‘It is difficult to be 20 in 2020’: studying abroad in lockdown

Online lectures and travel restrictions – are student exchanges worthwhile?

Erasmus student Eoin Gormley, pictured at the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris: “The university experience I have had here so far is in no way comparable to that of previous exchanges.” Photograph: Laurie Maher

Erasmus student Eoin Gormley, pictured at the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris: “The university experience I have had here so far is in no way comparable to that of previous exchanges.” Photograph: Laurie Maher

 

C’est dur d’avoir vingt ans en deux mille vingt.” It is difficult to be 20 years old in 2020. Such were the words of Emmanuel Macron on October 14th as he announced localised curfews across France, one of the many measures to combat the second wave of Covid-19 in the country.

As a 20 year old in 2020 and a resident in Paris, Macron’s words have a particular resonance with me. My raison d’etre in Paris in the midst of a pandemic is the Erasmus programme, a European Union-led programme that encourages student exchanges between European universities.

Whether born out of my (somewhat naive) belief that I would “come home fluent in French”, my desire to travel or a bit of both, I have always wanted to participate in the programme and attend a French university. Though it began to look more and more unlikely as the summer of Covid-19 progressed, Trinity College was one of the few universities to allow their exchange programmes to continue.

Either way, whether in Dublin or in Paris, there was going to be no escaping the pandemic. However, upon arriving here in September, I noticed a distinctly different attitude to Covid-related restrictions. As Ireland debated wet pubs and county borders, the French seemed, on the whole, more relaxed and fatalistic, in spite of the exponential growth of cases.

There were no seats off limits on the metro, number limits in shops seemed aspirational and people were not dismounting the footpath to keep their distance. Pints without €9 meals were definitely not contraband and cocooning was reserved for the butterflies. Paris seemed to be eager to seek out the “normal” in the “new normal”.

The city may have felt busy to me but it was a far cry from pre-Covid Paris. The queuing barriers leading into the Louvre were made redundant as we breezed into the world-famous gallery without having to endure the infamous waiting times. It was never difficult to book a slot to ascend the Arc de Triomphe and I even managed to wander down a half-empty Parisian street to get a close-up view of Sam Bennett on his way to Tour de France glory.

The university experience I have had here so far is in no way comparable to that of previous exchanges but I have learned to adapt my expectations. Online lectures have been par for the course in Ireland, where universities have been online since April – meaning the novelty of Zoom lectures has long worn off.

My host university, Sciences Po, decided to adopt the “hybrid model” of university teaching, which meant I would be taking classes online as the norm. In spite of this I got to see more of my classmates than I expected.

Adapting

Student societies adapted with sanitary measures and managed to find large parks and outdoor bars to give us opportunities to rub shoulders (or bump elbows) with fellow students. The stranger university experience was had by some of my fellow Irish-on-Erasmus who had to attend in-person lectures in nearby universities that refused to bring their offering online. Some French universities were happy to fill their lecture halls with pre-lockdown levels of students, a far cry from the more deserted Irish colleges.

However, even in the face of Gallic nonchalance, Covid-19 made its presence felt. Bar closures came first in early October, followed days later by a city-wide curfew and a national lockdown. For the last few weeks travel has been restricted to within a 1km radius and one hour of exercise a day is allowed. Not exactly the cultural experience the EU promised to budding Erasmus participants.

However, being resident in the Irish Cultural Centre (formerly the Irish College) has undoubtedly made things easier. At a time of limited cross-border travel we are in some way exiled in France during the battle against Covid-19. Despite circumstances threatening to unravel some residents’ Christmas travel plans, the students and artists in residence have remained positive and I am indebted to them for the companionship they have provided me with during this second national confinement.

Experiencing a French lockdown, as well as having friends of mine asking whether they should take up a university exchange place this January, has made me ponder whether a year abroad in 2020 was worth undertaking. Is it worthwhile to move to another country in the midst of a global pandemic only to attend Zoom lectures that could be accessed with a good internet connection from your bedroom? How can you possibly experience the culture of a restricted and periodically locked-down city? Not to mention the health risks involved in making the move in the first place.

In spite of all the negatives, I would have to answer, yes, it has been worth it. The little things have made my time here truly worthwhile: trips to the barber are free French language lessons, lockdown coffee runs are self-led walking tours and a few words with the local boulanger never fails to put a smile on my masked face. Volunteering for a student-led soup run has become a staple in my week during lockdown and interacting with the homeless people of Paris has put me face to face with another facet of French life that you will not find in a tourist brochure.

At a time when the grand plans in our lives have been put on hold, we have had to reset expectations and learn to appreciate those things that in 2019 might have been dismissed as insignificant. For the past few months I have had the privilege of living in this city at a unique moment in its history. It is true that being 20 in 2020 is difficult, but it has its compensations.

International student fees

‘We’ve been left high and dry’: international students on college fees and online classes.

We asked international students who have travelled to Ireland to share their views on what their college experience has been like.

Many who are struggling with online lectures, empty campuses and few social events feel they have been short-changed and want refunds.

International students from outside the EU can pay fees up to €25,000 for undergraduate courses (or €55,000 in the case of medicine). Unlike Irish and EU students, they are not eligible for the €250 refunds announced recently.

Niranjan Madhugiri Prasanna Kumar, Carlow

“I have paid €10,250 and I have come to Ireland to get a good quality of education and now there are no classes on campus and everything is online and the college asked us to be present on the campus to start my master’s. Moreover, I am not getting part-time work anywhere.”

Jitesh Bhatia, Dublin

“We’ve travelled thousands of miles, paid six times more fees than EU nationals and shelled out hundreds of euro per month for rent and living just to stay inside our houses. We are getting zero international exposure. Our learning experience has been tremendously compromised. I think a fee refund is the least that our university could do for us.”

Preeti Wadhwani, Dublin

“I decided to pay thousands of euro and bear the expenses of staying in an expensive city. I feel I am getting only 20 per cent in return. I have met my classmates only once for an hour. These restrictions are important for our safety but I feel the students should get at least some percentage of fees back.”