With all universities moving to remote teaching, students have been forced to adapt to a new and strange situation.

The usual seminar encounters were suddenly replaced by Zoom meetings, and many students abandoned their shared accommodation to seek the shelter of their homes.

International students faced a different challenge – to leave everything behind, and fly back home, or risk being stranded abroad? Sebastian Chiriac, an MA student at the University of Virginia, describes his experience during COVID-19.

What are the advantages of studying abroad?

I was a traveller from a very young age. But travelling and living in another country are two very different things. I used to love the UK, having visited the country before starting my BA programme, but living there made me aware of – not exactly the hardships – but what daily life was actually like. It was a very maturing experience. I got to live in a different country and experience problems I hadn’t encountered before. It was probably a wake-up call for me. I got out of my comfort zone, and I got to know people from very diverse backgrounds.

What drew you to this MA programme?

The fact that I got to travel to three different continents and study at three top universities, one of them being the University of Virginia. I had always dreamed of studying abroad, and in the US in particular. The University of Virginia is one of the oldest and getting the opportunity to study there felt like a tremendous accomplishment. The structure of the programme would have allowed me to live in Guangzhou – a cosmopolitan city in China – from January to March, and in Barcelona from March to June. Getting to study in China was also a big factor for me because you don’t really hear about Western students going to China. I knew I needed to experience that for myself. Barcelona was also incredibly appealing. It’s probably one of the most adored cities in Europe, and it’s a fun destination, especially for people my age.

You flew to China in January when the number of cases was growing rapidly. How would you describe that experience?

I got to China on 4 January. There weren’t that many cases yet. On 7 January, a piece of news surfaced saying that there was this new type of pneumonia in Wuhan, and people were getting sick, but there wasn’t any reason for concern. On 14 January, there were around 400 cases and 8 deaths, but people still weren’t very scared. At the time, the CDC, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, stated that this was just your average flu – one should simply proceed with caution and do whatever the authorities in China recommended. It was a few weeks before the Chinese New Year when 400 to 500 million people travel all around China – the biggest annual migration in the world. That’s when I realised that things were getting serious. Because we were on holiday, we decided to travel to Beijing and Shanghai. We had been instructed to wear face masks prior to our trip, but, midway to Beijing, we heard that the city was going into lockdown.

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As foreign students, we had no clue what was going on. It was a very frightening and stressful experience. All the major tourist attractions were closed, public transportation was shut down, and we were afraid we would get stranded somewhere. DiDi Chuxing – the equivalent of Uber in China – halted its food deliveries. Flights were getting cancelled. Instead of going to Shanghai, we went to Kunming, a city with fewer cases. However, when we got there, we realised that everything was closed. We probably flew more within the span of a week than in a whole month. We managed to catch a high-speed train to Guangzhou. We didn’t know it at the time, but that was the last train going to Guangzhou.

on to Europe

But you still managed to fly back to Romania in time. What happened once you got home?

News had gotten out that Romanian students were coming back from China on the same day, so several television crews were waiting for us at the airport. Self-isolation wasn’t mandatory back then, but I stayed inside for a couple of days. When I finally went out, people were looking at me strangely because I was the only one wearing a face mask. No one seemed to take things seriously. When I went to Berlin in February to visit one of my friends, I was, once again, one of the few who wore a mask. Soon afterwards, cases spiked in Italy, and I saw a repeat of what had happened in China. I feared the same would happen all over the world.

Could you say something about your experience in Spain?

I left for Spain in March. Cases were rising very quickly. There were around 500 cases the day I arrived. But I had to leave six days later, before the government implemented a full-fledged lockdown. They were about to cancel all flights coming from Spain so I was lucky enough to get back before that happened. I think there were around 3,000 cases when I left.

The virus spread across all corners of the globe, effecting everybody.

In the end, you fled not from one but two countries. How has that impacted your academic performance?

I was meant to have a very global experience, but more than half of my year was spent in Zoom meetings or other similar platforms. I got back home and I had zero motivation to do anything. I knew other people were getting anxiety attacks, but I had gone through this situation already. Assignments were the only thing that kept me busy and gave me a routine when I had to self-isolate a second time.

What was your experience studying remotely?

It was weird – I was meant to be with the same group of people for a whole year. It alienated me from the rest of the world and gave me this unshakeable feeling of loneliness. But I soon realised that this would be the new normal. Overall, it was more stressful studying remotely than in a classroom. I definitely prefer the latter.

Has the pandemic changed your plans for the future?

I was supposed to embark on a new master’s programme at Brown University this fall, but the problem is that teaching is still done remotely. That meant I would be studying in a completely different time zone and, potentially, working even more. So I decided against it. I landed a job in Romania where I’ve decided to stay for another year.