Stuck in the Middle (East): Cancelled Exchange Leaves ANU Student Stranded Overseas
Written by Angela Paulson
Additional Reporting by Sophie Felice
As Australia woke up to the news about the Hamas attack, ANU student Reese Chen was waiting at Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt—for her plane into Israel.
She had been heading to the Hebrew School of Jerusalem for a six month exchange program—one she had been extensively planning for over a year.
“My favourite author of all time teaches at [this university] ” stated Chen, when asked about the reason behind her choice in exchange. Yuval Noah Harrari is a professor in the Department of History at Hebrew School of Jerusalem, and is most well known for their bestselling book ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’.
She had been excited to take his anthropology course, citing that it was her main motivation behind applying.
“The admin process to organise this exchange was a lot,” Chen admitted, especially considering that she was one of the only students from ANU who was planning an exchange to Israel.
Chen had applied mid-last year, and struggled with the long visa process.
“The student visa process is much harder than Europe,” says Chen. She also says that the difficulty of the visa requirements on top of course requirements made the application process challenging.
Before her departure, she had “read up a lot before about potential conflicts and risks” but did not “prepare for [something on] this scale”.
Chen was waiting in Sharm El-Sheikh during her layover when she first saw the headlines of the attack while scrolling on her phone.
“I wasn’t sure what to do… the plane wasn’t cancelled… [and I didn’t know] when [the conflict] was going to end ”, she told Observer.
She panicked and immediately contacted ANU via email, letting them know of the situation, as well as embassies, news outlets and “anywhere else she could think of.” Chen was also in a “scramble to find accommodation”, as her situation in Egypt became more uncertain.
“[I know] how hard I worked to save up for this trip…I wouldn’t be able to [pay] for the 10 [extra] days [of food and accommodation]”
She was financially independent and had paid all the extra costs for this exchange.
ANU responded to Chen on the Monday, informing her that her exchange and travel grant was cancelled. Her host university had deferred the starting date and moved to online classes, and ANU advised her not to proceed to Israel.
Chen had luckily found work in a work-a-way, which enabled her to have free food and accommodation. She was not sure if she “could find flights to Australia”, noting that everyone was trying to leave.
“[The flights were] expensive,” Chen told Observer, “about a $1000…but [it was] a priority to get home”.
Before leaving Australia, she had received no extra information and advice from ANU about going on exchange to the tense political area.
“I don’t blame them…,” Chen stated, admitting that ANU could not have anticipated the attack and the conflict.
An ANU spokesperson told Observer that “while overseas, students have access to support services from the University’s Health and Safety provider International SOS.”
ANU states that these support services include “immediate access to 27 assistance centres globally, crisis management support and access for referrals to 6000 medical professionals globally, including GPs, psychologists and psychiatrists.”
Furthermore, ANU also confirmed that all students who are participating in the exchange program receive “an online pre-departure course comprising of six modules covering various topics, and face-to-face workshops.”
Although ANU was “very supportive” of the exchange, Chen affirmed that more pre-departure resources in relation to regions with political instability would have been helpful.
Whilst on exchange, Chen had hoped to volunteer for mental health organisations, and “immerse [herself] in this new story… [in a] culture [that] was really interesting” as she had never “lived in a foreign country long term”.
When she is back in Australia, she will have to deal with another long admin process, trying to organise her courses and potentially do summer intensives in order to catch up. Chen advises future exchange students to “prep for the possibility that things may go wrong…[but] don’t want to discourage people or myself from trying something new – there is so much…[that exchange] offer[s].”
“[Be] prepared to deal with consequences [that are] balanced with the potential reward [which offers] a more unique experience.”
Graphics by: Annisa Zatalini
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