Student experiences during COVID-19: the pandemic and the end of an Erasmus dream

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by Niamh Cole, student of the BA in International Relations at Dublin City University.

The journey to higher education and Erasmus

‘The morning I found out I had been accepted into DCU’s partner university in Gothenburg, I called my mam in work, crying because it seemed like a dream come true.’ 

I have never had the best luck when it comes to education. It was always said that I did have the potential to be academic, but my teenage apathy trumped all of that throughout my secondary school years.  When my Leaving Certificate (Ireland’s final school exams) results were lacklustre, I found myself surprisingly disappointed at the prospect of not being able to experience college life. I began to search for other ways to get into university, – which is something I hadn’t even been sure I wanted until it was clear that I wouldn’t be going. I ended up doing a PLC in Liberties College, and it was there that I discovered my love for politics, and also where I first learned about the Erasmus programme. I had grown up travelling with my family, so have always had an innate desire to explore the world. When I was filling out my CAO (Ireland’s higher education application system) for the second time, not only was it much more cohesive, but my ranking of each course had also taken into consideration the Erasmus options that were afforded by each degree. International Relations in DCU was my first option, as not only did it seem like an amazing programme (and the university happened to be down the road from my house), it also came with the option of studying abroad for a year in Sweden. I buckled down harder than I ever had in my PLC in order to get into IR in DCU, and then worked day and night to ensure I would have the grades to qualify for Erasmus. The morning I found out I had been accepted into DCU’s partner university in Gothenburg, I called my mam in work, crying because it seemed like a dream come true.

Erasmus life

I moved to Gothenburg in September, 2019. Erasmus was everything I had hoped it would be and more. Many had warned me that I would find it hard at the start, and would feel homesick and lonely, but none of that happened. I settled in quickly, met friends almost immediately, and adjusted to my new life. I was enrolled to take an entire year (60 credits) worth of gender studies courses, an option that was not afforded to me anywhere else, which would enable me to pursue a masters in gender studies. At that point, two years into my degree, I always joked that while my classmates were doing a degree in International Relations, I was doing a degree in Feminism with an IR perspective. The majority of my essays at that point had been through a feminist perspective, so to actually be taught with that feminist lense, rather than having to seek it out myself, was incredible. Classes were small and interactive, which enabled an amazing amount of group discussion, with people from all over the world contributing their stories. I was excited to go to class every day, and would call my mam as soon as I got home so I could tell her what we had spoken about. It sounds cliche, but time truly did fly because I was having so much fun.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic

‘This once in a lifetime opportunity, that had motivated me to take my education seriously, was over so quickly.’

However, by the end of February it became clear that something unusual was happening. COVID-19 had been mentioned in passing for a month or so at that point over drinks with friends, or at our biweekly fajita nights. We would downplay the issue, saying it was “just a flu” and reassuring each other that we would all be fine. None of us wanted to leave, and we were all adamant that we would stay until the very end, which we all doubted would come. It was easy to live in our little bubble when most news was reported in a language we could barely understand and, as would grow apparent, the government was taking a very blasé approach to the whole situation. At that point I had received two emails from DCU reassuring Erasmus students that all was well, and that should there be any updates we would be notified. As the week went on, I was also contacted by friends who were worried about my health. I am known to have a weak immune system, and have been hospitalised for regular viruses before, so many of them were concerned and urged me to be careful.

The following week is when the situation very suddenly changed. On a Saturday night, students in our building began leaving in droves, and by Sunday morning it seemed as though there would be nobody left. By Wednesday, it truly seemed as though me and my friends were the only people remaining. On the 12th of March, a Thursday morning, I was on the tram on the way to a highly anticipated seminar, when an email informed me that it had been cancelled. It was the first time I had left the apartment in a few days due to COVID-19 concerns, so I was a bit disappointed. I got on the next tram back to my apartment, which is when I got the first of what would be many successive emails from DCU over the next couple of days. By Monday night, I had come to the conclusion that it was imperative that I leave by Thursday the 19th. However, due to the fact that Ryanair was my only direct option, and they only flew to Dublin from my city twice a week, I had to decide whether I could pack up my life in twelve hours or five days. At that point I realised that I had an assignment that would be given to me on Wednesday, which would be due the next Wednesday. This was common in the Swedish education system, which did take a bit of getting used to, as I usually have my essays finished two weeks before the due date, but as we only had one module at a time it was manageable. What this system did not take into account, however, was a pandemic suddenly impacting the lives and living situations of thousands of students. Suddenly, not only was I faced with uphauling my entire life, one that I had built for seven months, and saying goodbye to friends that I likely would not see again for a long time. And I would also have to find time to complete a 5000 word essay in the middle of it! This crushing realisation caused the first of many crying fits on the phone to my mam, who at that point had been urging me to come home for about two weeks. I could tell she was relieved that I had finally decided to do so, but also that she was incredibly upset that this once in a lifetime opportunity, that had motivated me to take my education seriously, was over so quickly and without warning, and completely outside of our control. The fact that I would have to be in self-isolation at home for two weeks without seeing anybody outside my family barely crossed my mind; instead, it was thoughts of mourning for the learning environment I had grown to love so much.

Leaving Sweden and returning home

‘Knowing I had left Sweden for good, and would be landing into a situation that would be isolating and scary, was daunting.’

I sat in the empty airport alone, watching as surprisingly few people arrived at my gate. The total number of people on my flight was less than 30.  It was Saturday night, and I had written about 500 words of my essay at that point. The stress that I was feeling about this gave me something else to concentrate on, rather than the instant homesickness for Sweden, as I watched my little city disappear into the clouds. It was the next Friday morning when I finally submitted it, the first time I had submitted anything after the initial deadline in the entirety of my university education, but the lecturers for my module had afforded us an extension due to the circumstances. That Monday was supposed to be the start of a new module, but over the weekend it was revealed to us that the main lecturer was stuck in South America, with no way to get back to Sweden. She attempted to video chat with us but her connection fell several times, and eventually it was decided that we would rely on pre-taped video lectures and uploaded powerpoints until her return.

It had been hard enough returning to Ireland for the holidays when everything was normal and I had the knowledge that my little apartment was waiting for me back in Sweden, but knowing I had left it for good, and would be landing into a situation that would be isolating and scary, was daunting. The ignorance bubble that my friends and I had happily resided in for the last couple of weeks was suddenly and harshly popped. Suddenly I could understand the news again, and it was full of international struggle. A daily death toll for Ireland was announced at night, sometimes followed with a slightly morbid poem or song. In the mornings, I was also unwittingly subscribed to hearing about how many people had died in Sweden: by way of my mam peeking her head in my door to tell me, just as I had just woken up. Obviously, I was mostly aware of the situation, at least more so than those on the German Big Brother or Jared Leto’s cult following, but it was hard to not feel hopeless about how dire the situation actually was. I had always taken Twitter as a form of exaggerated news, but in this case, it felt as though Twitter had softened the blow.

COVID-19’s effect on my education

‘Where I was thriving before, I now find myself struggling.’

Quarantine has had an effect on my education in so many ways. I would consider myself a social learner, finding concepts easier to explore in essays when I can explain them verbally to others. My time in DCU is marked with late nights in the library with friends, all of us pouring over each other’s writing and dissecting it. I did miss that during my Erasmus, but seminars acted as a replacement for that kind of interactive learning. However, being stuck in quarantine removed the social element from my learning completely. Where I was thriving before, I now find myself struggling. I had always had some journal article or academic book on the go, reading it at any opportunity and discussing the points with friends. However, while stuck inside, it has been hard to find the motivation to even begin reading anything. I have managed to rope my mam in on watching my lectures with me, just so I can explain and talk about the ideas with someone, but it is a lot less gratifying than a mutual discussion. A close friend offered her ear, saying that she would always welcome a twenty minute long voice message about my interpretation of a line from one of Judith Butler’s works, but the face-to-face element was missing. The harder it got, the more anxious it made me, which created a vicious cycle. For the first time since I was a teenager, trying to pay attention to my education felt futile. I could not blame the fact that it was “boring” this time, however, because it was part of the most interesting education I have ever had. It just seemed that every time I sat down to focus on something, I could hear news alerts of how many people had died that day. It was hard to not get in my head about the whole situation, feeling that my bad luck with education had returned. Hearing my thoughts centre myself in an international crisis was maddening, so the only way I have found to help is to put my situation in perspective.

I realise that I am fortunate enough to have been able to come home with relative ease, and to have a home to come back to, which has food and warmth – which is more than many can say at this point in time. I am lucky to have a family, and that I get along with them. And I am lucky to have access to education, especially an education which gave me the opportunity of living in another country. These are things I try to tell myself when I feel my mental health struggling in this isolation, while also grieving the life I had built in Sweden. I only hope that when all of this is over, we as a society become more aware of the struggles of others to ensure that should such a situation arise again, no person is left at such a disadvantage, as so many have been during this crisis.

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