By: Noah Blaff, Comm '20
"The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes" - Marcel Proust
Exchange. It’s a cornerstone of the Queen’s Commerce program, our birthright. Unique to us as co-ops are to the Lazaridis students at Wilfrid Laurier University. The term, “studying abroad,” has become canonized in the university student vernacular. Mention of the phrase may spawn images of students escaping reality for a four-month party, or of travelling to transcend traditional education.
Most Commerce students, however, fit somewhere in between these two extremes on the aspirational spectrum. Intensions aside, the program offers countless benefits: It’s a time to challenge preconceived notions, experience new cultures, learn foreign history…and so forth.
Itineraries bound many a student while away on exchange, and although the Commerce administration tries to prepare for unforeseen disruptions, some are not within the realm of control. As students departed Canadian airports following their winter break, a peculiar virus broke in China. The past few weeks have seen exponential expansion and the materialization of real fears for students overseas.
As the coronavirus pandemic virulently rolls from continent to continent, Queen’s students partaking in international exchanges are being recalled to Canada. Unfortunate circumstances have robbed these students of quality learning and led to uncertainty regarding their return.
Two years ago, amid an overcrowded Dunning Auditorium, fourth year Commerce students highlighted their exchange experiences to a crowd of excited peers. They had panelists speak to travelling the hotspots of Europe and Asia. I attended this mandatory panel feeling indifferent about exchange, thinking it was just a net-neutral inevitability, some chore I had to do. But the enthusiastic speakers opened my eyes.
I left the auditorium with the same excitement I had upon seeing the Queen’s campus for the first time. When I returned from the Queen’s campus tour four years ago, I told my parents, “This is where I’m going to school.” Similarly, I turned to friends as we neatly exited the large hall saying, “I am going to study in Singapore next year.”
And what a great time it was. I did end up attending Singapore Management University (SMU) and had, as many travellers do, the greatest four months of my life. Academic burdens were minimal, new friends were plentiful, and the opportunity to travel Southeast Asia: priceless.
It was with this understanding that I sunk in my chair after reading countless headlines about the pandemic. Seeing quarantines imposed, travel halted, countries being placed under near-martial law. I reached out to a friend, one year my junior, studying at the same school as I did, to ask how his exchange was being impacted.
He had been living the exchange dream: meeting new voyageurs from across the globe, setting off to exciting places, everything that I had advised him to. But the virus shows little sympathy. Planned trips to South Korea, Indonesia, and Vietnam – highlights of the Southeast Asian travel experience – were all cancelled.
So far, his travel had been limited essentially to a city in Malaysia and Thailand, but fears over travel confinement kept throwing wrenches in plan after plan. He assured me, however, that it would subside, and he would compensate for lost time. This urge to “compensate” revealed the true price the virus was having on students abroad. They were all fighting the ticking clock, a four-month countdown.
Flash forward a month, and the third-year cohort are amid a mass exodus. Students around the globe were recalled to Canada in anticipation of the viral spread. I attended a social, before the public push towards ‘social distancing’, and I spotted a third-year student who, to my knowledge, was still on exchange in the U.K.
He told me that the Commerce office had sent him notice to leave exchange as soon as possible and return to Canada. Not only was his exchange cut short, but other issues arose. For one, his host university is not allowing completion of certain courses online. Accordingly, there are unfulfilled courses for which he will not receive credit.
Further, costs such as rent and cancelled return flights are left on the student’s plate. Definitely not what he had in mind when signing the exchange agreement’s dotted line.
Another student studying at EDHEC in Lille, France, was forced to return. He chose the school after speaking with students from the host university. While in Europe, he had the pleasure of experiencing what these students mentioned. Whether it be going for happy hour drinks with new friends, a nice tradition in Lille, or attending a Premier League game in Newcastle, U.K, he had it all – the full local experience – within reach.
I asked how his thoughts of Coronavirus changed throughout his exchange, to which he replied:
“My thoughts on the virus changed as time went on. At first, I did not care about it at all – I was going in with the approach that my physical health is strong and the chances of me contracting it were slim. I had the mindset of, ‘I am not going to let this virus affect my exchange.’ But then countries were starting to shut down, borders were starting to close, and I was thinking, ‘Okay, maybe this is way more serious than I first thought.’ My parents were cautious so I remained informed, but I never thought it would get to this point at the beginning of my exchange.”
His parents wanted his return before France inevitably declared a Stage Three Emergency, which was a tough decision to deal with. Knowing it was a good idea did little in reconciling the fact that nearly all his exchange companions were remaining in Europe for the time being.
He was in a state of flux. He recalled that, “France was gaining more cases fast and EDHEC was not telling us what would happen. It felt like we were in limbo for a while because we just wanted a decision to be made.”
“Once Emmanuel Macron [the French President] declared that all schools in France would shut down the week of March 9th, that's when my parents and I decided to book a flight home officially."
Queen's was not ordering him home specifically, but they would follow the procedures of respective schools in returning students back home.
He is now back in Vancouver, self-isolating, feeling no symptoms of sickness. His courses will be completed online which he will receive full credit for.
As the Class of 2021’s exchange concludes prematurely, I can’t help but feel a sorrow for the missed opportunities. Exchange can be, and usually is, a profound experience. Four months away from everything we’re accustomed to, venturing into the unknown, the uncomfortable, experientially learning history. Saint Augustine famously remarked that, “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only a page.”
Exchange travel is rich, it’s a unique form of education. The kind of education that defies prose: an ineffable appreciation for both human nature and the cultivating forces that uniquely mould societies. It’s a boundless frontier containing unimaginable capacity for learning.
Reading Hemingway’s, A Moveable Feast, will never rival carousing around the cobblestone streets of Paris. Nor will watching Ken Burns’ Vietnam War documentary match the intensity of crawling through the claustrophobic Cu Chi Tunnels outside of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. While words are powerful, they have limits, they can’t match the meaning captured by experience.
To all exchange students, I suggest remembering the taste that disturbed travel plans left in your mouth. Keep it front of mind, for it’s easy to see weeks become months become years and travel plans subtly slip out of reach with increased professional and relational commitments post-graduation.
Experience truly is the marrow of life, marrow that needs to be extracted through meaningful encounters abroad just as much as at home.