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Would-be exchange students losing out

Would-be exchange students losing out

| Text and photo: Bjørn Lønnum Andreassen

International experience is important in a lot of occupations, but for many, the corona pandemic has left the dream of a colourful CV in tatters.

The understanding of other languages, culture and history is part of many university courses. Students with international experience can showcase international skills, says the Norwegian University of Science and Technology NTNU, which has exchange agreements with more than 500 universities in more than 100 countries. Right now, though, none of this is of much help. 

Autumn semester hardest hit

Most exchange students go on shorter trips lasting three to six months, explains Anja Linge Valberg, Head of Office at the NTNU Office of International Relations. 

“The corona pandemic has first and foremost put a stop to the physical exchange programmes for students on short-term stays this autumn. NTNU has felt it necessary to cancel such exchanges for this semester. 

“Foreign students have been accepted for 2020 on the understanding that their courses will be digital during the first semester, with a view to arrive in Norway in January 2021. Some courses have chosen not to accept international students in 2020 because of challenges related to digital teaching,” she says. 

Cultural experience

“We see a certain level of drop-off now during this first semester, and it is clear that digital solutions do not provide a total package in many ways. A major part of the exchange experience is normally to gain cultural experiences and to physically live in a foreign country. We also get feedback saying digital courses can be challenging for some. They might have bad internet connections, there are different time zones and other technical problems too,” says Valberg.

“We are working towards securing a more normal study situation by spring 2021, but there are many things that must be worked through at NTNU first,” she tells the Nordic Labour Journal.

“It is too early to say whether the corona pandemic will lead to a fall in application numbers for our international master's degree programmes. The situation is different from country to country and many things can still change for the students.”

A broken dream

Markus Hoff Skudal studies industrial economics and technology management in Trondheim.

“My studies have carried on without major delay, but I lost out on job experience. I was due to work as an exchange student with data analysis in Ecuador. It was really disappointing to miss out on that,” says Skudal.

He still does not know whether exchanges planned for next spring might be cancelled too. His plan is to study in New Zealand. He says the current situation means he risks losing sorely needed and desired experience from studying and working abroad.  

“My planned foreign stay means a lot. It is not usually possible to postpone it, but it looks like the institute might have made an exception. It might be accepted to do the exchange during the fourth year of study, rather than next spring, but I still don’t know. NTNU management or the department must authorise a delayed exchange programme,” he explains.

“I have been studying from home and taken most of my exams at home, with less follow-up from lecturers than I had expected. I really enjoy being present in physical lectures. The situation is unfortunate but understandable,” he says. 

Nearly stopped before getting off the ground

British student Sebastian Porter is currently on a work exchange in Trondheim.

“I came to Norway two and a half weeks ago and spent 10 days in quarantine. That was not much fun, but apart from those 10 days, most things have gone pretty much according to plan. I have been fairly lucky. Norway seems to have fewer restrictions on meeting other students, compared to Belgium where I have been living. If the situation makes it necessary to travel more back and forth, it would be really disruptive to have to spend more time in quarantine. This also depends on whether online studying will be offered or not,” he says.

“Besides studying, I am working for a company in order to get some international work experience, which is essential. But I did not have a formal work contract because I already knew the company well. When I arrived at the airport ready to leave, I realised I had a ‘small’ problem. I was not allowed to board the plane to Norway without a work contract. After a somewhat stressful telephone call to my leader, a contract was sent over just minutes before my departure for Norway.”

Cancelling out of fear

The International Association for the Exchange of Students for Technical Experience, IAESTE, facilitates work experience for overseas students.

“We have not been able to send any Norwegian studies abroad this year. That is a dramatic situation. Many students are worried and there has been a lot of back-and-forth. Many are worried about travelling and have cancelled the day before departure. We have dealt with a lot of very unhappy students who have had their dream jobs abroad cancelled. 

“Many of those who come back with working experience gain a lot from this when they enter into the working life,” says Caroline Oksnes at IAESTE and NTNU.

“We have been able to receive a few European students, but some unpredicted issues have popped up. Suddenly some countries have turned red and made it challenging to find a place to live and working digitally during the quarantine."

Dreams with a pause button
Students Markus Hoff Skudal, Sebastian Porter and Caroline Oksnes at NTNU in Trondheim struggle to realise their dreams of studying and working abroad.

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