International cooperation and exchange programmes with universities across the world have lost none of their importance and appeal even during the coronavirus pandemic. There is still a huge level of interest from teachers, research personnel and students, it is merely the type of opportunities open to exchange students that have changed. This also applies to the type of cooperation in each specific case: Taking a flight to, for example, the USA to participate in a podium discussion at a partner university such as the University of Texas at San Antonio is for the time being passé. Instead, universities are looking for and identifying new solutions for communicating.
What does this mean for student exchange programmes? Is it even possible for students to study at a partner university during the coronavirus pandemic? “Yes and no”, according to the four advisers at the Department of International Relations and Mobility who look after the outgoing exchange students at TU Darmstadt. There are both obstacles and risks involved: Some partner universities in America and Asia, as well as in Europe, have completely cancelled the current winter semester for exchange students because they are unable, for example, to fully provide the virtual capacities required for the lectures and seminars. On the other hand, some countries have imposed travel bans. In addition, a number of students have cancelled their planned period of study abroad because of the uncertainty surrounding their plans and the fear of being left to pay the cost for their apartment or flight and also because they are unwilling to risk a lockdown or becoming ill in a foreign country far away from home. A total of 230 students have up to now cancelled their period of study abroad for the 2020/21 academic year. This was certainly a difficult decision in each individual case that was only taken after a long period of deliberation.
Nevertheless, there are still currently 20 students in America and the Asia-Pacific region who had already planned a longer period of study abroad. They remain in constant contact with their advisers at the Department of International Relations and Mobility. In Europe, there are 310 students who have already started their studies abroad or who still plan to do so.
Despite all of the current issues, there are still good reasons for considering whether to study abroad for a semester as an exchange student. The coronavirus pandemic has meant that is often necessary for the students to participate in a virtual or hybrid teaching programme consisting of in-person events and digital lectures and seminars. At partner universities on other continents, students at TU Darmstadt have to get used to a different working rhythm for synchronously held courses: For example, it is sometimes necessary for students to participate in a seminar at the Tongji University in Shanghai on their PCs at 5 o’clock in the morning during the digital semester abroad. However, asynchronous courses are also offered in some cases so that exchange students in different time zones can access the seminar during “their” normal working hours.
The advisers at the Department of International Relations and Mobility regularly organise Zoom events for current and also potential outgoing exchange students. As well as discussing the current situation, the advisers use these events to provide practical tips on planning a period of study abroad.
The range of services has now been expanded to include an online consultation session: Every Tuesday afternoon and Thursday morning, students can clarify any questions they may have about a (planned) period of study abroad with the student assistants and advisers. The consultation sessions have been very well received by the students. Even if it is impossible for the team to provide students with 100% certainty with respect to their intended plans, they are nevertheless extremely well informed about current developments at the international partner universities – and the cooperation partners are also highly engaged and keen to emphasise the importance of close cooperation especially at this time; they are doing everything to ensure that the 2021 Summer semester can at least be held in virtual form.
A total of 185 students at TU Darmstadt are currently still planning to study at a European partner university in the 2021 summer semester, while 81 students are planning to study abroad in America and the Asia-Pacific region. Some of the partner universities are already offering a broad range of online courses for this period that can be taken by the students from TU Darmstadt, which also includes digital contact with students at the guest university. Some students at TU Darmstadt have already decided to take advantage of this option so that they can gain their first experience of intercultural cooperation, even while travel restrictions are still in place.