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Corona virus

International students experienced yet another type of social distancing during lockdown

Corona — The involuntary isolation was hard on most people. International students who stayed in Copenhagen found themselves without the social network of the Danes, and that made them vulnerable. We met up with a couple of them.

As COVID-19 forced Denmark to shut down abruptly in mid-March, international students were faced with the decision: to go home, or to stay? According to a survey conducted by International Education, 54 per cent chose the former whilst the rest stayed in Copenhagen.

In a recent study published by researchers from the UCPH Department of Anthropology and Sociology in collaboration with analyst firm Epinion, 65 per cent of international students experienced loneliness and 45 per cent did not know where to find psychological counselling during the corona crisis.

READ ALSO: Three out of four international students have had anxiety during the corona crisis

»International students typically have a social network composed entirely of other international students. As many went home after the lockdown, this network has become even more vulnerable for the remaining ones,« says Brian Noel McGahey, a PhD student involved in the research behind the poll.

The notion of an international student bubble has been echoed by many. We asked two internationals if the lockdown stressed some challenges they felt already when it comes to connecting with their Danish peers.

Groups less inclusive

Mislav Valsim is a Croatian student from Film and Media studies. Prior to the pandemic, his immediate circle consisted of primarily international students, despite studying a programme with local Danes as well.

»With most of my Danish colleagues, I have seen reluctance to meeting outside of the university context, so I don’t think international students have that many options. There aren’t many of us, so we’ve got to stick together,« he says.

Using the Facebook group for his study programme as an example, Mislav Valsim points out that initial English posts had gradually been substituted by Danish ones, strengthening a language barrier that was already difficult to overcome.

If you want to develop friendships, I don’t find the environment of Friday bars very supportive.

Mislav Valsim, Croatian student from Film and Media

»In those groups, I have felt a bit excluded,« he says.

He reveals that strategically-organized social events, including the classic start-of-semester cabin trip, have been unable to facilitate or preserve deeper friendships.

»When we had the introductory week, none of those things really lasted as the semester went on. The cabin trip at the start of the semester may have raised my expectations.«

Friday bars have also not been enough for lasting relationships.

»If you want to develop friendships, I don’t find the environment of Friday bars very supportive.«

At the time of the interview, he expressed not being in touch with any of the acquaintances made prior to the lockdown.

»I wouldn’t jump to conclusions, but I think the quarantine has revealed a lot. I have not heard from most of my Danish classmates since the quarantine started.«

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

Withdrew to old friends back home

For Geology PhD student Georgy Makhatadze, work-unrelated contact with his UCPH peers was non-existent during the first month of lockdown, as initial Zoom Friday bar attempts gradually died down.

»When the lockdown happened, I almost completely stopped communicating with my peers.«

Having only arrived in Denmark two months prior to the lockdown, despite finding it relatively easy to make friends, Georgy Makhatadze had not looked into local student groups or formed many relationships that were able to persevere during the initial shock wave of the lockdown. Instead, he resorted to online communication with old friends and other Russians in Europe.

When you go abroad, you often develop a network that consists of a lot of other internationals, because the locals already have a lot of things taking up their time.
CEO Jacob Ørum, Studenterhuset

»The first month of lockdown was terrible. Online communication is different from actual communication. All the non-verbal ways of communication just don’t exist. There is no emotional fulfilment. I get tired of it really quickly.«

Georgy Makhatadze has benefitted from visits to a therapist and urges anyone in a similar psychological situation to seek out help as well.

The country’s gradual reopening of research facilities and public places where people meet means a slow normalization of social life.

»At least we’ve started talking to each other again,« Georgy Makhatadze says about his colleagues. »We plan on going to the pub tomorrow.«

Reopening of community hub in sight

Inclusion and guidance remain important for international students to feel at home abroad.

UCPH continuously strives towards inclusivity and the welcoming of international students. So does Studenterhuset, Copenhagen’s student hub. Despite being hit hard economically and its employees being sent home, Jacob Ørum, CEO, has high hopes for the re-opening and the new opportunities this could bring international students.

»We are unhappy that we haven’t been able to reach out more to international students, but we were quick to put on lists of ideas and connections to help international students and to get in touch with volunteers or students who needed help.«

Jacob Ørum understands the feeling of exclusion that international students experienced and highlights the significance of interaction between internationals and locals.

It is not difficult to make friends. It just takes more time than two months.

Georgy Makhatadze, Russian Geology PhD student

»When you go abroad, you often develop a network that consists of a lot of other internationals, because the locals already have a lot of things taking up their time. Danish students have family, friends, boyfriends and girlfriends, jobs – a busy schedule that internationals do not have, because a lot of those things were left at home. They have more time, which seems like it can make for a lopsided friendship. But the effort to make the friendship work across nationalities, cultures and the differences in availability is worth it. «

Prior to the escalation of the corona crisis, Studenterhuset held various activities where local students and internationals could meet, such as their Social Speed Dating event and Language Cafe.

»All of our events are made to appeal to internationals and Danes alike, and get them to meet up. We are trying to create as much interaction as we can,« Jacob Ørum says.

Helping students establish a network in Copenhagen is something Studenterhuset will emphasize even further once staff can get back together.

Studenterhuset expects to reopen in August, with music activities starting around September.

READ ALSO: Not easy to run a community centre for both Danish and international students

Moving forward with optimism

Living through ups and downs, an isolated setback cannot diminish a person’s optimism.

»I really want to meet locals. This proved to be much more difficult than I thought, but I am still going to continue doing what I have done. I am always open to meeting anyone. I have not lost my faith in Danes,« Mislav Valsim says.

Georgy Makhatadze remains optimistic as well. »It is not difficult to make friends. It just takes more time than two months,« he chuckles.

»The international research centre really helps in terms of socializing. There are a lot of people who if they are not in the same situation as I am, are aware of what I am going through,« says Georgy Makhatadze as he praises the spirit of inclusivity at his lab.

Despite stated and undeclared differences, as long as both international and Danish students embody an optimistic willingness to share their perspectives, mutual understanding and inclusion seems to be the way forward.

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