The coronavirus pandemic almost ruined Lucy Adundo’s study plans. The Kenyan student, who is enrolled at the Justus Liebig University in the central German town of Giessen, was in Sierra Leone doing fieldwork when COVID-19 struck.

“I remember vividly when the numbers started rising in Europe and I was still in Sierra Leone collecting my research data. Fortunately I had finished collecting data just before the lockdown in Sierra Leone,” she told DW. 

Sierra Leone suspended international flights but Adundo got lucky. Because she was registered as an exchange student from Germany, after a few days she managed to get a flight out of Sierra Leone thanks to some help from the German embassy. 

“I was scared of the rising numbers in Europe but I was also scared of the poor health system in Sierra Leone,” Adundo said. 

As countries closed their borders when the pandemic hit, three other exchange students from Justus Liebig University were stranded in Namibia. Germany’s Foreign Office secured their return.

“It all worked out well in the end,” said Julia Volz from the university’s International Office responsible for student exchanges. Currently, no one from the Justus Liebig University is stranded, she said, neither those doing exchanges abroad nor foreign students enrolled at the university in Germany.

But the exchange programs that many students see as an integral part of their studies are still severely limited. 

“The travel restrictions have had a big impact on our ability to conduct exchanges,” Volz told DW. As a result, only a third of the exchange possibilities are on offer this coming semester. 

Two university students in Dakar sit on a bench with books on their laps

Universities opened in Senegal only last month after closing closed since mid-March

Virtual exchange program surpasses expectations

For this reason, the university is offering its international partner universities a virtual exchange program – and it’s in great demand. 

“We’re processing over 500 applications. It’s way beyond our expectations,” said Volz. 

Students from Ethiopia, Botswana, Ghana and Namibia are among the applicants.

Financial assistance for the courses is available, according to Volz, and scholarships will be advertised and awarded. 

But because virtual exchange programs aren’t an option for all students, many have asked to defer their time abroad.

“Many German students who want to go to Africa are doing this,” said Volz, adding that she hopes the situation will stabilize next year. 

Students enrolled at Giessen have already shown interest in foreign exchanges to Ethiopia and Namibia next year, she said and she’s sure others are planning to travel in 2021.

Limited visa processing causes travel headaches

Exchanges programs at the University of Hamburg have also been severely affected. The university has a long-standing program with South Africa’s University of Stellenbosch where up to six students from the Hamburg university can spend a semester. 

This won’t be happening this year. 

“Because of the travel restrictions and corona-related regulations within the universities, foreign placements are often not possible,” said Courtney Peltzer-Hönicke, head of the International Department at the University of Hamburg.

The university is accepting applicants from Africa, however. But not all German consulates have resumed processing visas, Peltzer-Hönicke said, adding that the university is advising applicants from COVID-19 risk areas not to come. 

Extra time to research in Germany

The chemistry department at Bielefeld University in Germany’s northwest has seen mixed results for its exchange program. 

On the one hand, “exchange possibilities this year have declined somewhat due to the coronavirus pandemic,” said Norbert Sewald, professor and coordinator of YaBiNaPA, a bilateral graduate school run with the University of Yaounde in Cameroon’s capital. 

He says several Cameroonian research students from the graduate school weren’t able to come to Germany this year as planned. 

Read more: COVID-19: Africa’s education dilemma

On the other hand, Cedric Guy Tchatchoung Noulala from Cameroon was lucky. The research chemist arrived in Bielefeld from Yaounde in February just before most international travel shut down. 

“The pandemic had just started so I could hardly run any laboratory tests,” says Noulala explains. 

“But now I go to the lab every day and was able to extend my scholarship until December.”

He wants to continue his research when he returns home to Yaounde.