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Holed up in Copenhagen for the Covid-19 shutdown, international students face new challenges

More than half of international students at the University of Copenhagen have gone back to their home countries due to the coronavirus pandemic. For those that have opted to stay, student life is tough.

Students the world over are slowly coming to terms with the changes wrought on their education programmes by Covid-19.

Suddenly, the busy lives of students have been put on pause, and all are expected to keep up with courses virtually. At the University of Copenhagen (UCPH), classes have been moved online so students can finish their spring semester. While many study programmes have given extensions, all this disruption still jeopardises work rhythms and study habits, making it hard for students to deliver to their usual standards.

Suddenly, starting 12 March, I felt like I was sitting at home on my computer all day, every day.

UCPH master’s student Abdolreza

Danish and international students alike face these challenges, but international students face the added challenge of knowing that they are far away from home, friends and family who could become gravely ill.

More than half of exchange students left for home

The International Education office is responsible for the incoming international exchange students and outgoing Danish exchange students at UCPH. Full-degree international students fall under the purview of the individual faculties in which they study.

According to a survey by International Education of its 780 exchange students, 54 per cent have gone home. Of all students, including those that have stayed and those that have left, 89 per cent are still following their courses online at UCPH. The survey does not include full-degree international students.

Prior to the shutdown which in Denmark came 12 March, International Education at UCPH had informed international students about the university closure and what this would mean for their course work.

»We knew that many of them were going to be needing to decide if they should stay or if they should go home,« says Anne Bruun, Director for International Education, »so we tried to keep them as well-informed as possible with what we knew.«

This meant translating and clarifying communication from the university to guarantee that international students understood what was happening, and could make informed decisions about what they needed to do.

Student on »computer all day, every day«

Abdolreza is a UCPH master’s student. Because he happens to be a refugee and is concerned for his safety, we have given him a fictional name. The newsroom is aware of his identity.

He has been more stressed and anxious since the shutdown.

»I have been very concerned about my family due to the circumstances back home in Iran and the fact that I can’t really go and help them due to my migration status.«

This worry is compounded by the fact that he is trying to write his thesis and manage his two student jobs virtually. All of these activities require Abdolreza to be online, which means that »suddenly, starting 12 March, I felt like I was sitting at home on my computer all day, every day.«

From staying in touch on social media to checking the news all the time, it seems there is little time for much else than looking at a screen. Abdolreza explains that he checks the news because he is afraid of missing something major at home. His family, he says, holds back bad news because they don’t want to worry him when he is so far away and cannot return. But knowing they do this actually makes him more worried. »I’d rather know horrible news than no news,« he says.

Abdolreza finds the lack of structure that comes with working from home difficult to manage. »I usually went to the specialekontor study halls, which are big rooms on South Campus. Here all the thesis writers normally sit together, which I find very motivating. And having a schedule every day, going out, sitting and writing for five or six hours. It was such good discipline for me.«

EU students can still get SU grant

One thing is that students are forced to work at home without the structure of a campus workspace. Another issue is the financial one.

EU students who were recipients of the generous Danish SU student grant prior to the shutdown have been assured that they will continue to receive SU through March and April regardless of whether they fulfil the paid working hours required.

I have literally tried every goddamn iteration of a home office and I haven’t found one yet that works.

Charlie Brown, student of migration studies

Meanwhile, EU students who move home during this time will still have access to SU, as long as they are following their courses. The amount of SU they receive will be adjusted to the rate for students living at home if they move home to their parents’ address.

Søren Theodor Hein Ahm is academic coordinator for the SU grant at UCPH. According to him, international students who have signed up to receive SU for March and April are also eligible for extra SU student loans, just like their Danish classmates. For more information on SU and COVID-19, check here.

But some students are slipping through the cracks.

Non-EU international students are not normally entitled to the Danish SU grant. Many have lost the jobs upon which they depended for all their income. These students are now left with the choice of either going home or asking their families for financial help.

Home office woes

But for the students who have stayed in Denmark, staying happy and healthy is the thing.

Charlie Brown, an Australian student of the Advanced Migration Studies programme at UCPH, is grateful that she can still go for walks and runs outside, and has found that these outings have become a really important part of her day.

She describes an appreciation for the novel feeling »of not having to be somewhere« and adds that »knowing that everyone is in it together is quite a calming feeling.«  She herself is »trying to draw positivity from that solidarity in solitude.«

She hasn’t been feeling lonely. Quite the opposite. »I’ve talked to more people in the past few weeks than I think I have in the past year. And I must admit, the way that people have been reaching out has been so lovely and such a positive of this experience.«

While her restaurant job has been put on hold, Charlie is grateful to still be able to continue working at her other job, with an organization that is »super busy right now.«

Working from home, especially on her thesis, is difficult.

»I have literally tried every goddamn iteration of a home office and I haven’t found one yet that works,« she says, with an ironing board, a sofa, the floor, all taking turns as work space. While the sofa has probably been the most comfortable, it strangely »feels unproductive,« she says.

Her most negative moments come from reading the news too much, and seeing all the people across the world who are being forgotten. People »stuck in refugee camps, stuck at borders, or quarantined in domestically difficult situations. There is so much going on right now that we don’t fully know the extent of.«

Administrators now planning for autumn semester

Prior to the Covid-19 lockdown, and since then, International Education contacted the home institutions of international exchange students and their UCPH students abroad to relay up-to-date information on what is happening at UCPH because the virus has hit at different times and with varying severity around the world.

I actually hope that after all this people remain grateful for the freedom we usually have, those of us at least who are privileged enough to have it.

Charlie Brown

Their survey of exchange students asked about students’ well-being at home and abroad. Most, according to International Education, were fortunately doing OK.

Anne Bruun, the Director from International Education, says that since the initial wave of emails from students containing individual questions has now subsided, they have already moved on to planning for the coming fall semester.

Grateful

In Copenhagen, in the meantime, Charlie is trying »not to worry about the fact that if anything happened she can’t just hop on a plane and go back home. Thinking about that is not healthy or helpful.«

She is aware now of how privileged she is that she can go home when she needs to, she says.

»I actually hope that after all this people remain grateful for the freedom we usually have, those of us at least who are privileged enough to have it.«

»I hope people will remember this coming together, the showing of support, the positive sides of things, and the fact that we can’t have everything immediately all the time.«

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