Impact COVID-19 on exchange students


photo by Anjo de Jong

The seven girls in this picture are exchange students who came to America this year. However, with the COVID-19 virus, two of them decided to go home.

Making a decision to live your life on the other side of the world  for 10 months isn’t easy. What if something happens? Exchange students for the 2019-20 school year took this risk. Most  students were enjoying their school year when COVID-19 entered our lives.

I started my exchange year in August at Meridian High School. I knew I would have some hard times during my exchange year, but I also knew that would be part of the experience. So far I have had an amazing seven months and am looking forward to my last three, but I am not sure if those three months are going to happen. 

In December 2019, China was impacted by a new virus called COVID-19. Everyone was talking about it, but I think most people thought it would be gone in just a few weeks. It turned out to be a little longer than a few weeks and the virus spread all over the world with a big impact in Italy.

Giorgia Iannone is a former exchange student from Meridian High School and lives in Italy. Her family has been quarantined since March 7 and her school has been closed since February 23. Economy is doing badly, they lost a lot in the stock market and most of the people aren’t earning any money. They can’t go out, and if they have to go to the grocery store, they have to go alone. 

“They said this situation will go on for more weeks, but we don’t know for how long yet,” Iannone said.

The virus didn’t only stay in Italy. Slowly more countries in Europe went on lock down and closed their borders. This was the moment that exchange students started hearing that some exchange organisations started to send their students back to their home county.

“If I had to choose and my parents were okay with it, I would have stayed in America,” Iannone said.

Iannone would’ve stayed in America if she was still on exchange, but this choice had to be made by a lot of students that are now in America. Some students didn’t even get the choice and got immediately sent back to their home county.

As the corona virus became more serious, my organisation started to send me updates about what was happening. I still didn’t really think anything about it, until an instagram account called “exchangestudent.worldwide” started to post stuff about students that got sent home because of this virus. At this point my organisation still wasn’t going to send students home, but there was an option that if you or your parents wanted you to be home you could.

Since the start of my exchange year, I have had a group chat with 12 girls who are all on exchange in America. During our whole exchange year, we kept each other updated about what was happening in our lives. So when COVID-19 came around and we all got the same emails, we all got this same question  “what if they send us home?” and “Do I want to go home?”. 

Nicky Gilllessen is one of the girls that is in this group chat. She has lived the past  seven months in North Tonawanda, New York, and attended North Tonawanda High School. Her year had its ups and downs, too. She started off in a host family that unfortunately wasn’t a good match. After she moved host families, she had an amazing time, made lots of new memories and can’t believe that she met so many people that she loves so much.

Even though she has had an amazing time over here, she also got at one point the question, “Do I need to go home?” During the time we are here, we still follow the news in The Netherlands. Especially now.  After the schools got locked down and borders in Europe got closed, our minister president did a conference on the television. He wasn’t going to close down the border in The Netherlands, but he did tell us that if you are traveling you should come home as soon as possible. This wasn’t necessary for us because we are her for a longer term and do have a place to stay.

Gillessens’ parents saw this too, and after talking with her, they decided they wanted her home. They didn’t want to risk her being stuck in America because we are going to get to a point where corona is taking over and borders will close. Gillessen doesn’t want to go back to Holland at all. North Tonawanda became her second home and she plans to come back and visit.

“I am really sad and disappointed, but I’m sure I’ll always have a home here, and I can come back whenever I want,” Gillessen said.

Gillessen’s adventure is going to end this week and she will fly back to her home county, friends and family. Back to her old life. But what am I going to do? I just heard that another big exchange organisation decided to also send all of their students home. For now I will stay! But I don’t know what is going to happen. My parents are a little worried and ask me every day if I am okay and if I  still want to stay. They respect my decision to stay and also have no idea what is going to happen. 

I am living my life day by day right now. I still have a lot of questions “is it smart to send me home when it’s worse in Europe? What if the borders actually close?”  for all those questions I do not have an answer. What I really hope is that I can finish the dream I stated off seven months ago. That I can go to a real American prom and graduation with the strangers I now call my friends. That I could say goodbye to those friends, when my adventure is supposed to end on June 15, without social distancing. 

For right now, I would settle for one last walk through my high school, a place which used to be a dream but now reality.