The View from Abroad: Lessons From A Covid Abroad Semester

Anya Mukundan | 9/22/21

Check out our new student blog series, “The View from Abroad,” that follows current senior and OSA peer advisor Anya Mukundan as she studies abroad with CIEE Toulouse this semester! Anya will cover topics such as language, culture shock, and travel.

This week, Anya focuses on her past semester abroad in Scotland. She discusses the impact that COVID-19 had on her semester and passes on advice on how to make the most of an unusual study abroad experience.

Way back in January 2021, I stepped on an airplane heading to Scotland and the University of St Andrews, negative PCR test result in hand. Despite Scotland having rapidly gone into a lockdown the previous week due to a new variant, I was itching for a new experience, even if it was one still impacted by Covid-19. During the months that followed, I most certainly did not get the amazing experience that my peers described the past years at St Andrews to have been. I took online classes the entire semester, was restricted to meeting in groups of 2 outdoors for the first month and could barely travel outside the small seaside town. However, I thoroughly enjoyed my semester all the same, and it forced me to go out of the way to get the experiences that would have come easily to me in a pre-Covid world. Looking back, these changes I had to make will be very useful as I start a new semester abroad in France, and many even apply to studying abroad long after Covid has an impact.

The one aspect of study abroad that a lockdown clearly affects is making friends. Since I was in a direct enrollment program, I did not have a built-in cohort of Americans, but it did mean that the friends I made came from all over the world. Meeting people through clubs was the beginning, but I also had to initiate a lot more in order to befriend people. The lockdown tended to make people stick even closer to their established friend groups, which meant I had to be the one to reach out and make plans. I also took the initiative to get involved in buddy programs. It felt kind of cheesy to sign up, but it can be hard to meet people during any abroad semester and it is valid to want to go to an event just to make friends. Friends I made this way showed me local hiking paths and took me to amazing restaurants – one even cut my hair when the hairdressers were still closed. The lockdown also forced me to make better connections with individual people before I was allowed to hang out with groups later in the semester. Joining a big friend group right away would have given me less time getting to know people individually and I would not have felt as close to any one person. In the future I now plan on asking people to hang out one-on-one more often, regardless of restrictions. 

Another lesson I tried my best to apply while abroad was to be outside as much as possible, even when lockdown restrictions make it very easy to stay inside all day. This was especially important in a small town where you can run into people at any moment. Some of my best moments were spontaneously hanging out with friends that I ran into. I even recognized a peer from online class and we ended up working on projects together in person. However, running into people can only happen if you get outside of your room by going somewhere new to study or by taking a walk.  

Speaking of walks, walks are a great way of exploring a new city! I rarely went on walks before Covid, but seeing as they were one of the few unrestricted activities while abroad, they became an almost-daily routine. There is something so satisfying about knowing exactly where everything is and walking somewhere with the confidence of a local. Take time to explore your city in depth because there are always hidden gems to find. I loved discovering hidden pedestrian passageways between streets in St Andrews. It sucks traveling to somewhere and only being able to explore locally, but even small cities can be explored for the whole semester. You can live somewhere for years and never know it fully, so being in the same place for a mere semester is honestly just a start.  

While having to make all these adjustments, I was forced to consider why I was studying abroad now instead of waiting until after college to go on a trip to Scotland. One of the main reasons is in the “study” aspect of “study abroad.”  A main advantage of studying abroad besides being in a new country is the ability to take classes that you cannot take at Tulane, which will provide you with a unique experience even if the classes end up being online. I was able to take interesting courses both inside and outside my major that Tulane does not specialize in, such as marine bioacoustics and Scottish music. These courses developed my training as an environmental biology major and taught me more about my new surroundings.

All in all, my experience abroad was worth it, but involved a big leap in my independence and self-initiative. This change was difficult, yet rewarding in that I can now apply it to my time in France. I hope that my take-away lessons from the semester can help other students too as they study abroad this semester and in the semesters to come.