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I am a student, am I?

Updated: May 24, 2021

During 2020 we have heard much about questioning and reflecting on our existence and who we were, have been, are, and we will become after the pandemic…

A few years ago, I was a student and I enjoyed every second of that privilege. The experience, the enrichment, the curiosity, the expectations… a life ahead of me! I was a student. I matured as a student from high school to university, living both the joy of learning, and the concerns and anxiety around interviews and exams. I was still a student… because all this was part of student’s life…

Università Degli Stdui di Milano, Milan

What has student’s life been in 2020?…

2020 has seen many young lives affected and many future dreams halted. What will it be of this generation?.... What can we all learn from these young lives? Can we - adults and professionals - be their advocates and help them keep the flame of hope alive? Can we give students practical advice, but also reassurance, courage and a sense of care and belonging?

I have gathered the testimonies of committed international university students, their experiences, their feelings, fears and hopes over the 2020 academic year, which has seen the title ‘Resilience’ at the forefront of their text books covers.

Some of them have wished to stay anonymous and told me stories and situations lived directly and indirectly, which I will refer to in this article. Others have voiced their experience and wished to be contributors to this article. I am ever so grateful to them all. These students, like all students around the world living this pandemic, are making history.

Tabitha Nutt, is reading psychology at the prestigious - and worldwide known because of the royal attendee at the turn of the millennia - St Andrews University. Tabitha has talked to me about how she has been co-existing with the pandemic as a student in a small Scottish coastal town where life is relatively quiet, yet has always offered its students a rich and varied social and entertainment scene. Traditional events such as record breaking street ceilidhs (a charming and gregarious form of Scottish dancing), street processions, society pub crawl, and beach fireworks have all been missed for this year’s students.

Saint Andrews, Scotland

A restricted running of sports clubs has affected not only the physical wellbeing of students, but also their mental health. This restriction, or even more, lack of sports activities has been suffered further South in Europe by Alex Ferrando-Jenks scholarship student in computing engineering at Institut Pedralbes in Barcelona.

Both Tabitha and Alex have enhanced how their choice of leading a healthy life-style by including sport in their everyday routine has taken a toll, seeing an active life being replaced by a sedentary one, in what Tabitha describes as “a habitat of emptiness”.

Alex tells me: “For over ten years tennis had been a way to vent, some sort of reset button for me”. I can sense almost a ‘pressure-cooker’ state of being in Alex’s words.

Both students, one at the other end of the European continent, are sharing the same feeling of how the intangible importance of face-to-face interaction has suddenly become a tangible missing part of their everyday life and learning experience.

During this academic year most students in Barcelona have switched to online classes, and according to Alex they all share the same feeling of weariness. Travelling to Universita’ Statale in Milan, an anonymous university student uses exactly the same word used by Alex - weariness - only said in Italian: “esaurimento”

Weariness has been lived and suffered by some students in New York, where the experience of isolation and lack of pastoral care from a world renown university has been taken to another whole level, leaving a traumatic scar in an American student who has wished to remain anonymous.

Tabitha in Scotland reinforces how substituting classes in auditoriums full of students led by a professor with online lessons does not quite work. She says: “Discussion with fellow students and professors, distanced by a 13 inch screen lacks the level of intellectual understanding and human connection that university students deserve”.

Despite being in Barcelona where the majority of students have online lessons, in Alex’s case, he is glad he still has face-to-face classes. He says: According to the Dean, the main reason for having face-to-face classes is that "over 60% of students do not attend online lessons and in most cases end up dropping out".

Universitat de Barcelona, Barcelona

Alex continues: “An array of already emotionally and mentally, if not even physically, drained students due to lockdown are running on an empty gas tank and are at the very edge of pausing their careers, or even giving up on them.”

Another recurrent point amongst the students is how universities worldwide seem to be wanting to run a “normal academic year” with programs, schedules, deadlines, relentlessly persevering with a substandard service with the same price tag.

In Tabitha’s words: “As a psychology lecturer of mine pointed out, why does the term have to run so desperately within the ordinary timeframe? Is there anything wrong with postponing until a time where the full experience can be provided, or at least until a better alternative can be constructed? Why should students be expected to be confined to the University’s rigid schedule, while being dished out an incomparably reduced experience for the same hefty price? As a prestigious and academic university, St Andrews is known for providing a high quality and well-organised education. My first and second year experience have corroborated this expectation and my dauntingly large student loan has always felt justified to me. However, I would struggle to say the same this time. This academic year has without doubt fallen short in terms of value for money”.

In Barcelona, Alex comments: “Universities are still giving an absurd amount of work and projects to compensate for not being able to do exams”.

The same feeling and experience is lived by some students in equally prestigious London universities such as King’s, UCL and St. Martin’s. A mixture of online and in person lessons are being held. Some first year students have never even entered the doors of their universities, nor walked through the corridors of their campus. They have been thrown into the university pan, being left navigating through their new academic life ‘distantly’ in every sense of the word, working on essays due on a fixed deadline, no matter the circumstances.

All around there is a sense of missing out. A sense of loss.

Alex in Barcelona, tells me his story:

“The day, coincidentally, is Friday 13th of March. At this point, I have been organising my Erasmus to Lisbon with Edu, a colleague of mine, for the past couple of months.

We were due to leave on 20th March to start an internship at a tech company.

Flights and stay, booked. Cases packed. We were all set and ready to go.

In the evening of the same day - Friday 13th - the Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez announces, live on TV, an indefinite lockdown taking effect from the next day, Saturday the 14th.

Flash-forward to Monday, our teachers call both Edu and I in, to tell us what had become obvious. We weren’t going to go anywhere. We had to cancel our flights and the room at the student’s dorm we had booked. And, of course, we also had to give back the scholarship we had been granted.

So, instead of our internship, our teachers told us we were going to have to dedicate the 250 hours we were going to be working in Lisbon, on some sort of “project” of ambiguous nature.

In the end, we dedicated those hours to learn programming, which ended up being pretty useful for this year classes. However, and as much as I hate it, 9 months on, I still can’t help but thinking I missed the boat… I might never have the chance to be able to have an internship of that calibre again, let alone take advantage of my scholarship”.

Do universities around the world need to rethink their approach? Have they had, or do they still have the time and the tools to reorganise themselves? Should a new system be reconfigured? Should universities re-invent themselves? Do they actually have the privilege to admit that a struggle is taking place in the very core of Academia, when so much is expected from them?

They are juggling. Like we all are. Universities have been caught unaware like we all have. Service and fees. Expectations and delivery. Education and experience. How can it all be measured by vulnerable students and professors alike?

The students I talked to have left their hearts flow with authenticity when talking about their experience, their feelings, their disappointments and uncertainties. Not surprisingly, optimism has not sprung to mind when talking to them. Nevertheless, I still hope they can, in any case, receive some intellectual and emotional nourishment from their exceptional circumstances, turning the resilience they have shown so far into a life lesson and a unique perspective lived through experience, vulnerability and adaptability - hence shaping a ‘new generation’ of students. who have acquired a deeper meaning of the word learning.

My gratitude goes to all students who have given their testimony. A special thank you to Tabitha Nutt and Alex Ferrando-Jenks for their contribution to this article.

Grazia Giuliani.

Tabitha Nutt, St. Andrews University
Alex Ferrando, Institut Pedralbes

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