My study abroad experience during a global pandemic

Kiara Paninos, Staff Writer

Getting the email in March that my IES Abroad program was suspended because of a virus was surreal. I knew other study abroad programs were being canceled around the world, but that would never happen to me, right? I told myself that it’s not a sure thing, they’ll probably give us some sort of option. It couldn’t all be over after just three weeks of what was supposed to be a four-month program. I went over to my friend’s apartment and we slowly came to the heart-wrenching realization that the email was very straightforward. There was no gray-area. We had to be out of our apartments by a certain date, and we had to say goodbye to Germany.

For three weeks I had felt so lucky to be in such a cool German city. For three weeks Freiburg exceeded my expectations and I was feeling at home. I made Flammkuchen with my flatmates and amazing friendships with the people in my program. And then suddenly I caught myself wishing that I didn’t love it so much, because then perhaps the goodbyes would not be so incredibly painful.

I had worked hard to make studying abroad possible. I saved up money and did a lot of research. The Gilman scholarship made my semester away financially feasible and I was so grateful to have the opportunity to learn in Germany. I know that having this experience cut short does not compare to the many horrible things others must endure during this pandemic. I got to be home with my family, play with my dog and watch Avatar: the Last Airbender between my online German classes.

But studying abroad was about more than just learning German for my major. It was about making a home in a new place. Yes, the language learning was phenomenally fun, but the connections I made with new people and places there were also extraordinary and I was only there for three weeks! There are so many reasons to study abroad, and getting to know different people is a big one. Our program group chat is still poppin’, and my flatmates still message me from time to time. I can only imagine the kinds of friendships and cultural immersion that result from an entire semester abroad.

There are also a lot of resources to make studying abroad possible. I had a lot of support getting to Germany, and I had even more support getting home. Finding a last-minute, reasonably priced plane ticket back to little ol’ Wyoming felt near impossible without help. I was anxious and sad, but the Whitman OCS office, the Gilman team and IES Abroad all offered a lot of support and information. The Gilman team also helped with those upsetting and unexpected travel expenses. There was a point at which I thought going to Germany to study abroad would be impossible. And then I thought getting back home during a global pandemic would be impossible. But both of those things happened because I had help and encouragement from different people. During my short time there I experienced so much that I wouldn’t trade for anything. I am grateful that I got to see the seepark and figure out the (amazing) public transportation. I am grateful that I got to eat so much delicious food with some truly stellar people and improve my German. I am grateful that there are people looking out for my well being in this crazy world.

I recommend studying abroad to anyone even vaguely thinking about doing it. There are scholarships, programs and people to make it possible. There are friends, foods, classes and learning to make it so very worthwhile. There will be obstacles like language barriers and budgeting, but (hopefully) no global pandemic that’ll throw a wrench in it all. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and get ready for a marvelous learning adventure.