Photo courtesy of Sidra Dahhan

Studying Away in a Pandemic Stricken World

As I sit on a wooden bench in Manhattan and notice that nothing went according to plan, I still feel happy and fortunate and wouldn’t have it any other way.

Sep 26, 2021

The summer before college, I drove my mom crazy by continuously rambling about all the study away opportunities I would have during my four years of college. I had settled on going to Berlin to learn a new language and take in the city’s rich history.
Two years later, sitting on a wooden bench surrounded by a pocket sized plot of green in Manhattan, I see that nothing has gone according to plan.
During the pandemic, as my hope for two semesters of studying away dwindled down to one and then none, I saw study away as a prominent symbol of normalcy, of the world that was before Covid-19. I desperately wanted study aways to resume in time for me to participate in one. Not necessarily for the cultural immersion experience I was so excited for in freshman year, but because studying away seemed like an escape from a Covid-19 world. When the opportunity to move to another city for a semester returned, it meant that everything would be back to normal, or so I thought. It meant I could leave behind the negative feelings of panic and loneliness that loomed over me during the pandemic.
In May, I got an email saying that I was going to study away in Berlin — my dream destination, rich in film, history and the arts — for fall 2020. But I couldn’t live in a delusion: the study away had resumed but the world of normalcy had not. It never would be. Berlin no longer offered classes directly related to my majors because the pandemic forced the site to downsize on the classes being offered. I could not travel within and beyond the city because of Covid-19 restrictions. Even though I was vaccinated, I didn’t feel safe enough to proceed with my plan of studying away in Berlin as I would have prior to the pandemic. For these reasons, I did what I thought I wouldn’t do: I logged onto my study away portal and requested a site change to New York City.
I hesitated to make this change because I felt pressured to make the most out of the one semester I would have away from Abu Dhabi. I wanted to be surrounded by an unfamiliar language. I wanted to see sites I had never seen before, to spontaneously decide to travel to another country on a quiet weekend. I wanted to live in a pre-pandemic world. But the more I grounded myself with Covid-19 statistics and vaccination rates, the better I felt about my choice to go somewhere at least slightly familiar to me. A small voice in the back of my head hoped that New York City, as a large, cosmopolitan city, would deliver on my expectations for new experiences and an escape from the solitary world brought by the pandemic.
I came to a city returning to life: busy, loud and full of people. But I also saw the ghosts of a global pandemic in the masks people wore, vaccine restrictions at restaurants and the double takes of people toward the coughs of strangers.
I am reminded that a move across oceans is not an indication that the global pandemic is over. I cannot escape it, not until it is truly managed worldwide.
I have experienced change, though. Although I have lived in the U.S. and am in a culturally familiar, English speaking environment, I am also somewhere new. I don’t know this place; it’s new, it’s scary, it’s exciting.
Before, I thought I would clearly see the transition between the “pandemic” and “post-pandemic” worlds, as abruptly as the world shifted from “pre-pandemic” to “pandemic”. The end of the pandemic is not a homogenous, global event. I see that. The solitary, fearful pandemic and lively, joyful “post-pandemic” world live in unison. I see that more clearly now than ever, as I explore my very much unexpected study away location.
Maybe studying away was not the experience I expected it to be, and objectively speaking, studying away is not the same as it was before. I haven’t escaped the pandemic, and I haven’t ended up in the place I had for years hoped for. But still, I get to walk along a funky-smelling Washington Square Park, talk to family on my phone as police cars blare by on the loud, chaotic city streets and see a bright blue sky full of fluffy clouds. I feel happy and fortunate and wouldn’t have it any other way.
Sidra Dahhan is Senior Columns Editor and Film Columnist. Email her at
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