During the pandemic, many students are unsure whether to venture abroad on an exchange programme. Thea Brunk from Bonn travelled to Canada in January. She is happy with her decision, even under corona conditions.
Spending time abroad during a pandemic? No problem for 16-year-old Thea Brunk from Dottendorf. In the middle of the second lockdown, the 10th grade student decided to move to Canada for five months. “Actually, I wanted to go for ten months, but in the summer I wasn’t allowed to leave yet,” Brunk reports. She had been dreaming of travelling to Canada for some time, especially because her brother had taken part in an exchange programme there a few years ago. After her arrival in January, she had to go into quarantine for a fortnight, and only then was she allowed to join her host mother in Québec.
She now attends an English school in the Francophone province. “That way it was easier for me to make a connection and I had fewer language barriers in class," says Brunk. However, many activities are now no longer possible, as Québec has been in lockdown again for several weeks. Classes are held online and there is a curfew at night. “You are only allowed to meet outside and at a distance with one other household,” the exchange student reports.
Until shortly before the start of the lockdown, face-to-face teaching was still taking place at her school under corona requirements. Brunk describes the situation at the school: “each grade had its own entrance, there was disinfectant everywhere and the cafeteria had to remain closed.” Contacts at school were limited to the individual classes, so-called “bubbles”. Despite the restrictions, the student was able to learn a lot, especially about the Canadian school system and subjects. “In ‘Leadership’ classes we practice self-reliance, learn to take the initiative and to organise ourselves. We have to redesign school rooms, buy new furniture, paint the walls, look for sponsors. It was really varied and you could see progress at the end of each lesson.”
Walking, cycling and cooking with the host mother
During lockdown, however, it was not possible to continue with the project and Thea Brunk missed out on everyday life with her classmates. Instead, she now spends a lot of time with her host mother. The pair often go for a walk or a bike ride, and they cook together. They get along well, particularly because the host mother is only 29 years old. “Her parents often hosted exchange students in the past and she wanted to do the same now,” explains Brunk. Before the lockdown, they went on excursions together with the host mother's family, once to a ski resort in Montreál - at minus 24 degrees. “Luckily I had thick winter boots and suitable clothing,” says the student.
Before the pandemic, Thea Brunk had imagined her trip abroad differently, but she is happy to be in Canada now. “You always think about how it might turn out, but you shouldn’t have too precise expectations if possible,” advises Brunk, who has so far not regretted her decision to travel alone to a foreign country during the pandemic at all. She will remain living in Québec until the end of June. Afterwards, her family wanted to visit her before she comes back to Germany, “but at the moment that doesn’t looks good,” she says.
Overseas stay with the Experiment association
Canada is a popular destination for student exchanges. The Bonn-based association Experiment was responsible for arranging Thea Brunk’s trip. In addition to student exchanges and volunteer services, the association also arranges demi-pairs and offers other programmes. “Many students know that they want to take part in an exchange, but they do not know where they want to go,” reports Managing Director Bettina Wiedmann. Participants are offered more variety through extensive advice and constantly new programmes. Wiedmann knows that living with a host family is important for learning about other cultures, as she was once an exchange student herself and is still in contact with her host family.
During the pandemic, the association can no longer offer all its programmes; short-term programmes such as language trips have been cancelled. “But student exchanges are running surprisingly well in almost all countries, only a few - such as New Zealand, Australia, Japan or China - have travel restrictions," says Wiedmann. The USA is considered a classic destination. "When it was announced that Biden had won the election, 20 contracts were sent back to us the following Monday, the families were just waiting for it," Wiedmann reports. 13 students from Bonn are currently taking part in an exchange programme. “Of course, the lockdown abroad is also a challenge in some cases, but on the whole, the participants are pleased that they can go abroad at all given the circumstances and they really appreciate it,” says Wiedmann.