Escaping the virus

Foreign exchange student forced to leave America due to COVID-19

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Photo by Submitted Photo

German foreign exchange student Nils Schweizer poses in front of Texarkana's iconic state line. Schweizer was forced to return to Germany two months early due to concerns about COVID-19.

Story by Ruth Heinemann, staff writer

Many students from all over the world, dream about going to an American high school for a year. Making new friends, learning a new language, and adjusting to a new culture is the adventure every teenager is looking for. Sadly, not everyone is getting this opportunity; becoming a foreign exchange student is expensive and requires a lot of work and support. And due to current global events, some foreign exchange students are finding their trips cut short.

Junior Nils Schweizer, one out of six foreign exchange students at Texas High, came to Texarkana in August of 2019. He made friends, found new hobbies, and above all, he found a second home. Thinking he could enjoy the last two months of this life changing experience, his exchange student program ordered all foreign exchange students to leave the country immediately due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Within 24 hours Schweizer had to say goodbye to his friends and host family.

“On March 16, one day before my departure, I got an email from my organization saying that they are sending home all of their exchange students back to their home country,” Schweizer said. “When I read that I had to go home, I started to panic. My first instinct was to call my mom in Germany, but she already knew that I was coming home. Overall, it was really emotional for me.”

While many foreign exchange students voluntarily chose to fly back to their home countries to be with their families, some organizations decided to end all exchange student programs two months early. Schweizer’s organization, Open Door International, released a statement on their official Instagram account saying, “the wellbeing and safety of our students is our first priority, which is why we made the decision to end all ongoing programs.”

“I don’t think that the organization is sending us back because it is safer for us in Germany or other countries, as of now that is not the case,” Schweizer said. “I feel like the most important reason that influenced their decision was that they don’t want to have the responsibility of hundreds of exchange students that could possibly get infected.” 

Traveling around the world in times of a pandemic, knowing that there is a risk of getting infected with the coronavirus makes many exchange students feel unsafe. On his flight to Frankfurt, Schweizer experienced empty airports, planes full of foreign exchange students and a general feeling of uncertainty.

“Considering that I am young and healthy, I wasn’t really worried about getting infected with the virus, but I was aware of the danger just like everyone else,” Schweizer said. “I definitely noticed that most people at the airport were cautious about social distancing.” 

Many German high schools expect their students to get some kind of credit from the high school they attended in America in order to be able to complete their junior year. Foreign exchange students that ended their program two months early are now hoping that the German high schools will still accept the credit for an entire school year.

“I wasn’t really worried about the credit for my school because I had already talked to my high school in Germany before I left,” Schweizer said. “They told me that I would have to redo my junior year anyways because it is necessary to finish the junior year in Germany in order to graduate.” 

Since Germany is also affected by the pandemic, Schweizer is now in quarantine with his family. Not being able to reunite with friends or other relatives made coming back home even harder. The first days back in Germany, Schweizer struggled with not being in Texarkana for the next two months, as it was planned that he would return to Germany in May.

“I just felt really weird and also kind of lost. I had a terrible jet lag because I couldn’t sleep on the flight,” Schweizer said. “I was just thinking about my host family and all the friends that I made here. It is so frustrating for me that I didn’t get to say goodbye to everyone and that I didn’t get to spend as much time with my friends as I wanted to.”