As a grade seven student, Eleen Gong knew she wanted to study abroad on a student exchange program. Gong was born and raised in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, but her parents were originally from China. Perhaps inspired by her parents’ move, Gong sees herself as the type of person that needs to keep moving and is not one to settle down in one place for too long.

Ready to tackle the next chapter in her life as a university student, Gong decided to study in Italy. Italian students usually don’t begin university until they’re 19, so Gong was considered too young coming out of high school. She had a decision to make: take a gap year or study elsewhere. She chose the latter, found herself at UTM, and fell in love with the school.

Even as someone with an inclination to stay on the move, Gong was reluctant to leave UTM. Like many students here, current and former, she fell in love with the picturesque campus and community. Nonetheless, in a couple years’ time, the thought of applying for an exchange program came back to mind. For Gong, an exchange provided an incredible opportunity to live in a different country for an extended period of time. Unlike travelling, where you spend a week or two as a tourist, “an exchange provides the opportunity to experience the culture. You get to meet and experience what it’s like for local people,” said Gong.

She applied for a foreign exchange at UTM’s International Education Centre and ranked her top five institutions from a list of University of Toronto partners. In February 2020, Gong began living her dream of studying abroad at her first university choice: the University of Amsterdam. “I knew I was headed toward Europe,” said Gong. Since she had a high school friend studying at the same university, it made the decision to study there easier. 

But on March 11, Covid-19 was declared a pandemic, bringing Gong’s childhood dream to a heart-breaking stop. Like many around the world, Gong and her friends were slow to take in the reality of the pandemic. Across the globe, and especially in Europe, the novel coronavirus felt so far away.

As the pandemic became more severe, Gong began to worry about what she would do if she or her peers were to get sick. “Having moved to Amsterdam for only two months, I was really scared,” explained Gong. “What if I got sick? What if someone around me got sick? I wouldn’t know what to do in that situation, or where to go for help, or who to contact. I lived alone. I didn’t have any roommates.”  

However, for Gong, the reality of the situation sunk in when she received a call at four in the morning from a friend. The U.S. had just announced its travel bans, and her friend was going back home. It was a turning point in the pandemic, especially for students like Gong displaced in foreign countries. Many students in her exchange program were from the U.S., and, as such, Gong found that half her class was gone the next day. Scared, Gong called her mom, who booked her a flight home to Dubai.

In her brief time in Amsterdam, Gong described the city as lively, especially in Central Amsterdam. The city was busy and bursting with people and sounds; the trains and the trams were always full. On her way to a good-bye lunch with friends, she faced the emptiness of the city she was beginning to fall in love with. “It felt so terrifying and so sad. From such a loud city [where] everything was lively and happy, all of a sudden it was a ghost town.” 

The cases weren’t high in Amsterdam at the beginning of the pandemic. However, neighboring students in the Netherlands had it much worse. “No one really knew what to feel anymore. I was really sad. I had just got to meet an amazing group of friends, and I had to say good-bye too soon,” said Gong.

Gong was forced to finish her semester abroad from her home in Dubai. Though it wasn’t the same as studying in the country itself, her exchange program provided a great online experience. “All the professors were so involved in every step of the academic progress. When the pandemic hit and everyone was sent home, some of my professors made sure to check in on us.” 

Amsterdam professors kept lines of communication open for their students, with WhatsApp check-ins and regular weekly meetings. During such an unprecedented time, having everything set up online offered students some reassurance. 

With her exchange program concluded and a new school term underway, Gong continues her studies at UTM from thousands of kilometers away at her home in Dubai. Since she experienced online learning in March, she is familiar with the new approach to learning at the university but does not prefer it. “Time just gets blurred. When attending classes in-person, there are more concrete boundaries. School and private time are kept quite separate,” said Gong. “You don’t sleep or play video games in the same room where you write exams.” 

For Gong, online classes make finding the difference between “school time” and “her time” challenging. 

When asked about time zones, Gong explained it is a growing struggle for her and students taking classes around the world. At UTM, going to class in person, you are not likely to start class at 9 p.m., 11 p.m., 2 a.m., or  4 a.m. Although U of T has been accommodating for students taking courses outside of the country, it is still challenging, with students frequently dropping classes due to the conflicting time zones.

Despite her aversion to virtual school and disappointment of leaving her dream exchange program, Gong has some advice for students like herself taking on the daunting task of online learning at a university.

“Keep a schedule to get all your dates and times and everything done. It helps you visualize when you have to be in class, when you have meetings, and when you can take some time off,” said Gong. Regarding the stress of online learning and the Covid-19 pandemic, Gong believes “it’s very important to take time for yourself because, with school and work, we already get burned out. With everything online, it’s even easier to get burned out.” Gong suggests drinking a cup of tea or going for a walk to de-stress and get your mind refreshed for the next lecture. 

“Focus on your school and work, but focus on yourself too,” Gong concluded. “During this time, people will understand if students are not able to keep up or are feeling burnt out.” 

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