COVID-19 must not permanently derail international student exchange

An opinion column about current issues in Norway and the United States

Håvard Sandvik on international exchange

Photo courtesy of Håvard Sandvik
Håvard Sandvik is a strong proponent of international student exchange and has spent many years studying and working abroad.Photo courtesy of Håvard Sandvik
Håvard Sandvik is a strong proponent of international student exchange and has spent many years studying and working abroad.

Norway-America Association

Spring and summer have been a time of tremendous uncertainty for international exchange students. The COVID-19 pandemic has closed down auditoriums, seminar rooms, and cafes. We all need to adjust to a new normal, with social distancing and limits to large gatherings. Still, international exchange is too important to abandon. A pandemic is global in nature and if it has shown us anything, it is that we need more exchange and cooperation, not less. The question is how to do this wisely.

The immediate solution to contain the disease was to shut down the borders. However, just as it was useful for halting its spread, closing down will not stop a pandemic from blossoming again. Countering a pandemic means getting better at tracing global contamination lines, to set global health and safety standards to avoid what seems to be a perpetual game of Whac-a-Mole, with the virus being contained in one place and then reappearing in another.

In the spring of last year, I had the opportunity to spend three months as a Robert Stuart Fellow at George Washington University. The academic freedom, the quality of the teaching staff, and the intellectual courage of the student body made it an unforgettable experience. I enjoyed every conversation I had on campus, and it revived the joy of studying in me, 10 years after I graduated with a master’s degree from the University of Heidelberg in Germany.

As a Norwegian in the United States, you soon become aware of the legacy left by generations of Norwegian Americans across the country. It was rewarding to see those lines going back in history, and to know that thousands of young Norwegians will live and study in the United States. This spring and summer, I have thought about how different my daily routine would have been had I traveled to the United States this spring.

If I had made it over before COVID-19 broke every newspaper headline, I would have been sent packing back to Norway before long. Even if I had been able to stay, the lectures and seminars on offer would have been limited. The many wonderful hours I spent in the university library would have been impossible, at least at first. There would have been no time spent in the common area of the library preparing for classes and eating together with other students.

In many ways, this is reality for so many exchange students. I serve on the board of the Norway-America Association (NORAM), a scholarship-awarding foundation supporting academic exchange between Norway and the United States. Of 21 current scholarship holders, nine have decided to postpone or cancel their stay in the United States. It is difficult to predict how the stays of those who have chosen to travel will be. I understand their predicament but hope that as many as possible decide to go.

The coronavirus seems to be with us for the long haul. Until a vaccine is ready, a return to pre-pandemic life seems unlikely. When a vaccine will be on the table is uncertain. What is even more uncertain is what it will mean for all the health precautions we now have to live under. This is why I think it is important that we do not simply resign ourselves to a new normal with fewer foreign exchange programs. We need more programs, but we also need good digital and physical meeting spaces for students. Recreating the magic of an intimate seminar room is hard, but we can establish new digital arenas where students can at least meet and support one another.

NORAM will continue to support our scholarship holders as best we can. We will continue to offer advice and support where needed. At the same time, we need to accept that this might be a new normal for a long time and that there might not be a silver bullet to rid the world of COVID. That cannot mean that we shrink from supporting exchange. That is too important a responsibility. There are plenty of creative ways to have exchange between Americans and Norwegians. However, it does mean we have to look forward.

Håvard Sandvik is a senior parliamentary group adviser on foreign affairs, defense, and finance for Venstre, Norway’s liberal party. He also serves on the board of the Norway-America Association. He has extensive experience studying and working abroad in the United States, South Africa, Germany, and other countries of the European Union.

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 4, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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The Norwegian American

The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.