Erasmus in the time of…COVID-19
Editing – Translation: Christina Papapolyviou
Project Support Specialist
Press and Public Relations Office, University of Cyprus
The outbreak of the pandemic found thousands of students spread around different European countries within the framework of the Erasmus+ program of the European Union, and particularly, of university exchanges. The developments because of the new coronavirus, have had evident effects on the educational program and caused uncertainty regarding the carrying out of exchanges with the physical presence of participants, for the next semester.
I have been acquainted with the Erasmus program as a student of the University of Cyprus at the University of Geneva in Switzerland during the winter semester of academic year 2013-2014, and member of the, then, European Club CY which evolved into the Erasmus Student Network (ESN) Nicosia in 2015 – with a founding crew consisting of a group of friends who are now graduates of our university.
I can certainly say that my participation – my first “flight” away from the safe educational and familial nest of Cyprus – has shaped at a large extent who I am today and how I perceive things around me. The concept of being a citizen of the world effortlessly becomes a lifestyle for every participant of exchange programs.
The “intimidating” distance from the unknown faces of strangers with different mother tongues and homelands, different colors of skin, different mentalities and cultures is bridged with incredible ease through an awkward smile that confirms that those strangers know exactly what you feel and are like you. After that, your life turns into a “journey” and a suitcase filled with memories and people from all around the world.
With the global shutdown of airports and borders as a restrictive measure against the spread of the corona virus, all travelling plans have been postponed. What about Erasmus though, and the “journey” of so many students that had to deal with the pandemic in the middle of their studies away from home? How does a program, based primarily on human contact and the free movement of people from country to country, function under these intricate and unprecedented circumstances, and what does the future hold for the renewal of agreements and the continuation of activities in the wake of the pandemic? Three outgoing and three incoming Erasmus students of the University of Cyprus have talked to us about their experiences and the impact of the virus on their schedules.
Georgia Demetriou, Outgoing Student (Social & Political Studies – Sociology) – BELGIUM
«I am doing my Erasmus in Kortrijk, in Belgium. From the beginning of my studies I have wanted to go on Erasmus and learn new things, but maybe sometimes we should not plan that far ahead. My experience lasted for about a month, since, afterwards due to the corona virus we had to stay home.
I will not try to hide it, at first, I was extremely disappointed because all I could think of was that we only had one shot at going on Erasmus and it was ruined. The transition was very hard because even though I was at a place where I could wander around and explore all the areas I have been dreaming of, and acquire new knowledge, I was obliged to stay at home. However, what matters the most is our health.
Travelling can be deferred, but human life cannot. On the upside, I have managed – even for a little bit – to have so many amazing moments that I will never forget. It is an incredibly special experience which became even more special and unique because of COVID-19. I think that as time goes by, the situation will continue to improve, but without a vaccine and further practical solutions, nothing will be the same anymore.
The fear and the uncertainty of the unknown will make people refrain from travelling in the next months. Even simple local transportation will be risky, and people will limit their outings and switch to new daily routines until these feelings of fear die down».
Aliki Ioannidou, Outgoing Student (Εducation) – GREECE
«I am still on my Erasmus in Greece, at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. The corona virus has unfortunately cancelled every plan I had arranged. Sadly, it is extremely hard for an Erasmus student to cope with the current situation. The universities in Greece had just opened (after the winter semester break) when the obligatory self-isolation measures were implemented. Before our new student life even kickstarted and we got acclimated, the lockdown happened.
The online courses which were carried out with large audiences, were not helpful to us, being used to the more person-centred approach applied at the University of Cyprus, and we felt lost. I believe the virus appeared to remind us that beauty and importance lie in the simple things. A friend, having a coffee and a walk in the fresh air, after all, are much more valuable than anything. I am hopeful that, even if isolation has shaken us, people will move on with their lives.
I feel incredibly lucky to have lived this unique experience, at least for a little while, and wish I had the chance to keep on living it. There are so many things to see, do, and learn through the culture of the residents of a different country.
It is not extremely hard to survive such an experience if you have the right support system. I was fortunate enough in my misfortune (as well as all the other students from our university), to have had and still have Ms. Emma Zeniou, officer in charge of the University of Cyprus Mobility Office, by my side. She cares about us, informs us, and looks after us like we are children of her own. I am grateful to her and truly thank her!»
Yana Chernysh, Incoming Erasmus Student – Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia, RUSSIA
«I had to leave Cyprus on April 10th, way before the prescheduled termination of my studies at the University of Cyprus, because I received a notification from the Russian Embassy in Cyprus that the border would be closed for an indefinite period of time. Nowadays and in the future people will have to follow the rules regarding limiting the spread of the coronavirus, but I believe that everything will be fine. I will return to Cyprus as a tourist to see as many attractions as possible! Take care!»
Figueredo Casuso Nelson, Incoming Erasmus Student – University of Cantabria, SPAIN
«Economically it is not easy due to the situation in Spain. Because of all the precautionary measures and the closing of airports and borders I had six flights cancelled. Of course, I regret missing out on all the experiences I could have had with people at the University of Cyprus and around the island. I think we will have to wait for months until free movement in all countries is permitted, but hopefully a vaccine will rectify the situation. As for the Erasmus program, I guess a lot of exchanges for next year will be affected because of worldwide restrictions in travelling».
Zhang Yarui, Incoming Erasmus Student – Zhejiang University, CHINA
«I am from China so when I arrived in Cyprus, I had to spend 14 days under obligatory quarantine since it was the time that the virus was widespread in China. That made me miss classes and waste time from my new semester. After the virus began spreading in Cyprus, we switched to online courses, which was a good measure that protected the students and helped us continue our academic studies.
My experience of travelling to Cyprus which has a totally different culture and environment compared to my home country is a great memory I will cherish for all my life. I appreciated the Erasmus program because it provides chances to students from around the world to gather and communicate. With more and more young people getting to know one another through Erasmus, information is exchanged, and technology is learned and shared. the Erasmus program is using its own energy to bring people from different countries and religions closer. I hope the future world becomes a better place that has less discrimination and more peace and understanding thanks to the joint will of more and more young people».
Artemis Papazachariou, Erasmus+ Placement – ITALY
«I am a graduate from the Department of Business and Public Administration and a few months after graduation I decided to participate in the Erasmus+ Placement exchange program, to gain my first work experience abroad. I started my six-month placement in October 2019 at a Digital Marketing Agency in Parma, in Northern Italy. After the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic which affected the whole globe, and particularly the country I worked in, my company was forced to implement remote/smart working, since the Italian authorities imposed a mandatory quarantine until the deadly virus is under control.
Even though I happened to go through the harsh conditions of the lockdown away from home, I had the beautiful experience of the Erasmus+ placement and the chance to fulfill my dream. For this reason I reckon that although students will be hesitant and afraid of taking part in exchange programs, they will defy the dangers, and will be filled with positive energy and tenacity – like all young people – to chase after what they want and go against the mishaps that might come up. I believe and remain hopeful that when the virus dies out, we will go back to reality and continue exploring the world, organize trips with our friends, boyfriends/girlfriends, and we will hug and enjoy the company of our loved ones up close, instead of behind some screen».
Ms. Emma Zeniou, Officer in Charge of the Mobility Office of the University of Cyprus also shared her insight with us. In addition to that, we had the chance to follow up on our conversation – during a visit from the academic Erasmus coordinators of the University of Valladolid of Spain through Erasmus+, Professor of English Philology at the School of Education and Social Work, Teresa Calderón Quindós, and Professor of Commercial Law at the School of Economics and Business Sciences, Benjamín Peñas Moyano at the Cervantes Institute of the University of Cyprus in late February – online this time, about how they have experienced the unexpected developments in Spain and the whole world.
Emma Zeniou, Officer in Charge of University of Cyprus Mobility Office
«Staff mobility for training or teaching has stopped due to the implementation of restrictive measures and the travel ban. The Erasmus students that have stayed at their host universities take online courses. Other students have managed to repatriate either before the shutdown of airports or after, on repatriation flights, and still take online courses as per normal. Obviously, the pandemic will continue affecting the circumstances related to the program in the following months.
Therefore, it remains to be seen whether the European Union will take an official stand regarding the winter semester of the academic year 2020-21, and allow for online Erasmus mobility, which has already been announced by many universities, in lieu of traditional mobility (with physical presence). Currently there have been formed three trends among the European universities.
Universities will not send nor accept Erasmus exchange students during the Winter Semester 2020-21 (with physical presence). Online courses will be offered for incoming students, while the question of whether other universities will provide the same services of distance learning to students, is still pending.
Universities will not send but will accept students through traditional mobility (with physical presence).
Universities will send but will not accept students through traditional mobility (with physical presence).
For at least a month and a half, I was in contact with our students and graduates that were on Erasmus exchange studies or placement, on daily basis. At first, when the restrictive measures were imposed in all countries, online courses were not running, and when the travel ban was applied, absolute panic prevailed. But, little by little, while remaining in touch with them, when online courses or working remotely commenced, things started getting better. For the students that managed to repatriate the issue of eligibility for Erasmus funding after having left their host universities, came up. The issue was resolved by the EU beginning of April, and funding continues to be provided on the condition that students or new graduates keep on attending online courses or working remotely and have expenses in their host countries.
The Erasmus program goes on. As mentioned earlier, there are three trends among universities and we still do not know how things are going to evolve. Although the number of applications by our students for participation in the Program or the winter semester has decreased, we keep on going. It is not clear now if students that have applied for their Erasmus at the University of Cyprus will be able to travel. We are hoping that the virus will soon subside, a vaccine will be found, and the Erasmus Program will be revived and continue to hold its place as the most successful European program for the next 7-year period».
Teresa Calderón Quindós & Benjamin Peñas Moyano
Professors at Universidad de Valladolid – SPAIN
During a recent visit from the academics mentioned above, at the University of Cyprus, they pointed out that International and Erasmus programs are encouraged at the University of Valladolid, and their institution is very flexible to accommodate incoming students. “We have a very monolingual tradition in our region, and for that reason Erasmus exchange programs give students the chance to practice new languages, and at the same time promote the Spanish language and culture which can open up a wide professional market to students. As for Spanish students, they mostly look for destinations with English lectures, so Cyprus is a good option.”
The other day, when we discussed online, they stated that things suddenly got exceedingly difficult in Spain. “We could not appreciate the dimension of the whole issue, especially as we were on our trip to Cyprus. First, we had a high number of people infected, then many were killed by the pandemic (especially among the elder) and many families lived the traumatic situation of not being allowed to say good-bye to their parents or grandparents.
We have been confined for more than 50 days, but it seems that we will start going out for little whiles and with a lot of precautions. Being in touch with our students and colleagues and having our minds busy with classes and assignments makes things easier from a psychological point of view. As they say, de-escalation is getting prepared by the government. Hopefully, it will be done safely for everybody.
Almost all Spanish Erasmus students have returned to Spain, while a small number of Erasmus students have decided to continue their studies abroad. Unfortunately, there are specific cases of students who have not been able to repatriate, for this reason, the University of Valladolid, and in particular the Erasmus Students Service Offices of the different Schools (Education and Social Work, Economics, etc.), have tried to be aware of the situation of every student on mobility in order to provide the necessary help. We have no doubts about the future of the Erasmus Mobility Program.
The most successful program in the European Union will continue its fundamental role in building the European project of balanced development and collective solidarity. We do not get many news from Cyprus, which might be a good sign. Perhaps you were more conscious about the situation than us; we could notice from the concern that everybody was showing even before things got out of hand. We were lucky to have been able to visit Cyprus just before the corona virus crisis, and we often talk about it. It was a real pleasure to meet you and other University of Cyprus staff members. Warm regards, Teresa and Benja.”
According to the official website of the European Commission, the priority and main objective of everyone at this time, is the safety and protection of all the people participating in Erasmus+ and the European Solidarity Corps, while abiding by the ad hoc restrictive measures. The efforts to provide help to participants that must deal with the consequences of the virus will continue, and the actions of the Commission will adjust depending on the progress and the gradual normalization of the situation, always in synergy with the official organizations and bodies.
Despite the little holdup and the potential for the long-term successful program to be drastically affected and changed in form (hopefully temporarily) students, academic and administrative staff remain positive and highlight the significance of the exchange of ideas and expertise, and of the communication between people from different racial, ethnic, and socioeconomical backgrounds from all corners of the world. Erasmus still goes on. It lives on through the experiences, knowledge and emotions of the outgoing and incoming students of the University of Cyprus, but also through the millions of people that were lucky enough to be a part of, and institutionalize this tradition from its establishment in 1987, until today.