My pandemic travel diary: Dubai student chronicles move to university in UK

Melina Aggarwal, 18, endured PCR tests, contact-tracing concerns and self-isolation during move from Middle East to Europe

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A Dubai student embarking on university life overseas has told of the challenges of crossing continents to pursue her studies during a pandemic.

Last week, former Dubai resident Melina Aggarwal, 18, travelled solo to the UK to join up as a fresher at the University of Exeter.

I finally got an email from the university confirming my quarantine address, meaning I can now book my day two and day eight PCR tests when I land in the UK
Melina Aggarwal

She is one of many intrepid students refusing to let Covid-19 travel restrictions stop them achieving their goals and broadening their horizons.

Destinations including the UK, US and Canada remain some of the top choices for UAE students.

Additional paperwork, PCR testing and self-isolation have all been added to the checklist of things to do for students moving overseas.

After graduating from Dubai College, Ms Aggarwal has enrolled to study for a bachelor’s degree in English literature.

Melina Aggarwal is currently isolating in her university dorm room after travelling to the UK from the UAE. Photo: Melina Aggarwal

She told The National the move has been exciting but a far cry from the experience she thought it would be.

Here, she chronicles a seven-day diary as a student moving overseas during a pandemic.

Day 1: August 23

Only a couple of more days until I leave the UAE for the UK. I underwent my Covid-19 PCR test today so I can travel, but no matter how careful I am, there’s always a tiny part of me that is scared the results will come back positive and change my plans last minute.

I finally got an email from the university confirming my quarantine address, meaning I can now book my day two and day eight PCR tests when I land in the UK. I was getting worried about not hearing from them in time, because I can’t travel unless I have proof that I’ve ordered my PCR tests to my quarantine address.

Most of my friends are avoiding the 10-day amber list quarantine by travelling through a green country, but Exeter is offering its students free quarantine accommodation in university dorms, making the whole process a lot less complicated, and of course, a lot cheaper.

Day 2: August 24

My test came back negative! I’m officially one step closer to going to university. It’s been a struggle having to fit my whole life into one suitcase, and more importantly under the airline weight limit. 30kg is nothing when you look at the size of my wardrobe, so I’ve been forced to make quite a few sacrifices.

My family keeps telling me I can just buy new stuff in the UK, but it would have been nice to be able to carry a bit more from my life here in Dubai over to university.

It was easier for my sisters, they had my mum going with them to settle them in so they could use some space in her suitcase. But I have to travel alone because of the hassle of quarantine, so I don’t get that benefit.

Melina Aggarwal with her father in Dubai during Christmas 2020. Photo: Melina Aggarwal

Day 3: August 25

Today is the big day, I fly to the UK later tonight. I filled in my Passenger Locator Form today so that I’ll be allowed to board the plane. I keep trying to imagine what it will be like once I get there, but since I had to apply during lockdown, I never got the chance to visit Exeter itself, let alone see the accommodation. It really feels like I’m diving head first into the unknown.

I keep trying to distract myself from the fact that in an hour I have to say goodbye to my family. It’s so much scarier to do when I know full well that the situation with Covid-19 could change any second, and for all I know I might not be able to travel home in December like I’m hoping to.

Day 4: August 26

I’m on the shuttle now from Heathrow to Exeter. Travelling without family for the first time felt strange. I was convinced an eight-hour plane ride with a mask on would be intolerable, but honestly the mask has become a second skin at this point, I barely even noticed it. The process of travelling itself was definitely more complicated than usual. At every checkpoint there were countless forms to present to prove I was eligible to fly during the pandemic.

Once I got to Heathrow, the university representatives gave me a new Sim card. Even though it doesn’t seem like a big deal, changing my phone number was the moment everything sunk in, the UK is my new home now.

Melina Aggarwal will be studying for a Bachelor's degree in English literature at university.

Day 5: August 27

My accommodation is really nice. It’s strange being in this big flat all alone, there are so many empty rooms. It’s exciting to think about the other students who will be coming to live with me in a couple of weeks though.

I spent this morning unpacking and shopping online. It’s strange to compare my current situation to how I’d imagined moving to university would be. I had always pictured being with my mum, going shopping in town and picking out my room and kitchen supplies in person, excitedly meeting everyone else who was moving in at the same time. Instead, I’m here alone buying all the supplies for my new life from Ikea, without even leaving bed because of self-isolation.

Day 6: August 28

Quarantine is less lonely than I’d imagined. With social media and FaceTime, I’m almost constantly talking to friends or family. I’m kept busy most of the day trying to tick the thousands of things I have to do off of my checklist, from buying myself a brand new wardrobe, to getting a bank account, to setting myself up with the NHS, the UK’s public health service. It is crazy to think how easy it is to do everything online now. I’m basically creating a whole new life for myself at the click of a button.

At least I get away from my screen during my daily walks around campus. It’s strange to see the university without any students, it feels a bit like a ghost town.

Day 7: August 29

My first home PCR test has officially been sent off. I’ve never had to do a test by myself before, and I’m almost certain I somehow managed to do it wrong. More worryingly though, I got an email today telling me I have been traced as a close contact to someone who has tested positive for Covid-19. I’m assuming it was a passenger near me on the plane. Crossing my fingers that the PCR test I sent off this morning comes back negative.

In other news, the first few of my packages have begun to arrive. Starting to set everything up is really helping to make this place feel like home. Having to settle myself into university may not have been what I had planned, but it’s been fun having this new sense of independence, it makes me feel like I’m actually an adult now.

Updated: September 02, 2021, 3:00 AM