Four Durban University of Technology (DUT) students were recently on an Exchange Programme at the University of Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid, Spain.

Students, Nickel Zulu, Zothani Ngongoma, Nozibusiso Khumalo and Nhlakanipho Khumalo were part of the Erasmus+ KA107 Programme.

They embarked on a study period overseas from January 2020 to May 2020. However, their experience had to be cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic which has gripped the world.

They were repatriated back to South Africa on 23 April 2020, a month before the end of their exchange programme. These students share their journey from having an opportunity of a lifetime to being caught up in the midst of a global pandemic and how the experience had impacted them.

Zulu, a second-year Marketing student at DUT was very grateful to have had the opportunity to go to Spain. His first day at the University of Rey Juan Carlos gave him the opportunity to mingle with the locals, learn a few things about the Spanish culture, food, public transportation, climate, politics and other interesting topics.

“We (DUT students) found separate rooms to rent in Vicálvaro, a suburb in the city of Madrid where our campus was. Every little thing made me realize how lucky I was. I was free, I felt safe, I felt really good, almost every day,” he said elatedly.

He believes in the second week of March 2020, President Sánchez announced the state of emergency for the whole of Spain due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Everything stopped and the whole country was under lockdown with very strict regulations. At first, COVID-19 led to the suspension of face-to-face classes for 15 days, then later the university (URJC) announced that there won’t be any face-to-face classes for the rest of the semester and that classes and assessments would all take place online,” he stressed.

During this time, the four students were in communication with Carol Newman and Ana Luisa Ortega (both International Education officers at DUT and URJC respectively), Dr Moodley, Dr Govender and Dr Zondo who all gave them emotional and mental support.

“We were able to also get into contact with the Consulate of South Africa in Spain which played a big role in finally getting us on one of the repatriation flights back to South Africa. Personally, when Spain went under lockdown, I realized the seriousness of the pandemic. I became a bit paranoid at times due to lack of understanding of what COVID-19 actually does, how it spreads, what I should and should not do. It was scary, at one point, Spain was amongst the top three countries with the most confirmed infections and being in the country at the time was stressful. I later came to learn that the disease is not as deadly to young and healthy people as I had previously thought and that somehow put me at ease,” said Zulu.

To return to South Africa, the students had to apply to the Department of International Affairs and Cooperation through the Consulate of South Africa in Spain. The application process required them being taken into quarantine upon arrival and being tested.

“As soon as we landed at OR Tambo International Airport, we were shuttled to our accommodation where we spent 14 days in isolation. I am still grateful to this day for making it back to my family alive and without getting infected by COVID-19,” he said.

Zulu said given another opportunity to travel overseas, he would happily grab it with both hands as he did not get to fully experience living and studying in a foreign country.

For Nhlakanipho Khumalo, a third-year student in Business Administration, finding out that he had been chosen to go to Spain was one of the greatest and proudest moment of his existence.

“We got to experience a part of the lifestyle in Madrid, went out with friends and had fun even though our stay was cut short due to COVID-19. The coronavirus just made our stay the worst in Spain because a lot of things changed. A system of online learning was introduced and all classes were cancelled for the rest of the semester. Also, the online learning became more difficult on a daily basis up until our government arranged for repatriation flights for 25 April 2020 and we left,” he said.

He added that he was glad to be back home safe and sound with no health complications.

“If I am ever given an opportunity like this in the near future, with no doubt I will take it because there’s a lot I learnt from this experience and I will forever be grateful,” he said.

Second-year Marketing and Retail student, Zothani Ngongoma said she had never been overseas so it served as a beautiful experience when she finally got there.

“We were scheduled to be in Madrid for five months to fit the semester but due to COVID-19 we ended up returning in April 2020,” she said.

She said that COVID-19 made Spain go on lockdown a lot sooner than in South Africa so as soon as the lockdown started, the academic syllabus immediately continued online via virtual classrooms.

“When the trip was cut short, I had mixed emotions because I still wanted to explore Madrid but I also missed my family and being home, especially with a pandemic, I understood that the safest place to be was home,” she said.

Ngongoma said if given another chance to travel overseas, provided that the virus has been put to rest, with no doubt, she would go back overseas.

“It has taught me to think bigger and approach a lot of situations and opportunities differently,” she said.

Nozibusiso Khumalo, a third-year Business Studies student was delighted when she got the opportunity to travel and study abroad because it felt like an answer to her prayers.

“In all honesty, I was not in a panic about being in a pandemic in a foreign country at the time it was announced, however I started panicking when South Africa entered under a national lockdown and there were no flights coming in or going out. Soon after all my roommates who were European left and went back home and I was left alone,” she said.

Khumalo added that despite it all, she would absolutely love to travel again.

“I’m grateful for this opportunity I received, it grew me in all angles and I also got to experience an opportunity of a lifetime,” she said.

Pictured: [Top] Nickel Zulu, Nhlakanipho Khumalo

Pictured: [Bottom] Zothani Ngongoma, Nozibusiso Khumalo

Waheeda Peters

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