International 21 March 2022
Studying abroad during a pandemic
They traveled to the other side of the world for their 2021 fall semester despite the worst possible context for traveling.
Meet Sarah and Noriane, two Master’s in marketing students at TSM, who had been accepted at the University of Meiji in Tokyo, Japan, for their student exchange year abroad. Due to the pandemic, they had to give up on this destination but instead settled for South Korea, from where they followed all their Meiji University courses, online. When their three-month tourist visa expired in Korea, they continued their studies remotely, this time from Thailand. Here is the story of a memorable semester.
"I hoped I would study in Japan. It was really a goal, and TSM offered it."
- Why did you choose this partner university, Meiji University, and this country, Japan?
Sarah: I chose Japan because I graduated from a Bachelor’s degree in Foreign Applied Languages in English and Japanese. I also took Japanese in high school as a third language, so I've been studying Japanese for six years and it seemed obvious to me to ask for a university in Japan to be able to use this language. I chose Meiji because the other two universities, Keio and Hitotsubashi, are among the best universities in Japan and I was a bit afraid to be at the other end of the world under a lot of pressure.
Noriane: I went to Japan a few years ago on holiday and I really loved the culture, the country, and after that I hoped I would study in Japan. It was really a goal, and TSM offered it. I chose Meiji because it was known for having a lot of international students, and the campus is very well located in the centre of Tokyo. Even regarding dormitories, I think it was the best.
- Why did you decide to go to Korea?
Noriane: Korea was my second choice if I couldn't go to Japan. When I started thinking about it, it was June and I thought I could go, except that the borders were closed for tourists and for students too. Then, they opened for students in July. And they announced in August that from the 1st of September tourists could also come on holiday. I thought: our courses start in September, so we might as well go then. We can stay for three months because that's the duration for the tourist visa, and we will discover a new country.
Sarah: Noriane told me about her plan and I thought it was a great idea.
- What was your mindset like during this whole period?
Noriane: Personally, I'm usually quite optimistic, so as soon as there's a problem, it's no big deal, there’s always a solution, and I always had my family to support me. I wasn't alone, Sarah was there, there were several of us. It wasn't easy, there was some stress, but in the end everything went well. I think we have to keep taking risks, otherwise we get stuck, we don't move forward and that's a pity.
Sarah: I was under a lot of stress, there were some really difficult moments: contradictory information, misunderstandings… I will remember this for a long time. Travelling during covid is very complicated, it takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of energy but once you're there you don't regret it at all.
- Do you have a specific memory to share with us?
Noriane: We tried to make pancakes for Korean girls to share our culture with them, but there was no equipment for it. We ended up making sweet and savoury pancakes, and they liked it. It was quite funny.
Sarah: The last week I spent in Korea, everyone had left already, Noriane had left, the other flatmates had left too, I was all alone. And the very last day: snow. A lot of snow. It was just crazy to see Seoul, Hongdae, a very busy area in Seoul full of snow, it was magical. And I had been able to meet some locals by that time, so with some foreign students, we had a snowball fight. It was brilliant.
- Seeing the end of your tourist visa for Korea, you decided to continue your adventure in Thailand. Who gave you that idea?
Noriane: Initially, I was thinking of going back to France in December and then my mother said to me: "No, Noriane, you're in Asia, it would be a shame for you to come back now, especially seeing the covid situation in France right now, you might as well continue to enjoy your year.” So I did all the paperwork to go to Thailand. It wasn't easy to get the visa, the residence permit, everything was complicated, but once we got there, at least we were happy, and that allowed us to keep going. And the idea was that if Japan opened, we could go from Bangkok to Tokyo. In the end it didn't happen, but at least it kept the momentum going and finally I was able to finish my semester abroad, without having to do the night classes. It was optimal.
- What were the online classes with Japan like?
Noriane: It was interesting to have classes in English, I had always had classes in French, so it allowed me to improve my level. The teachers are very friendly, and have a dialogue oriented approach. They have their own characteristics compared to French teachers, so it was interesting. There was a bit more workload than I thought. I had also taken 7 hours of Japanese lessons per week for the whole semester. It was intense but it helped me progress a lot. It was very interesting, very instructive.
Sarah: Same, I loved the classes, the teachers were really nice, very caring. Their grading was lenient in some classes. They wanted us to successfully complete our semester, they weren’t there to make the class complicated. And they gave us a lot of freedom. For example, our e-commerce teacher would just give us a topic for an oral talk, and we could talk about anything we wanted. They were there for us to enjoy the country we were in, to enjoy the new culture we were discovering, the new university too. I decided not to take a Japanese class because I wanted as much free time as possible. I had studied Japanese for 6 years already and I preferred to have as much free time as possible to visit the country.
"I'm no longer afraid of embarking on projects on my own."
- Is the person you were before you went to Korea and then Thailand the same person you are today?
Sarah: I think I've changed mostly in relation to traveling. The fact that I had to travel on my own, organise everything on my own, and with the covid situation… The idea of arriving at the airport, not knowing what's going on, not knowing where you have to go or who you have to follow, what you have to show etc. I was very afraid of all that. I was very scared of all this and now I don't care. I'm no longer afraid of embarking on projects on my own, of organising myself, whereas before I used to say to myself that I needed to be supported. Now I just say to myself that every problem has its solution.
Noriane: I totally agree with what you say. Personally, I was still living with my parents, it was the first time I was leaving, so I was a bit stressed, I wondered if I was going to manage. But you adapt very quickly, and it's interesting because you rely a lot on other people, too, and you realise that meeting people is really important because you don't have family, etc., so you have to be able to trust others.
- What advice would you give to someone who is hesitant to undertake a mobility project because of the health situation?
Sarah: It might sound a bit silly but: don't overthink it. You have to take a chance. And then if you are selected, it is already a great opportunity, and you really have to try everything to make the most of your year. When you're on the job market, it's much more complicated to leave for a year like that. So don't think too much, just go for it, try to make the most of the year.