Student exchange in Portugal during pandemic 

Exchange studies in the middle of the pandemic – what is that like? For Niklas Sundell and Jonathan Olsson, master’s students from Linköping University, the spring term in Aveiro, Portugal was a gamble – that paid off. 

Niklas Sundell and Jonathan Olsson in Aveiro, Portugal. Jonathan Olsson and Niklas Sundell doing some sightseeing in Porto close to Aveiro where they live and study.

Surf and studies

During our interview the internet connection acts up occasionally, but otherwise Niklas Sundell and Jonathan Olsson could just as well be sitting in a student room in Ryd or somewhere else in Linköping. Now they’re online from the living room of the small apartment near the centre of Aveiro, Portugal, on the Atlantic coast. Proximity to the coast was an important reason for their choice of Aveiro. 

Photo credit Anna Nilsen

“Today it’s raining, but otherwise we’ve had good weather since we arrived in March. Sun most days, and around 20°. It’s wonderful”, says Jonathan.

“We study, but it feels a bit like holidays – and last week we tried surfing”, Niklas adds.

Wanted to travel

Struck by wanderlust three years into their master’s programme Energy, Environment, Management, they decided to spend the autumn term of 2020 in Valencia, Spain, where LiU has a popular exchange programme. But the pandemic got in the way, and all of LiU’s exchanges were paused during that term.

Autumn came, and they started looking into options for the spring term. They liked the look of the university in Aveiro, a much smaller town of just over 70,000, in Portugal – Spain’s western neighbour. Partly because infection rates were higher in Spain than in Portugal, and partly because it was good to have an alternative to Valencia. In the end it was a tough decision, as the pandemic surged around Christmas and into January.

Jonathan Olsson and Niklas Sundell in Aveiro, Portugal.At the beach.

“Every day I checked the stats for infection rates and deaths, and it just kept going up. It looked really bad then. But in February it started to plateau, and then it started to drop”, says Niklas, adding that the university postponed the course start by a few weeks, from February to early March.

What about the timing of the trip to Portugal?

“Well, I was thinking that maybe we should wait a few weeks, and follow the course remotely. But Niklas wanted to go, and it was good to have a travel partner. And course, we wanted to do something different, and had wanted to do an exchange for a long time”, says Jonathan.

Opens up again

At the time of our interview, in mid April, infection rates have dropped, and slowly but surely Portugal is re-opening, going from ‘almost lockdown’ in early March to a semi-open society with open museums, al fresco dining for small groups, and sports like tennis and padel under way in some of the town’s many parks. Being able to sit outside at restaurants felt like a game changer, and Jonatan and Niklas hope to see further easing in the restrictions as spring proceeds. 

However, all teaching is still online, and they have only visited the university once. The University of Aveiro has roughly 11,000 students, including some 150 Erasmus students – mostly from Germany, Poland and Italy. Teaching is in English, and Niklas and Jonathan say the pace is somewhat slower than in Sweden, perhaps because they had time to study a few courses at LiU before they departed for Portugal.

Describe an average day – what do you do?

“We get up at around 10-11, and have breakfast at 11. We normally work out, run or go to an outdoor gym, and then we often go to a park for a snack, to study or to listen to music. The good weather makes it easy to be outdoors. Then during the day we normally have some scheduled teaching, and in the evening we might meet a group of exchange students who we’ve got to know.

Just one mishap

Niklas Sundell and Jonathan Olsson in Aveiro, Portugal.Niklas and Jonathan in one of Averio's many parks.

This far into the spring, the two are happy with their exchange. The risks are hardly higher than in Sweden – infection rates are lower and they’ve got used to wearing a mask – while there is also so much to do and experience. And Aveiro is a positive surprise. Yes, it is smaller and perhaps less cool than Valencia, but it’s friendly, beautiful, and most attractions are within walking distance.

They’ve only had one mishap: when Niklas fell ill and was admitted to hospital. Tired and feverish, he heard the Portuguese nurses talking about ‘appendix’ and ‘operação’ (operation) of a suspected appendicitis. It turned out not to be so serious, and after a double treatment of penicillin for eight days, Niklas made a full recovery.

“It was an experience, you could say. I was in pretty bad shape when I got back from hospital, so Jonathan had to take care of me and do all the cooking. In situations like that, it’s good to be two”, he says.

Aveiro, Portugal.
Main square in Aveiro. GoodLifeStudio
Aveiro, Portugal.
Venice? No, Aveiro! Sean3810
Aveiro, Portugal.
The university in Aveiro. GoodLifeStudio
Aveiro, Portugal.
Costa Nova at the sea outside of the town Aveiro.

One in four travelled abroad during the spring termShow/Hide content

Exchange students Niklas and Jonathan are among the exceptions for the spring term of 2021. Fewer LiU students than usual travelled on exchange visits during the first six months of the year.

Anna-Maria Josefsson.Anna-Maria Josefsson.

With respect to study abroad, LiU refers students to the recommendations published by the government. It is possible to travel for study or placements abroad, provided that the Ministry for Foreign Affairs has not issued advice against travelling to the country in question, and provided that the host institution is willing to receive international students. Further, the travel must not contravene any regulations imposed by the host country.

This spring, around 20 students from the Faculty of Science and Engineering are studying abroad. The usual number is around 80.

“The students are free to make their own decisions, and I’m sure that they are fully aware of the special situation. We have encouraged them to make sure that they follow the regulations of both the host country and host university, and I’m sure that they all have”, says Anna-Maria Josefsson, international coordinator at the Faculty of Science and Engineering.

“As far as we know, it’s worked out fine for everyone. In any case, no one has interrupted their studies and come back to Sweden.”

Delaying the decision

During the autumn term of 2020, LiU did not send out any exchange students, and only a few foreign exchange students were received. No one knows what will happen this autumn term. Anna-Maria Josefsson is planning for a resumption of exchange visits back to roughly the normal level. And she hopes that this will be the case. 

There has been considerable interest in exchange studies in the coming academic year, but many student are delaying their decision. A few students have declined to take up their places this autumn as a result of the uncertain situation.

“Most of LiU’s partner universities are planning to receive exchange students, but they make it clear that they cannot guarantee anything. What will be decisive are how the spread of infection develops and how far countries progress with their vaccination programmes”, says Anna-Maria Josefsson.

The most popular host countries for TekFak students are usually Singapore, Switzerland, France, Germany and Spain. The faculty has several hundred exchange agreements with foreign universities.

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