Twelve international exchange students from seven countries are calling UNC-Chapel Hill home this spring. Due to COVID-19, many had postponed coming to UNC for one or more terms and waited months for travel restrictions to lift and visas to be approved before arriving on campus.
Sometimes James Cahill still can’t believe he actually made it to Chapel Hill.
Cahill is from Kildare, Ireland, and studies at University College Dublin about 45 minutes away. He is one of 12 international exchange students — new Tar Heels — studying on campus this semester despite the global pandemic.
The exchange students are from Ireland, France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Chile and Hong Kong.
Multiple delays — including cancellations of exchange programs by his home university, closures of embassies, COVID-19 lockdowns and more — made his journey here all the more challenging.
“Oh my gosh, it’s a very long story,” said Cahill, who is living in an on-campus dorm. “Eventually we traveled to the London embassy, and they issued my visa.”
It’s a hopeful milestone for UNC-Chapel Hill’s Study Abroad Office, which in non-pandemic times would have around 120 exchange students studying here in the spring.
“After having none for summer and fall 2020, it’s exciting and symbolic to see this small group of intrepid and patient international exchange students on campus again,” said Heather Ward, associate dean for study abroad and international exchanges in the College of Arts & Sciences. “These students will not have a ‘normal’ study abroad experience, but they were strongly motivated to study at Carolina … and they contribute a lot to the globalization of our campus.”
All but two of the students are living on campus.
Adrienne Cromwell, director of advising and international student programs in the Study Abroad Office, worked with the students on a rolling admissions process to help them get to Carolina.
With the complications of the pandemic, obtaining an F1 visa (a nonimmigrant visa for those wishing to study in the United States) was more challenging. Exchange students have to be nominated by their home institution and apply through Carolina’s rigorous admissions process in order to be admitted here. School calendars across the universities must line up so that it’s possible. Students must take at least one in-person class, and they must arrive by the start of the spring semester. They must agree to UNC’s rigorous COVID-19 testing and quarantine requirements.
“UNC has a very high ranking globally, and our courses and instructors attract students from around the world,” Cromwell said. “Our exchange students are eager to engage with UNC students because of their academic acumen. In addition, they are interested in the overall American college experience.”
A beautiful campus
Mai Soto Kishino’s university, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, is a private Catholic institution in the busy city of Santiago. She lives outside the city with her parents and takes the bus or subway to campus, so she was excited about living in a dorm at Carolina.
“I find the architecture here really beautiful; you can tell there is history on this campus, and the buildings are old,” she said. “My campus back home is relatively modern.”
Clemence Ogier is living in Carrboro and excited about the Carrboro Farmers’ Market. Even though she says the Carolina campus is big, she finds it easy to get to Chapel Hill by taking the bus.
The geography of her home institution is quite different as well. She studies at Université Grenoble Alpes in France, but is from Franche-Comté, a region in eastern France.
“I grew up in a small village of 80 people with a lot of plains and mountains and it’s very rural,” she said. “When I went to study at Grenoble, it was a big change for me. The city and the campus is flat, and you can see the Alps.”
Ogier has been surprised by the technological infrastructure in UNC classrooms. She hopes one day to teach French to native English and Spanish speakers, so she is also learning about different teaching methods here.
“The ways of teaching here are very different from my home university, and it’s very interesting to see that,” she said. “Since I want to become a teacher, I’m packing up all this knowledge not just about what they are teaching you, but also about how they teach.”
The three students are taking classes in history, economics, political science, religion, American literature and Spanish, among other disciplines.
Cahill studies economics and politics in Dublin and is interested in learning about American politics. He said he’s always wanted to study and live abroad.
“A few of my classes will be focused on current affairs and politics. One class, ‘Political Parties and Elections,’ focuses on the 2020 elections and that’s very interesting to study here,” he said. Cahill is also taking a lifetime fitness class in exercise and conditioning that meets in person.
Kishino is specializing in world history at her home university and hopes to become an elementary teacher in history studies. At UNC, she is also taking a political science class on the “President, Congress and Public Policy.”
“The Cold War has stood out to me because it is weird learning everything I learned in school but now from the U.S. perspective,” she said.
Ogier is taking classes in American literature and Spanish but said her favorite class is probably the one on Native American history, taught by American studies professor Daniel Cobb.
“It’s something I don’t get to learn about much in France, so that’s been fantastic,” she said.
Sweet tea, burgers and school spirit
Sweet tea. Burgers. Fried chicken sandwiches. Sweet potato fries. Good sports teams. The Old Well. School spirit.
These are some of the things students mentioned they’ve found enjoyable in exploring campus and the surrounding town of Chapel Hill.
“One thing that struck me was campus pride,” Cahill said. “You’re walking on campus, and people are wearing UNC [gear]. You don’t necessarily see that from the students in Dublin.”
Zoom orientation and campus buddies
Cromwell hosted a Zoom orientation for the dozen students on Jan. 19; in ordinary times that session would have been held in person. It was supposed to last two hours, but it ended up stretching to three.
She also paired them up with campus buddies through the study abroad peer adviser program to help them navigate life as a Chapel Hill student. And the international exchange students said they are also staying connected to each other socially, planning some fun activities together.
Ward was one of the guest speakers at the Zoom orientation.
“When I met those students, even though it was just on the ‘Hollywood Squares’ of Zoom, it really struck a chord,” Ward said. “It was a little emotional to realize we can do this, we can get back in business, and these students were so hopeful and vibrant and excited to be here. They are full of that esprit de corps and want to make the most of the experience. That is just like jet fuel for us.”
By Kim Weaver Spurr, College of Arts & Sciences