Abroad during a Pandemic: Anxiety, Cost, and Frustration

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In the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak, all Quebec CEGEPs and universities, including McGill, are closed for two weeks as of March 14 to promote social distancing. For McGill students currently studying abroad, the situation is even more complicated. The Bull & Bear recently spoke to several students on exchange in Europe to discuss their situation.

Currently, Canada has 324 confirmed cases of coronavirus, with 39 of those in Quebec. France has over 5,400 cases, the seventh-highest of any country. While the French government was working to curtail the spread of the virus, U2 Arts student Daniel Minden, who was on exchange in Paris, asserted that “McGill’s communication to its students on exchange has been woefully inadequate.” 

On March 13, McGill suspended student travel abroad, but did not recall students already abroad or recommend that students return to Canada unless they were in a country in which the spread of the virus had reached a Level 3 classification. At this time, all European countries, with the exception of Italy, were considered Level 1. One day later, exchange students were officially recalled.

Unclear Communication

Minden highlighted the discrepancy between McGill’s response and Canada’s stance on March 13: “Canada has declared that all destinations abroad should be considered as equivalent to Level 3 – a decision which caused the University of Toronto to recall its students. [As of the 13th], McGill still has not decided to recall us or urge us to come home, even after Canadian foreign minister François Philippe-Champagne urged Canadians abroad to come home while commercial options still exist.”

Minden described frustration with McGill’s delayed communication to students abroad. After his American peers were recalled by their home universities, he emailed the McGill Abroad Office and Exchange Office on March 11 to ask under what circumstances McGill would recall its students in France. The office promised a response by March 13, but Minden contended that “the answer never came,” until March 14, when all students studying abroad were recalled. 

U2 Arts student Clariza Castro, who was on exchange in Lyon, described a similar experience. The administration “explained that students in Level 3 countries have already been recalled and that if I felt unsafe, I can definitely go home. But other than that, it was kind of left up to us to make that decision and figure out how things will go from there,” Castro recalled.

When there’s little direction, there’s a lot of concern of being stuck or in lockdown in a foreign country.

U3 Arts student Arly Abramson, who was on exchange in the Netherlands, where over 1,400 cases of coronavirus have been confirmed, also described McGill’s response as confusing. “I couldn’t gauge when I would hear from them and what they would say,” she said.

Castro recalled, “This past week, I was watching everyone from back home freak out and demand school closures, and at the time, Canada had about 150 cases. Meanwhile, I was sitting in class wondering what the hell I was doing in a lecture hall of a country with [many more cases].”

Adding that she is very grateful for the administration’s hard work and consideration, Castro said that she would have nevertheless appreciated more information. “A lot of us here in Europe, which is now the epicenter of the virus, have really no idea how to proceed,” she said. “We’ve all been communicating and helping each other out, and also trying to avoid making impulsive decisions…but when there’s little direction, there’s a lot of concern of being stuck or in lockdown in a foreign country.” 

Financial Strain

McGill’s delayed response to students abroad has placed many in a financially difficult situation, which could have potentially been avoided had students been notified earlier.

On March 14, the Canadian government reclassified all countries outside of Canada as Level 3, prompting McGill to finally recall students in Europe and elsewhere. Minden mentioned that his flight back to his home in Toronto cost over $2000, while one of his peers paid over $4200. 

Castro, who paid over $3000 for a flight home to Toronto, said “If I had known that I would have eventually been forced back, I would have bought a ticket way earlier.” 

Many students interviewed drew contrasts between McGill’s response and that of other Canadian universities. The University of Ottawa recalled their exchange students earlier, allowing students to book flights before ticket prices soared. The University of Toronto and The University of British Columbia have provided additional resources for students on exchange, such as putting them in contact with a travel agency. 

“The comparative lack of communication, certainty, and help offered by McGill is alarming,” Minden stated. “I’m enormously proud to be a McGill student, but I do expect a better response from one of Canada’s top universities. I’m surprised and disappointed.”


Going Forward

McGill and its study abroad partners have offered students abroad options to complete their credits, even if they are no longer abroad. According to Minden, Sciences Po assured exchange students that their “decision to return home will not affect their ability to receive credit for courses.” 

 Some students abroad voiced uncertainties with their host universities’ capacities to respond to the pandemic. The University of Amsterdam, according to Abramson, issued a response similar to McGill’s: on March 12, the university announced that all classes will be online until the end of the month, with the possibility for a continuation of online classes. With McGill students having been formally recalled to Canada, however, a return to in-person instruction would mean another flight to Europe in April. 

Of her host institution in Leon, Castro expressed, “I’m not sure if [my host university] has the capacity to move everything online fast enough. For exchange students, a lot of us are still having trouble accessing existing online platforms provided by the school.”

Asked to give a message to the McGill administration regarding their situation, the students interviewed highlighted the importance of adequate communication. Abramson spoke to students’ immediate concerns, asking the McGill administration to be understanding. “My message to the administration is to take this seriously and keep an open mind for when we get back. So many of us may not be able to complete all our credits or pass [our] classes, which will ultimately have a big influence on our futures and graduation paths.” 

Correction: A previous version of this article misattributed a quote from Abramson. The article has since been updated to reflect this.

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