Farvel, Hawaiʻi

Scandinavian exchange students recount their decisions to return home amid mounting institutional pressure, shutdowns caused by COVID-19

Associate Editor Elijah Kahula
Photography Courtesy of Aurora Driveklepp-Helgeland and Sjur Beyer

Less than a month ago, Norwegian exchange student and geology senior Victoria Hamre thought she would graduate from UH Hilo. That changed when, over spring break, UH Hilo’s Director of Global Exchange Todd Schumway advised all international exchange students to return home, stating in an email that “it is rapidly getting more difficult to travel.”

For students at UH Hilo studying away from home, the switch to online courses over spring break let them travel to be with their families until the coronavirus pandemic is controlled. In the case of international exchange students, however, returning home is final, forcing them to make a choice: prematurely end their studies in Hawai’i, or stay despite the mounting institutional pressure to return to their homelands. To explain which factors go into such a choice, Ke Kalahea reached out to international students from Scandinavia to recall the unique circumstances of their returns home.

Kassi Klepper and Aurora Driveklepp-Helgeland are space physics majors who came together to UH Hilo in the fall to study astronomy. Klepper, who left on March 16, was first of her compatriots to return to Norway, a country whose COVID-19 case numbers exploded during spring break. “I didn’t want to leave yet, but I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to get a flight back,” she states.

With the lessons of the slower response of the Chinese government, Norway took decisive actions last month to slow the spread of the coronavirus by closing their borders completely, except to Norwegians returning from abroad. The measures were called by Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg “the most far-reaching measures Norway’s population has ever experienced in peacetime.”

On March 12, Norway implemented 14-day quarantine mandates for those returning, resembling Hawai‘i Governor David Ige’s mandate implemented almost two weeks later.

Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) caused a sensation when, on March 14, it made a Facebook post advising its students to return from countries “with poorly developed health services and infrastructure and/or collective infrastructure, for example the USA.”

Facing backlash, the post by NTNU has since been edited to leave out any mention of the U.S., but the widely-circulated message was already received by Klepper: staying in the states is a risk.

Moa Estberg, a law student from the Norway-neighboring country Sweden, felt the pressure from higher up. She says she was contacted by the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who informed her that, due to uncertain travel conditions, if she could not fly home before the end of March, she would have to make financial preparations to stay in the U.S. for months.

Flying home during a pandemic was easier said than done. Travel restrictions worldwide meant navigating an unreliable airline system full of cancelled flights, elaborate flight routes, and extended layovers. Between all of the Scandinavian students, no trip was shorter than 30 hours.

Driveklepp-Helgeland, who left on March 31, had layovers in Honolulu, Atlanta, Chicago, and Amsterdam- a flight path that zigs across North America and back over the Atlantic. “There were so few people there that I sometimes didn’t know if she was walking in the right direction,” she states. On top of that, airport food options were limited as many restaurants were closed.

She says that on the plus side, customer service was exceptional. On Hawaiian Airlines, they put her in first class seating for free. There’d only be four people on the flight, anyway, the flight attendant told her.

Hamre and fellow Norwegian geology majors Sjur Beyer and Hanne Gramstad returned to Norway the week following Klepper’s departure, but stayed long enough to experience the early stages of Hawai‘i's lockdown. Despite the outbreak in his home country growing by over 100 new cases daily, Beyer had planned to remain in relatively COVID-19-free Hawai‘i until the end of the semester.

Visiting Maui over spring break changed his mind. “I remember it was a very distinct tipping point when my mind changed about staying, because we saw everything started shutting down!”

Restaurants, shops, and other public spaces were shutting across the state due to the Governor Ige’s lockdown mandate, requiring nonessential businesses to close. Adding to their struggles, while he and his group were camping at a beach, the only public restroom in the area suddenly closed.

Beyer was rocked by how quickly the state continued to shut down. “Two weeks ago I was going to spring break,” he states. “One week later, I was going home.”

Estberg says that life in Sweden has been jarringly different for her than her Norwegian counterparts. The country has become a black sheep in Europe for its relatively nonrestrictive approach in containing the viruses. Their grade schools remain open along with many restaurants.

The position of the country is that individual citizens will do their part to be socially responsible. Even so, on March 31, Sweden declared that gatherings would be restricted to 50 people, down from 500 people.

Despite the freedom, Estberg says she will remain inside. Along with the other exchange students, she’s fallen behind in her studies from travelling, and is still mourning the early departure from Hawai‘i.

“I had a life in Hawai‘i,” says Estberg. “From thinking you have months left to just a matter of days- I don’t think I’ve ever felt sadness like that.”

For the Norwegians, settling in at home consists of getting used to a life in mandated quarantine. The feeling is bittersweet. Beyer says that while leaving was the hardest choice of his life, he doesn’t regret it. “I still miss Hilo a lot, but what I really miss is Hilo before it was shut down.”

Klepper misses Hawai‘i, too, but she reasons that if she had stayed on the Big Island, she knows that the uncertainty of staying or leaving would remain and make it difficult to enjoy her experience. By departing, the choice of whether or not to do so became one less stressor.