Exchanges in the middle of the pandemic

When the COVID-pandemic suddenly swept across the world in spring 2020, many students were faced with difficult decisions. Students who were at that moment abroad had to decide whether it was better to return home or stay put in their host country and finish the semester there. Students who had just applied for an exchange in the autumn had to cancel, postpone, or plan to complete the studies online. In Laurea, the decision was made to pause mobilities for the autumn semester 2020. This meant no students or staff came or went. However, this did not mean that no exchange activity took place.

We had a motivated group of 16 online exchange students at Laurea, and several Laurea students were also offered the possibility to do an online exchange at their destinations. Understandably, many students opted to rather postpone or cancel altogether as they were hoping to experience living in a different country and getting to know the culture and everyday life there. To cater to this aspect of the exchange experience in an online format is a bit of a challenge. With digitalization gaining more foothold, the need is not going anywhere in the future and this is something to develop. For our online exchange students of autumn 2020, we hosted Zoom orientation, mid-term and farewell sessions in which we tried to include a more informal part for “hanging out” and chatting freely. We also had a Teams-group to engage the students on a more regular basis e.g. through sharing links, pictures and videos about Finland. Whether it’s virtual city tours or online meet & greets, we have seen many good ideas pop up in the COVID-era that will serve us in the future as the online possibilities keep increasing.

The pandemic has changed the way we perceive internationalization. It is important that both physical and online possibilities are developed side by side towards more inclusive internationality. What works for one student doesn’t work for the other. Diversity is the key. COVID gave a huge jump start to online internationalization, but physical and online are not mutually exclusive, both play an important role in the internationalization of higher education. We partly resumed physical mobilities for the spring semester 2021 based on a risk assessment for different destinations. Still, there were restrictions and each student’s path formed differently depending on their situation. We have learned a lot from students’ experiences in these unusual times. Both perspectives, online and onsite, give us food for thought when we plan the future of internationalization at Laurea.

Students’ stories from spring 2021

Exchange at UiT Tromssa

View from ski jump tower over the university. Picture by Virva

In the beginning of January, Virva, a student in Laurea’s Master programme Security Management, was heading towards her exchange destination, the Arctic University of Norway (UiT) in Tromssa. There was a little bit of suspense in the air as the pandemic situation had taken a turn to worse, and the Finnish-Norwegian border was about to close. Luckily, the planned crossing place Kilpisjärvi was still open, only to close a week later. The border was not crowded at all. A negative COVID-test in order, Virva made it to Tromssa to start the first part of her exchange – a two-week quarantine in a student house with other international students from all around Europe and some from Asia.

Northern lights pictured from ski jump tower over the university. Picture by Virva

Interest in the Arctic area and plans to work in northern Finland in the future lead Virva to apply for an exchange in UiT, one of Laurea’s partners in safety, security and risk management. Before the exchange started, there was confusion with the course selection as the safety related studies on offer in UiT are quite technical and would require background in engineering. In the end, with the help of the local coordinator, Virva was able to enroll for courses. Even though the selected courses were not directly safety and security related, the quality of teaching was good, and she definitely learned new things. The exchange also gave a nice boost to her language skills. On the basis of Swedish, Virva could skip the beginner Norwegian to join the more advanced course and got confidence to use the language in everyday life during the exchange. 

Despite the pandemic situation, life in Tromssa and the teaching arrangements felt very safe. One course with less than 10 participants took place on campus, the bigger groups partly online and partly face-to-face. Corona measures like mask recommendations on public transportation and shops were already familiar from life back home in Finland. Being relatively small and located quite far in the north, the situation was very good in Tromssa throughout the semester, except for two-week lockdown when one potential COVID-case came from Oslo. 

Looking back on the experience, Virva says that the best part for her was probably the place itself, Tromssa. It is a beautiful city surrounded by mountains, covered in snow until April, a real fairy tale village with lots of nature and northern lights twinkling in the sky.

Online exchange at Queen Margaret University 

Beauty and Cosmetics student Pihla was supposed to spend autumn semester 2020 in Scotland at Queen Margaret University (QMU). Due to corona, exchanges were cancelled, and she decided to postpone the exchange to following spring. The pandemic situation persisted and there was still a lot of uncertainty as the spring semester started to approach. When QMU announced they would be offering an online exchange possibility, the decision was quite easy. Pihla enrolled for online studies, which made the situation a lot clearer. There was no need to wait and stress if travelling would be possible or not. Her main motivation for applying was the studies and to improve her English skills, especially written English, so doing an online exchange was a good option.

Lectures, or seminars as they were referred to in QMU, took place every week with a rotation of two online seminars one week and one seminar the following week. Before each week’s seminar(s), students watched video lectures and did pre-assignments. Seminars themselves were focused on questions and discussions on the course topics with the teachers and other students. Participants in Pihla’s courses were both international and local students. Seminar sessions and group discussions offered a chance to interact with other students, but the courses did involve a lot of independent work as can be expected from online courses. However, this way of studying suited Pihla quite well. Overall, the course structures were well-thought-out, and everything worked smoothly. Compared to studies at Laurea, writing long essays in English was something new and quite challenging, but in a very positive way. One of Pihla’s aims was to improve her academic writing skills and this allowed her to do exactly that.

It was clear right from the start that QMU really made an effort to support the online exchange students. They organized online sessions for students, which were in the beginning of the semester focused on getting to know each other, presenting Scotland and Queen Margaret University, later on more like check-ups. The international coordinator at QMU had open office hours every week for any questions or problems. Online orientation in the beginning introduced all necessary things to get started in the studies and there was no problem learning to use the online tools. Online library services were good and Pihla mentions as a nice feature that course reading lists were linked to the library services and clicking the materials on the course platform took you directly to that resource. Also, tutoring was available within the courses. Students who had previously attended them organized tutoring for the current students. If needed, the teachers were easily reached via email. All in all, communication with the university was fast and fluent.

The online exchange experience at QMU left a very positive impression on Pihla. Even without the physical mobility, she feels like she gained a lot. She got to challenge herself and develop the skills she was hoping to improve. In addition to the tangible things like language skills and the subject matter in the courses, exchange studies, whether online or onsite, offer a new angle to look at the world, a different perspective, and this is the beauty of internationalization. 

Writer: Kirsi Viitaharju 

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