Courtesy| Madi Vandegrift

For many stu­dents, the oppor­tunity to travel abroad comes only once in a lifetime. This spring, Hillsdale stu­dents in Germany expe­ri­enced another novel occur­rence: COVID-19.

“No one else can say they were stuck in another country for a study abroad that went ter­ribly wrong,” senior Madi Van­de­grift said.

Van­de­grift and fellow senior Abigail Patrick arrived in Germany in Feb­ruary to take an intensive German class before the semester started in April.

When she first arrived, Van­de­grift said there was news of COVID-19 in Italy, but it didn’t appear to be a threat in Germany yet.

Two weeks later, a lockdown began. When Pres­ident Trump announced travel restric­tions, Patrick decided to go home, but Van­de­grift stayed with the encour­agement of her parents.

Madi Van­de­grift visited Burg Eltz Castle in Germany. Courtesy| Madi Vandegrift

It was Vandegrift’s fifth time in Germany, so she said she felt con­fident using the bus and train system, shopping, and living in the culture. She was living in an apartment with other women from Italy, Mon­tenegro, and Greece, and said she knew she wouldn’t be alone.

When it began, Van­de­grift said she thought it would only be a month of quarantine.

“It was a little risky because I wasn’t sure if there would be flights or not,” Van­de­grift said, “But I thought, ‘There are skills that I can learn at this time that I wouldn’t be able to learn at home.’”

Senior J.D. Bauman arrived in Germany on March 15. Two days later, Germany closed its borders.

“The whole European idea is open borders, so it felt like a failure of Europe to many people,” Bauman said.

Bauman, who is still in Germany, said he decided to stay to spend time with friends he had met in pre­vious visits to the country and to better learn the language.

Stephen Naumann, asso­ciate pro­fessor of German and study abroad adviser, said he was proud of how stu­dents responded to the situation.

“I was impressed with the stu­dents. They all had a mature approach,” Naumann said. “In study abroad you truly learn a great deal about culture, lan­guage, lit­er­ature, but also about dealing with people.

Naumann kept stu­dents aware of the sit­u­ation in America, Germany, and the college. He pro­vided support and advice as the sit­u­ation unfolded through emails and many late-night phone calls with parents and stu­dents.  He wanted to help each student make the right decision for himself.

Bauman said he faced similar dif­fi­culties that many stu­dents in the US faced: online classes that make learning and con­necting with class­mates more difficult.

“As a for­eigner trying to learn the lan­guage and the culture, it’s espe­cially important that people are warm and wel­coming,” Bauman said. “There’s a dif­fi­culty of spending time with people when everyone is so wary of sickness.”

Van­de­grift also said con­necting with people was a chal­lenge. The biggest dif­fi­culty was not having a native English speaker present.

“You couldn’t really express what you felt,” Van­de­grift said. “We all knew we were going through the same thing, but espe­cially under pressure you have to really under­stand another person.”

Van­de­grift said she learned how dif­ferent cul­tures react to stress, and even picked up some Italian as she tried to com­mu­nicate with her housemates.

“When you don’t have lan­guage, you have to learn how to com­mu­nicate through dif­ferent ways. Body lan­guage was so important,” Van­de­grift said.

The Uni­versity of Saarland began classes in May, a month later than planned. Germany reopened on June 15, and Van­de­grift returned to America at the beginning of August.

The German people view coro­n­avirus as a medical issue and work together to combat it, but America has politi­cized the issue Van­de­grift said.

“I remember normal life in America and coming home six months later with every­thing com­pletely dif­ferent was a huge culture shock,” Van­de­grift said.

 Despite many chal­lenges of studying abroad, Van­de­grift and Bauman said they found blessings in the experience.

“It was def­i­nitely a blessing in dis­guise because I was actually able to explore the city I was in and build rela­tion­ships with the friends I met,” Van­de­grift said.

Bauman said living in Germany during a pan­demic gave him a new per­spective on being a student at Hillsdale. 

“I’m quite thankful for the expe­rience at Hillsdale College. Being at a dif­ferent insti­tution gives some­thing to compare it too,” Bauman said. “The freedom, flex­i­bility, and attention pro­fessors give to stu­dents is really dif­ferent at Hillsdale.” 

Bauman said he misses the vibrant student life at Hillsdale, since the German stu­dents are still iso­lated from each other, but that his time alone has allowed him  to grow per­sonally. 

“The peace and quiet amidst corona lock­downs and foreign iso­lation have given me an oppor­tunity to reflect on those things I’m most grateful for,” Bauman said. “In this time, I’ve developed what is perhaps one of my very few truly good habits, namely keeping a daily journal and doing my morning prayers. I’d rec­ommend that to everyone, whether they’re in a bright or dark place in life.”