Brianna Murray (center) enjoys a drink with classmates from Italy and Sweden in Glasgow. | Provided

Going to college during a pandemic wasn’t easy for anyone this year, but imagine doing it in a foreign country more than 3,000 miles from home. 

That’s what Kenna Howorth and Brianna Murray did this past year. Both graduated from Riverside-Brookfield High School in 2020 and went to college overseas. Howorth, 18, is a student at Jacobs University, a private international university located in Bremen, Germany, where classes are conducted in English. Murray, 19, is a student at the University of Glasgow in Scotland.

At Jacobs, classes were mostly online during the first semester and hybrid in the second semester, while Murray had to quarantine in her dormitory for 14 days after arriving in Scotland in September. Early in her quarantine she found out that classes were be entirely online.

Kenna Howorth kayaking with her boyfriend, Tyler, on the Alster River in Hamburg, Germany this spring after lockdown restrictions were lifted. | Provided.

Going to college in a foreign country during a pandemic was not what they had envisioned, but they tried to make the best of it and got to travel a bit in the early fall and late spring.

“It was difficult to adjust my expectations from when I was in the college planning stage and had imagined traveling in Germany and really getting to know the culture well,” said Howorth, who is back home in Brookfield for the summer. “Germany was in lockdown for several months, meaning that almost everything was closed so there was no traveling and most of my classes were online.”

The strict lockdown made social life in Germany “infinitely more difficult,” said Howorth, who is hoping for a more typical experience next academic year.

“I was able to learn a lot and still make a lot of friends within my major, but I am looking forward to next semester when hopefully things are a bit more normal and I can experience things more fully.”

Brianna Murray, who attended the University of Glasgow last year, was able to visit Edinburgh (above) when lockdown restrictions were loosened. | Provided

Howorth said many of her classes were held in large buildings to promote social distancing.

“They basically converted every big building into a lecture hall, so a ton of my classes were in a movie theater,” Howorth said.

Murray and Howorth wanted to go to university abroad for a number of reasons. They wanted to live outside of the United States and meet people from different countries, and they said attending college abroad is often less expensive than going to a school here. 

Howorth said she will be able to graduate with a degree in international relations, politics and history in three years while Murray said it will take her four years to earn a degree in psychology.

Jacobs is smaller, residential university with an enrollment of about 1,500 students located about 10 miles from the city center of Bremen, a city in northern Germany with a population of approximately 550,000. The University of Glasgow was founded in 1451 and is the fourth oldest university in the English speaking world and has an enrollment of about 29,000.

Life in both places was relatively open in early fall but then shut down in November as COVID cases skyrocketed. 

“Hotels were shut, restaurants were shut, nothing was open,” Howorth said. “I got to kind of see things when I first got there, in the middle not at all, and then towards the end I was able to go on a small vacation to the province above Hamburg.”

After going home to LaGrange Park for Christmas, Murray wasn’t able to go back to Glasgow until mid-March as the United Kingdom would not allow many foreigners into the country during the winter lockdown. 

During her time at home Murray attended classes online from LaGrange Park which was challenging due to time difference. Despite having all of her classes online, Murray was able to meet and befriend fellow students, especially those who lived in her residence hall.

Kenna Howorth eating crepes at a restaurant in the Bremen city center during fall 2020 before a spike in COVID-19 cases led Germany to reimpose strict lockdown measures. | Provided

“I got really close to the people that lived in my hall because we all ate meals together, so making friends during COVID wasn’t nearly as challenging as I thought it was going to be,” Murray said. “I connected with a lot of people who had the same major as me so that when lockdown was lifted we all got to meet for the first time. … Facebook and Facebook Messenger have brought me some of my closest friends.”

Howorth loves to travel and spent her junior year of high school as a foreign exchange student in Thailand. She loves meeting people from different countries and Jacobs is full of students from all over the world. Her roommate was from Morocco and she made friends with a student from Nablus in Palestine. 

“It’s really so cool to get to know people,” Howorth said.

Ironically, the first Jacobs student that Howorth met when she arrived in late August was from LaGrange. And then she met a girl from west suburban Geneva.

“It’s just so weird that the three of us kind of somehow ended up in the same college,” Howorth said.

Murray also met a number of foreign students. In fact, next year she will share an apartment with girls from Rwanda, Greece, India and Denmark.

“We joke that we got the whole United Nations in one apartment,” Murray said. “One of the most rewarding things about studying abroad so far is that not only obviously I meet a lot of Scottish people, but just a lot of people from entirely different backgrounds and cultures.” 

While in Thailand, Howorth met a boy from Germany who is now her boyfriend. He lives in Hamburg, which is 77 miles northeast of Bremen. Having him around helped a lot, especially over the Christmas holidays and in January when things were nearly totally shut down. During that time Howorth spent a month living at her boyfriend’s family home.

Murray said professors were very accommodating to the struggles some students had.

“There were a lot of accommodations for mental health, and a lot of teachers were extremely supportive if you couldn’t make deadlines,” Murray said. “They were extremely understanding with coursework and grades.”

She noticed some similarities and differences compared to college life in the United States. There are no fraternities or sororities at the University of Glasgow and big-time college sports does not exist.

Neither Howorth nor Murray were able to get vaccinated against COVID while abroad as both Germany and Scotland rolled out vaccines at a slower pace than in the United States, but both got vaccinated in June after returning home for the summer.