Tips for Exchange Students in 2020

Moving abroad is challenging at the best of times, and it’s safe to say that 2020 has only gone and thrown a whole toolbox of spanners into the works. If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably lost track of the number of cancelled flights, permutations of study-abroad plans, and Covid-related press conferences you’ve watched – and just for the record, I much prefer the Austrian ones. As we head into the chilly winter months and the days grow ever shorter, here are a couple of thoughts and suggestions after my first two months in Vienna. I don’t claim to have any authority or expertise; I’m just a fellow Erasmus student trying to make it to the end of what seems like an ever-changing, endless, but exhilarating obstacle course in one piece. By Anna Whitehead.

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash.
Studentlife. (c) Andrew Neel on Unsplash.

#1 Freshers’ Week all over again?

Freshers’ Week is the name given to the first week of one’s university experience in the UK, and is invariably filled with loud socials and brief conversations with people whose name you forget an hour later and might never see again for the rest of the year. Starting an Erasmus year often feels quite similar; you’re back to square one when it comes to making friends and are almost desperately asking people if they want to grab a coffee. One of the best tips I received myself was to mention that I was moving to Vienna to as many friends as possible before I left – you’ll be surprised how many people might have recommendations for you or even have friends and connections lurking around in Vienna who are happy to help you find your feet. Joining a sports team or getting involved in a community or some sort of social initiative is also a great way to find a group of people.

#2 Finding a routine

Finding a routine. (c) Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.

Finding a routine. (c) Karoline Grabowska on Pexels.

With so many new things to get used to and so much you want to see and do, it’s easy to fall into the trap of treating your exchange year like an extended holiday. Establishing some sort of routine – and it might be just small things like grocery shopping or doing laundry at the same time each week – helps enormously with settling in. With online classes resulting in hours spent on your laptop each day, it’s perhaps even more important to create some habits that will help you stay happy and sane. If anything, they’ll give you the reassuring feeling of being in control when everything else around you appears wildly uncontrollable. I’ve also found that setting aside a little bit of time in the morning or the evening to check emails, social media, and the news, rather than checking mindlessly throughout the day, is much more time effective and reduces the negativity you might feel after reading the latest Covid statistics or seeing photos of all your friends back home hanging out without you.

#3 Time for walkies!

(c) by Anna Whitehead
I could not get enough of the Stadtwanderwege. (c) Anna Whitehead.

Following on from the previous point, I’d recommend finding time each week (or each day if you can manage that) to get away from your screen and head outside. Even a short walk can help create some headspace and will hopefully leave you feeling a little more refreshed and ready to type away again. With museums and cafés shut, now is a great time to have a wander around the backstreets or explore your area a little more. Here in Vienna there are plenty of hidden gems and green spaces, such as Türkenschanz Park or Pötzleinsdorfer Schlosspark in the 18th district, and many a Stadtwanderweg to try out if you want something a little more adventurous for the weekend. Blocking out time in your diary to head outside is also a great way of avoiding that all too frequent occurrence of choosing to leave something until later and then never getting round to doing it.

#4 Focus on what you can do, not what you can’t

I enjoyed crafting these lanterns. (c) Anna Whitehead.
I enjoyed crafting these lanterns. (c) Anna Whitehead.

It’s completely understandable to feel disappointed or frustrated at times, and to think of all the wonderful things that the lockdown measures have led you to miss out on, whether that be museums, parties or travel to other European cities. But don’t throw in the towel quite yet – all is not lost! With a bit of creativity there are plenty of fun things you could get up to with those in your household. We recently spent an evening making lanterns for St Martin’s Day, and while I never imagined to be spending my year abroad hacking apart old cereal boxes, it was certainly a very enjoyable and cozy evening in. Coming together to bake something delicious or share a meal at the end of the week will almost certainly distract you from the fact that you’re not allowed to leave after 8pm.

#5 Home away from home

As new and exciting all the opportunities of an Erasmus year might be, there will inevitably be moments where you miss your family and friends, and all the little home comforts. Decorating your room (within reason and the rules!) with postcards or photos is an easy way to make it feel like a welcoming space which you don’t mind spending time in. I’ve also found that cooking dishes that remind me of home lifts my mood enormously – this week I attempted to replicate my Filipino mother’s legendary Pancit Bihon dish, and ended up with both noodles all over the kitchen and a big smile on my face. Putting on the kettle and having a cup of tea – a classic British coping mechanism no matter the circumstances – and calling a friend from home equally works wonders. Reaching out to your fellow Erasmus students, wherever in Europe they may be, and just having a quick chat to exchange your stories will likewise help in reassuring you that you’re not the only one feeling overwhelmed or stressed by the whole experience and ever-changing restrictions. 

Keep calm and carry on.

Being an exchange student in 2020 is a unique experience, and as easy as it is for me to sit here and write down these tips, it’s a completely different matter when it comes to putting them into practice. There will be incredible highs of this year and inevitable lows too. There will probably be days, and maybe weeks too, during this second lockdown, where all you manage is completing a few hours of online classes and having a chat in the kitchen, and that’s perfectly fine too. There’s often a lot of pressure to make this year the best one of your student years, to have the time of your life, to be the best version of yourself etc., but truly, if you’re an exchange student who is still abroad at this point, I think that’s a remarkable achievement in itself, and one to be proud of. I’ll finish this cliché-filled paragraph with one more – that famous British mantra: Keep Calm and Carry On.

About the author

I'm Anna Whitehead and I’m a newcomer to Vienna, having made the decision to trade the dusty bookshelves of the University of Cambridge for all the Kaffee, Kuchen und Kultur that an Erasmus year at the Universität Wien would offer! I’m interested in Austrian literature and politics, enjoy learning languages and telling questionable puns. You can find a couple of stories over at, as well as a few snaps on the gram - @anna_whitehead11.