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.
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.”