Anna Gwin and Kara Sun were two of only a handful of students who were studying on a Non-Carleton OCS program this past fall trimester. Anna was abroad with SIT on their Rwanda & Uganda: Post-Genocide Restoration, Peacebuilding, and Development program, while Kara stayed inside the US and attended Colorado College’s Teaching & Research in Environmental Education (TREE) program. Below are some of the ups and downs of their experiences with OCS in fall 2020.
What were your expectations going on an OCS program during the pandemic? How was your experience altered and your expectations adjusted due to COVID?
Anna: I applied to so many study abroad programs! The tally is at 6 or 7 now. The programs kept getting cancelled right after I got accepted. The program I applied to in Rwanda was scheduled to run mid-September, but wasn’t confirmed until the end of August. It took a lot of flexibility, and that mindset had to be maintained throughout the program. Nearly everything was changed in some way (but so did everything on-campus at Carleton) so for me it was best to 1) expect change 2) chill.
Kara: The initial reason I chose this program was that a huge component of it was actual teaching. Groups of fifth graders come to the campus we stay at and we get around 80 hours of real teaching experience. COVID caused a huge shift; we weren’t able to do in person teaching for obvious reasons and online teaching wasn’t an option because the WiFi was really spotty. I wasn’t too upset about not teaching online because that’s difficult and I’m not a huge fan. Instead we spent a lot of time developing lesson plans and teaching each other. There was definitely less pressure, but it felt fake and not similar to a realistic experience. This was really frustrating at first, but in order to get the most out of it, I learned to shift my goal from getting experience teaching kids to learning how to write a curriculum, present in a cohesive way, and adapt to those around me.
What was the COVID situation like where you were? How do you feel that differed from your experience with COVID elsewhere?
Anna: In my experience, there was less anxiety about COVID in Rwanda because there were fewer cases overall. The daily new cases were around 20-40 across the whole country for most of the time I was there. Most people still wore masks, but often they weren’t worn effectively (large gaps on the side, nose uncovered). In Minneapolis this summer it seemed like measures were enforced more strictly, but that difference is probably because COVID rates are already so high in MN.
Kara: Our campus was about 45 minutes away from Colorado College and we were decently isolated in the woods. There were three buildings where we did pretty much everything: the classroom, the dorm, and where we ate. We had a pod situation on campus with 8 students and 4 fellows, so we could hang out without masks. In Colorado, cases were pretty high, and specifically in Woodland Park cases were jumping because school was in person. I felt very removed from COVID, though, which was an interesting experience. There was so much going on in the US and in the world that it really felt like a bubble separated from all of it. Being so removed made me a bit uncomfortable, so many people are struggling and we were safe there. I was extremely lucky to feel safe in my situation.
How were your days spent? Did you get to communicate with others at all while you were abroad?
Anna: My days were spent going to the SIT academic center for lectures and discussion, or visiting lecturers on-site. SIT is all about the experiential learning component, so I didn’t actually have regular lectures from the academic director. Instead, we interviewed people from the Rwandan board of economics, the government agency for the fight against genocide (CNLG), and others on their personal experiences through the genocide/reconstruction period.
Kara: Most of my time was spent doing classes and schoolwork. On campus we did a lot of hiking since it was in the woods and there were a bunch of trails around us. We found a park complex nearby about halfway through the program and started going there just to get off campus and do something active like kick a ball around. There were also a couple of weekend trips outdoors like a camping trip and a climbing trip. Communicating with others was hard because there was no internet or cell connection. I talked to one of my friends each week, but it was such an effort to talk to anyone outside of there, so really we only communicated with the pod that we were living with.
What were some of the highlights of your experience studying abroad during fall trimester?
Anna: Definitely learning about history & politics from a variety of lived perspectives. And being in the sunshine every day!
Kara: The program wasn’t what I had planned for when I signed up a year ago, but overall it was a really positive experience. I’m still in touch with all the people I met, and the academics were really good; I learned a ton. I think you can always learn new things from being in a new place with a new community. Even learning about yourself is really empowering and a good experience.
What was the most challenging aspect of being abroad during fall term?
Anna: Managing group dynamics in a small group of 8 people – if there’s a conflict, it’s essential to work it out. There were also unexpected travel difficulties in Uganda, because the roads have sometimes deteriorated unpredictably, which means a 5-hour bus ride can turn into 15 hours. So in both of those cases, having patience.
Kara: Personally, it was difficult to be stuck on campus with only 12 people. I’m definitely not a one group kind of person, so having that one group enforced with a people I didn’t select was hard. Getting off campus and other little things were refreshing, but things that clashed with my normal style of life were difficult.
Did you see any advantages in traveling abroad during a pandemic? Has your experience helped you grow in any way?
Anna: Though it’s harder to organically meet people in restaurants and on the street, it’s still entirely possible! Yes, there’s a pandemic, but not all human connection has ended, and it’s possible to meet people in safe ways, especially in countries that have decently effective responses to COVID-19 spreading. I also took this as an opportunity to get to know my classmates better. We normally would be in homestays, and though it’s sad that those were cancelled, I think it was fun to be in such close quarters with people interested in the same specific topics as myself.
Kara: Being off campus was much less stressful than being on campus and less restrictive because of the small community. I think with my experience I grew similarly to how I would have grown if there wasn’t a pandemic; I am able to better adapt to new places and people. Another advantage was that I was more focused on the people I was with and the academics. In a non-pandemic year, I would have explored Colorado much more, but since I couldn’t do that I spent a lot of time on campus with the other students.
What advice do you have for other students considering going abroad during this “COVID-19” era?
Anna: This may be a small factor when deciding where to go for study abroad, but it is really nice to be somewhere warm for classes! And during this pandemic era, it offers a lot of freedom to explore (because you can get lost without worrying about freezing), and the ability to do outdoor excursions as a class.
Kara: The only way to figure out whether you should go is to compare facets of life: what are my daily options, my options for freedom, my social options, and figure out what’s important to you. It’s a pros and cons kind of thing. Once you decide to go on the program, make the most of it. It’s so easy to play a comparison game, but just be where you are and live in the moment. There are going to be ups and downs either way, and there will probably be regrets, but being somewhere new means you can always learn.