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Studying abroad in Berlin during Covid-19

Sam Sweeting, a BA Anthropology and Visual Practice student, studied abroad through the Erasmus+ programme at Freie Universität Berlin during the lockdown period of the Covid-19 pandemic.


My exchange experience took place in Berlin over the lockdown of Covid-19. I had a very different exchange experience to the one I was imagining, but by the end it felt normal. People are quick to adapt. It was almost the case that I didn’t complete the exchange, as it was cancelled when lockdown began in the UK. By chance, I had travelled to Berlin for work before Goldsmiths ended its face to face teaching. Everything happened quickly and European countries rapidly closed their borders, Germany being ahead of the UK in that decision. I found myself living under the German government’s advice to stay home and self isolate. I decided, given the fact that I was safe and staying with friends in Berlin, and that my family is in Australia and I wasn’t going to be able to go back, that it was right for me to stay in Berlin. Thanks to the Erasmus team at Goldsmiths consideration of personal circumstances, I was able to carry on with the exchange and receive my Erasmus funding as planned.

Freie Universität were adaptive and considerate, and overhauled their summer semester quickly so that it was feasible to run online. Because of the short notice of an online semester, the format was slightly different. Instead of taking a strictly anthropological subject as per my degree, I was able to select a suitable subject from a pool of many across parallel disciplines. I ended up choosing a subject grounded in literature and theory that was still relevant to my degree in Anthropology – ‘Reading the City’. While ‘reading’ the city in a physical and tangible way wasn’t always easy, it was great to be able to learn about Berlin in depth through text and film while living there. It added a layer to my experience of the city, even if it was unconventional and abstract.

I found community building difficult, mostly for personal reasons/preference. I was staying with old good friends, so I felt like I already had an intimate community and due to Covid-19 it wasn’t the right time to be fostering new connections. As time has passed and restrictions have relaxed it has been easier to facilitate community building, however, I have remained far less social than usual. I found having existing friends in the city really helpful given the circumstances, making it easier to remain connected, even if only via phone during lockdown. Freie Universität put together a great semester in terms of considering widely varying personal circumstances, offering optional workshops for those who might want or need a form of community building through an online platform. Germany as a whole, felt a safe and responsive place to be through lockdown. There seemed to be a general feeling of trust in the guidelines, and people collectively respected rules such as mask wearing indoors and social distancing.

The hardest challenge for me was coming to terms with engaging with a new city at a time when the city was not really prepared to open up to you. This definitely felt strange at times, being away from the UK, however not at all attached to Berlin either. But many people have experienced something similar at this time, feeling the effect of limbo. While it wasn’t what I had imagined, it has been an experience I would definitely recommend to future students. The fact that it was online actually allowed for a lot of flexibility and freedom. I bought a bike, and spent a lot of time cycling and learning the city in a spatially engaged way, even if it was a more socially distanced experience, it was worthwhile.