My Exchange Experience During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Anna Hennessey

On March 4th, I left the junior hallway at 10:00 am and waved goodbye to my friends and assumed I’d see them when I got back the day before prom. I hopped in my mom’s car and headed to the airport to begin my 24-hour journey to my exchange in New Zealand. I traveled with sophomore Kelsey Wakefield, and we were super excited for our trip. We left right at the beginning of the Coronavirus’s presence in the US, so we were not expecting anything that was going to happen. Traveling through the airport was barely different than when I had flown at Christmas break (besides from the fact that everyone was using a little bit more hand sanitizer). Twenty-four hours later, we landed in sunny New Zealand with a whole trip in front of us. 

The New Zealand school was over double the size of ours and had quite a few differences, such as a uniform, larger class sizes, lack of a standard A, B, C grade system, and not having a dining hall for lunch. I had an amazing time learning about the school, going to classes, and meeting new people. Of course, one of the most popular topics for conversation was COVID-19 as it was a global pandemic. Most teachers in class would ask me about America and how it was there. I found myself not being able to answer because I left right before it really hit. In New Zealand, the virus had barely even touched the country. I think up to this point in my trip, there were only two cases in the entire country. 

On March 13th, my birthday, when everyone back in America watched the entire country shut down and the number of cases spike, my biggest concern was if I was actually seventeen yet if New Zealand was sixteen hours ahead. Being in New Zealand during this time, Kelsey and I were completely blind to anything that was happening back home in the United States. As more things began to get locked down, our parents got more anxious and encouraged us to come home early. I did not understand the weight of the situation because things were  much less intense in New Zealand. In New Zealand, COVID-19 was a thing of the future, something that was happening overseas and was probably bound to hit them later. I, being the American, got bombarded with questions about how my friends and family were doing in quarantine. Honestly, I did not really know much about back home because I was trying to focus on having a good time in New Zealand, and Coronavirus had not yet affected me. 

Two weeks into our trip, Kelsey’s parents and mine decided it would be best to send us home early as President Trump was beginning to increase travel bans and New Zealand’s policies were beginning to become stricter. I was sad because I was having a great time, but I recognized that I was fortunate enough to go on my trip at all because so many NCDS girls did not get to go on exchange this year. 

Due to the skewed view of reality I gained from being in New Zealand, I did not realize the weight of the pandemic for a while. I didn’t realize it when I got the email in math class from Sr. Rogers about prom being cancelled, or even when I saw Governor Baker’s announcement cancelling schools. It was not until Kelsey and I stepped off the plane at our layover in San Francisco that I realized how crazy this time we are living in really is. 

My grandparents live in Redwood City, and I have flown through the San Francisco airport at least two times a year for my entire life. On March 22nd, I saw the SFO airport emptier than I had ever seen it. Almost every shop was closed, most people were wearing masks, and there was a weighted silence among everyone in the airport. I was running on three hours of sleep, a Diet Coke, and a bag of goldfish, and I was still able to comprehend how grave this situation was. As we sat waiting for our next flight home, Kelsey and I discussed how we finally understood why we had to get home early. After a “socially distant flight,” a name dubbed by the flight attendant in acknowledgment of the half empty plane from San Francisco to Boston, Kelsey and I finally arrived home to be quarantined with our families. 

This whole experience was definitely one for the books, but I am very grateful I got the opportunity to experience a new country and even face a global pandemic from two different continents. Make sure to social distance and follow all safety guidelines so we can help fight the virus and make it possible for more girls to go on exchange soon.