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Far from home amidst COVID-19

Students, host families discuss challenges of studying abroad during pandemic


by Julia Toomey


Many Holt High School students are living thousands of miles from home.

Holt’s exchange program allows students from around the world to study abroad for their junior or senior year.

While the Covid-19 pandemic has affected 180 countries, bringing a diverse series of restrictions and regulations with it, exchange students at Holt and elsewhere not only experience culture shock and language barriers, but now have to adapt to regulations in the United States. Since the surge in Covid-19 cases in 2020, lots of hesitancy has surrounded involvement in studying abroad.

Spanish teacher Karen Holman-Cervera said she hoped that exchange student participation bounces back amidst the pandemic.

“Hopefully, you know, people will not let things like this, these challenges scare them into not pursuing something they're really passionate about, and they really want to do,” Holman-Cereva said.

During the 2020 school year, when travel bans were first put in place, many exchange students were sent back to their home countries before the end of their programs. According to a Washington Post report, enrollment rates for foreign exchange students has since decreased by 11 percent since the outbreak.

Each country has responded to the pandemic in different ways, with differences in how they distribute the vaccine and mask mandates. Cervera explained that these changes are still an important aspect of the exchange year.

“It's just kind of how each country you know deals with all of these trying circumstances is an invaluable experience,” Cervera said.

Mask mandates that have come with these changes around the world, as well as the policy at Holt Public Schools, have posed challenges in learning English. Exchange students are typically fairly confident with speaking a second language, but spend the majority of their first few months learning to translate quickly in their head.

Cervera, with 20 years of experience teaching Spanish, understands the difficulty of being bilingual and wearing a mask.

There's so much that goes into you know, learning the language and part of it is is you know, looking at people's lips and so, for two reasons, just for understanding and for later using it as a pronunciation guide, you see what people do with their mouths when they're saying certain things,” Cervera said

Senior Diellza Daci, an exchange student from Montenegro, said the lack of enunciation with masks proves to be a challenge.

“It's kind of harder to understand what someone's saying,” Daci said.

Daci has been in the U.S. since August, and explained that in Montenegro, the Covid-19 rates are worse than they are here, with her home country rolling out vaccines less efficiently than in the U.S.

Additionally, as of Oct. 15, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a Level 4 Travel Health Notice for Montenegro that restricts travel to Montenegro due to Covid-19.

Based on this restriction, Daci said her parents are glad she’s in the U.S.

“So yeah, they think I'm safer here than I was,” Daci said.

However, they were also afraid of her being in a different country during a time of uncertainty.

“I was concerned the situation would get worse, and I didn’t know how that would affect me in the US,” Daci said.

On one hand, Daci’s family felt that Montenegro was not handling the pandemic well, but they also knew the status of the US could change at any time. They were aware that there would be risk regardless of where Daci was saying as long as the virus continues to spread. With this in mind, Daci made the choice to pursue her foreign exchange year.

Daci’s host parents in the US, Amy Smitter and Chris Lemmon, have been hosting exchange students since 2012. Smitter and Lemmon strive to expose their exchange students to the culture and experiences unique to the United States, but Covid has restricted some of those things.

“One of the first things we would have done, or have done traditionally with the kids is, like, take them to a Mexican restaurant or something like that, that they've never had before... But we didn't sort of have the chance to do that,” Smitter says.

For 2021 so far, host families in Michigan haven't had major setbacks, like being in mandatory lockdowns or quarantine. However, small restrictions like getting takeout instead of dining in have still affected the exchange students’ experiences.

Daci says she does not regret her choice to study abroad even during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I'm having a lot of opportunities, but it’s just kind of like a little part of everything is kind of restricted - restricted because of COVID,” Daci said. “But I'm still having the opportunity to live through those things. So it's not that bad. Yeah, it could have been worse.”

Host parents Amy Smitter (far left) and Chris Lemmon (far right) pick up Holt Senior Diellza Daci (middle) from Capital city airport on August 18th 2021.

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