allowed contact with a single person. As time slowly passed, however, this became my normal.

Fortunately, I had my friend beside me and, after allowing ourselves some moments of despair, we made a decision – our experience would not be anything less than extraordinary, no matter the circumstances.

We began with a small trip around romantic Leuven, the reigning brewing capital of Belgium. Then, the quintessential Brussels welcomed us with its Art Deco taverns and unique Flemish Art. The city of Dinant showcased its sax appeal with saxophone monuments all over town in Adolphe Sax’s honour, including along the bridge on which de Gaulle took a bullet in the leg in 1914. We fell in love with Bruges, the Venice of the North. Undoubtedly the most picturesque city in Flanders, allowing us to wander around medieval rooftops and cobblestone streets and marvel at architectural masterpieces every step of the way. After, the diamond capital of the world, Antwerp, shone like a jewel atop Belgium’s crown with its magnificent port, Rubens’ tributes and breath-taking cathedrals. Ghent, a shy and often overlooked town, charmed us with its quaint canals, persisting medieval lustre and characterful houses. As a finale we visited Pairi Daiza, rightfully crowned the Best Zoo in Europe. It is more than just a zoo housing 7,000 animals from around the world, it is also a botanical and architectural garden transporting you into different places with every corner you turn.

Near the end of our exchange, after successfully completing our exams, we sat down for a coffee in one of the emblematic bars in Leuven’s Grote Markt. We looked through the pictures we had taken and revisited some of our most iconic memories and I realised something. Yes, my exchange was unconventional. I never really got to know my fellow course mates, nor did I experience the student life in Belgium (and from what I’ve heard through stories from the past – I did miss out on a lot of fun times). I was forced to pave my way through much uncertainty, to remain patient in times where everything I knew changed in a matter of a day, to be flexible and adjust according to new limitations and expectations. But indeed because of this unconventionality, I also lived some of the best moments of my life. I stopped planning everything down to the second, I had no idea what the next day would bring me. In the past, this kind of unpredictability would have paralyzed me. Now, it is a welcomed change from the academic and career pressures every single student experiences on a daily basis.

There is a famous Shakespearean quote that sums up my past year and adds the perfect finishing touch. A person can truly forget how difficult something was just because everything ended in a good way. But, after all, all’s well that ends well!

What studying abroad during a global pandemic looks like…

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