The Exchange is Dead, Long Live the Exchange: How I Enjoyed the US During the Pandemic – Stanislav (Ukraine)

Last year, on the 5th of January, I went for an exchange, not knowing how 2020 would turn out. I want to share my experience being on exchange in challenging times and, hopefully, help you realize that it’s possible to enjoy your exchange to the fullest even now. If you are soon to go abroad from Tartu or, on the opposite, land in Tartu for your semester, this post is for you!

January: Landing in the Land of Freedom

My first hours in the US started with my luggage leaving New York City without me (the first sign of 2020). The airline delayed my 5 a.m. flight by about an hour, and then I just told myself: “I AM IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA!” I covered myself with a blanket from the plane and took the subway (post-modern look mode) to explore The Big Apple.

I did not expect that I would be impressed by skyscrapers as I’d seen many in movies. But God sees that I am honest when I say that it is an incommunicable feeling when you sail through these giants and discover some smaller, historical buildings in between. For some reason, I really enjoyed this contrast. In 12 hours, I managed to cross out a few typical NYC activities: missed my station because I didn’t understand the subway driver’s voice, ate a 99 cent slice of pizza, talked to people who sleep on the streets in tents to attend Jimmy Kimmel show to see Bieber, and fell asleep in the subway on my way to the airport.

Learning point: Anything might happen (not even during a pandemic), but you are on an exchange – take every opportunity to explore the country.

February: Feeling Confident

It’s been a month since I landed in Charleston, SC (the final destination for my exchange). In the context of the exchange to the US, mentioning that you’re from Europe brings a lot of attention and raises questions about the mystical continent. Also, everyone compliments your English. I started making the first friends, played Bingo, saw Joe Biden while coming back from aikido classes, and attempted to make some small talk. It definitely takes time to adapt to certain things. Once, I passed the campus square and witnessed how two besties who were extremely excited to see each other started talking from opposite sides of the square. Of course, very loudly. This literally scared me as I thought some fight started and someone needed help.

I took four classes: three on marketing and one on biomimicry thinking. All the professors were wonderful. For example, Dr. Esta Shah is now a role model for me in achieving a work-life balance. Once, she came to the lecture with her little kid and perfectly handled giving the lecture and interacting with the kid. Yes, it’s possible!

I’d say the study culture is a little bit different there. First of all, professors prefer meetings above emails. After such meetings, you feel more inspired, you have more ideas, and you are ready to act. That is really cool. Also, professors are very encouraging. Secondly, all the notes have to be handwritten because typing on the laptop is distracting not only to you but also to your coursemates. Thirdly, it is a major observation that you start understanding what “university as a service” means. It’s almost like you purchased a premium subscription, which gives you access to an unlimited number of opportunities. It’s not necessarily good or bad, just different.

March: When the World Went Crazy

Spring break was coming, and I was excited about my trip to New Orleans. But in two weeks, everything started to change so dramatically that my new American friends “threatened” to kill me if I came back from New Orleans with COVID-19. Of course, I had to cancel my trip. Given the context of 2020,  let’s assume that I am lucky that alligators didn’t eat me!

But there was a much more important question to answer: “To stay or not to stay?” My answer was, “It is a problem of future Stas to leave the US, present Stas has no plans to leave this country.” The logic was pretty straightforward: What would be the difference between staying locked in an apartment in Estonia/Ukraine versus in the US?

Moreover, studying as an international student at the University of Tartu definitely tempered me to stay in touch with my friends via paper letters, videos, audio messages (yes, I am that kind of person), Skype, etc.

Of course, COVID also affected the number of students on campus and public events. Within a week, most people had left. Those who stayed on campus were moved to one dorm building, in separate rooms. So, I started to wander around Charleston.

Learning point: Having a driving license in such situations is very useful, especially when public transport is not a thing at all! I still roast my friend every time she drives to the shop, which is 50 m away from her. These Americans!

April: Lockdown

In April, everyone shut down their businesses, and the city of Charleston became empty. In the middle of the day, you could walk the streets, and no one would be there as if you were in some abandoned mining town in the middle of the country. 

The fun fact is that at the beginning of the month, the airlines convinced me that on the 3rd of May, I would fly back to Ukraine.

May: High Fluctuations

In between rescheduling my flights (Call2friends – a highly recommend service to everyone who does not have a SIM-card in the US), thrift shopping, and wandering in the city neighborhoods, there was one thing I just had to do: to swim in the ocean. I’d never swum in the ocean, and I hadn’t swum in 7 years. As I’ve mentioned before, public transport in the US is challenging, and it’s impossible to reach the beach without a car. I was planning to hitchhike, but my friend told me not to, so we took a car.

It was not allowed at the beach to stay in one place to avoid the spread of the virus, so we had to move constantly, but it did not spoil the simply wonderful moment. I am not sure whether I even have anything else to add.

June: Colorado Trip

A friend got an offer for an internship at Boulder, CO, and I was invited to come there. As a part of my 3-days journey, we decided to go hiking for one night.

We went to Twin Lakes. During the day, we explored nature, which actually looked quite similar to the nature we have in the south of Ukraine. The evening was a dream: friends, bonfire, tortillas with cheese, great view, chill music, and a star-studded night. But do not forget to take a sleeping bag!

Learning point: Always say “Yes” to hiking. There are many routes in Estonia as well!

When I was flying over the states to Charleston, SC, I was looking out of the plane window, and I could feel why Americans are so proud and patriotic about their land. I am not sure the photo can show this feeling, but let’s try.

Do you feel it?

July: Escape

For my way back, I had the following route: Charleston – New York – Qatar – Copenhagen – Kyiv.

My journey home started on the 4th of July at 7 a.m. I ordered a taxi, and Uber almost charged me x2.5 higher price. My plane landed around 1 p.m. in NYC. At 5 p.m. I discovered that the airline wouldn’t let me on board because – wait for it – I am not a citizen of Denmark to enter Copenhagen. According to this airline, that was the only group of people who could legally enter Denmark. To make it clear, before the flight I cross-checked the information with all the Denmark agencies’ websites. To expand the complexity of the problem: starting on the 25th of June, NYC had 14 days of mandatory self-isolation for everyone who arrived from the states where coronavirus infection rate was above 10 for 100K (all south states!) 

Well, if a problem can be solved with money, it’s not a problem, it’s an expense!

After hours of negotiations, pinning my friends, and pulling information from the airline representatives, I found out that Turkey opened its borders starting from 2-3rd of July.

Learning point: During chaotic times, be prepared to have high expenses. Purchase the ticket right at the airport.

On the 7th of July, I finally peacefully fell asleep on the couch at home. Then there was the planning of my 14 days self-isolation period and escaping Ukraine to go to Estonia… But that is a story for another time! ;)

The whole point of my story is to show that you can have an outstanding exchange experience and explore the country, the culture, and meet great people despite numerous challenges that you might encounter. 

Also, I’d like to encourage other students to apply for an exchange at the College of Charleston. It is a truly mind-blowing opportunity that lets you explore and learn a lot about the United States of America.

The application period is currently open. Learn more and apply here: https://www.ut.ee/en/study-exchange-student-college-charleston 

All pictures are the courtesy of the author.