A Virtual Exchange Semester Experience to Remember

Taylorian Karen Grace Prince shares her experience of a virtual exchange programme at University of Newcastle.

I’m a planner by nature, one of those people who structures their lives with colour coded to-do lists and bazillion Post-it notes stuck on the wall. Down to every single choice or decision, my brain predicts potential outcomes and categorises them according to which choice would reap the most benefits. My future at Taylor’s fell under the same microscope as well.

Not long after applying for my degree, I began researching internal-transfer programmes and foreign study trips to embark on during the three years I had. And to my relief, I was able to fit in an exchange semester during my second year. I began daydreaming about all the new experiences I’d have — all the people I’d meet, the culture I’d learn, the imminent joy I’d feel. Obviously, I was ecstatic. Everything was going exactly as I planned in my head.

Well, until COVID-19 decided to stomp my dreams and take the world tour I was supposed to be on.

If I’d to narrate what I felt, it would probably be through the five stages of the Kübler-Ross grief model, starting with a mish-mash of denial, anger, bargaining, and depression, before finally reaching the stage of acceptance. 

After all, nearly every Malaysian can echo my sentiment when I say we’ve slowly sunk into the depths of despair. The overseas exchange, amidst the looming fear of COVID-19, seemed like my ticket away from our gloomy reality, and you couldn’t blame me for seeking my escape.

A Virtual Exchange Semester Experience to Remember

But I was also acutely aware of how slim my chances were of reentering Malaysia even if I did push through with the exchange. The fear of possibly being stuck overseas weighed on me as the local cases began to multiply. It felt like one of those math word problems I’d to solve without being sure of what the correct answer was. So many things could go wrong, before they went right. 

And so I played the safe option: I opted for an online exchange.

Camaraderie in isolation

Now, I’m not saying it went smooth-sailing from here, I still had just as many fears: What if I hated it? What if it was too hard for me? What if I couldn’t handle it and realised it was a mistake?

But I think my biggest fear was perhaps feeling more isolated than I already did.

It’s one thing to be holed up at home and attend online classes at Taylor’s where a sense of familiarity exists. It’s a whole different story where there is no semblance of familiarity at all and you have to navigate foreign waters. Although I didn’t know at the time, I can now safely say that it was the best decision I ever made.

My exchange university, the University of Newcastle (UON), did their level best to make us online students feel very welcome. The e-orientation consisted of various simulations where I could move around the campus with just a click of the mouse and strike up conversations with other people through their avatars. It felt surreal but also weirdly comforting. If I couldn’t be there physically, at least I could explore UON digitally.

Thinking of doing an exchange in the future? Find out more about the different partner universities you could exchange to here.

A Virtual Exchange Semester Experience to Remember

Classes were wonderful too! We used various learning tools that were completely foreign to me, such as Blackboard and FutureLearn. Lessons and video lectures were delivered on a weekly basis and through a step-by-step manner. Under each step, we'd discussion posts for students to chat, share their opinions, or raise questions. 

I found this fascinating because we saw perspectives of people from all walks of life and various countries. Some were mothers who finally achieved their dreams to attend university. Some were studying on the side while working nine-to-five jobs. Some were joining courses simply to satiate their quarantine boredom. Each case was so utterly unique from the other, and created this fun little melting pot of students.

Although I felt alone in my study journey, there was an immense comfort in working with people who had similar circumstances. Through my exchange, I’d the freedom to explore subjects and interests that I couldn’t fully pursue at Taylor’s, such as film and literature, history, or sociology. All of which I thoroughly enjoyed delving into at UON. It was quite honestly, the most fruitful study period I’ve had so far in the entirety of my degree. 

However, I’d have less success when it came down to assignments. The diversity of my chosen modules meant familiarising myself with coursework that I didn’t have much experience with, like recording podcasts, writing scholarly papers, creating a museum artefact guide, and of course, writing several analyses.

A Virtual Exchange Semester Experience to Remember

Due to the purely digital nature of my exchange, I found it rather difficult to navigate my way through the uncertainty, having to rely on my gut choices every step of the way. Group work was especially challenging, not only because my group mates and I didn’t know each other, but the differing work ethics made it difficult for us to reach common ground. Although resolved with compromise and a great deal of elbow room, I found it a learning experience in itself.

The rigorous work culture and constant churning of submissions took some getting used to, sometimes having to deal with back-to-back deadlines for weeks on end. But in a lot of ways, it felt very reminiscent of the Mass Communication coursework back at Taylor’s, and had me better prepared to tackle the most arduous of assignments.

But...was it worth it?

While the online exchange may not have been my first choice or wasn’t the most attractive option to me at first, I wouldn’t trade the experience for the world.

In a time where life outside is so scary and all hope seems lost, I’m especially grateful for the institutions involved for still allowing me to fulfil my exchange semester. 

And most importantly, doing it healthy and safe.

For this I’d like to extend my heartfelt thanks to the staff and lecturers at the University of Newcastle who assisted me through every step, as well as the Global Mobility Office staff at Taylor’s for giving me the most wonderful five months of my degree. It truly exceeded my expectations and none of it would’ve been possible without them.

If you’ve read this far and are wondering what you can take from this, it’s that we’ve to expect the unexpected, no matter what.

A Virtual Exchange Semester Experience to Remember

COVID-19 has placed a stoplight on our livelihoods and daily routines, and it’s hard not to get drowned in the misery of it all. We’ve been forced to navigate our futures through the chaos and make unpleasant decisions. And while that definitely sucks, it does teach us to accept the inevitable and adapt ourselves to the uncomfortable. 

And sometimes, it might even turn out better than you hope.

Interested to know how you can start your journey towards an exchange or a transfer abroad? Enquire now about the endless possibilities of making your university journey the best one. 

Karen Grace Prince is a final-year student, currently pursuing a Bachelor's Degree in Mass Communication (Honours) at Taylor's University. An aspiring journalist and human rights advocate, she hopes to bring about positive social change to her society with her written work.