Last fall, I came to the Emerald Isle from India to set free a pipe dream of pursuing creative writing. I was going to begin at the beginning with a master’s programme at the National University of Ireland, Galway. Carrying the biggest bags, I’d ever travelled with and taking the longest flight I’d ever been on, I came with a light mind that had only two things on it: the focused practice of creative writing and immersion into the Irish culture.
Having a blank slate in terms of any expectations of what my time in Ireland would look like had already put my journey in a positive gear. The only pre-arrival visuals I had conjured in mind were about me hanging out at the imagined-campus corridors, cafeterias, and quaint accommodation provisions at the university. Little did I know, that even those most basic, yet prominent caricatures of academic life will also be a luxury in the post-covid world.
The first week was spent at the most contemporary, newly-built campus accommodation of NUIG, under self-restricted movement. Navigating the streets of Galway like early man, only equipped with a GPS and other AI technologies, I was learning new ways of doing the most basic things such as finding food and my way back to my temporary home.
Taking in and getting attuned to the newness of the geography, the erratic rain and winds, the enamouring gable-roof houses, the riveting canals cutting through the middle of the city, and the wide range of accents of the same language made me feel not very different from the grown-up Alan Parrish (Robin Williams ) from the movie Jumanji, who comes back to his town after a time leap of twenty-six years to find everything strange and anew, only in the reversed situation; at a new place in my own time.
At the campus, within the university accommodation facilities, students made conscious efforts to mingle, but the interactions were limited by the safe approach of remaining within the known circles or same nationalities. It was evident that students coming straight out of schools and colleges, with less to no work experience often flocked together in their familiar groups and shied away from reaching out to recent strangers-turned-neighbours.
All of us were steering our way through this new experience that we had thrown ourselves into, with different levels of comfort-seeking in our familiarities in people, places, food, and language. Within the first week of my arrival, it was announced that the university’s student orientation programme would only be held virtually, which otherwise would have been a great way to break the ice we were so used to and nudge us beyond our lines of comfort.
The big blow came by the second week when it was made clear that all the ‘non-permitted’ courses will be moved online as the country was going into level-5 of lockdown. I admit that this wasn’t totally unexpected as partial online classes and/or going back into lockdown in a new country were the two foremost looming concerns for all students who were considering studying internationally, post-corona virus.
Many students, who I know either directly or virtually, even paused or deferred their dreams because of these uncertainties. There are also a few who chose to attend their course from the comfort of their homes since they were anyway getting stripped of the on-campus experience, but for the rest like me, who wanted to expose themselves to unchartered grounds as a foreigner and to a new culture, chose to touch the last milestone the journey.
Students who were already enrolled also deemed it fit to travel all the way and make the most of their academic year, since there was anyway no rebate in the tuition fee even if the full course was moved online, with no favourable promises for the foreseeable future. Seeing that not just the semester but the entire course would be moved to a virtual platform raised enough brows and some genuine concerns. Motions for a partial fee-refund by the student union and similar petitions by international students were filed but saw no fruition. Some students from other universities in Dublin were loud enough to be covered by the daily news but weren’t also successful, I assume.
Participating in discussions
With the ambiguities and doubts still buzzing in the background, I attended my first class from my new room in a rented house: a concept quite common amongst the international students who choose to stay off-campus to avoid the high cost of university accommodations. I was grateful to have had a small class size as that made it easier for the faculty to distribute their attention and also easier for us to participate in discussions which were extremely crucial for a course such as creative writing.
I often got to hear that it didn’t go as smoothly for the students in other more popular courses with class sizes as huge as over a hundred. After the first couple of classes, I got the hang of attending classes on my screen and meeting my classmates during a designated weekly social hour. Some of the features were as flexible as instructions through podcasts recorded by a faculty living in another city.
I recognise the convenience of online classes, especially on the days of typical Galwegian rains, but I wonder if that is why I’m still not as used to them as I should have been after a year. Gradually, the days went from waking up, taking a shower, and finishing breakfast before the class to waking up and having breakfast during the class. The flexibility slipped into the realm of convenience and not turning the camera on also became an option. You were free to even multi-task during the class. This reminds me of what Jesse (Ethan Hawke ) said about the use of technology in the movie Before Sunrise:
‘But, what good is saved time, if nobody uses it? If it just turns into more busy work. You never hear somebody say, “With the time I’ve saved by using my word processor, I’m gonna go to a Zen monastery and hang out.”’
To expand my social interactions, I explored certain virtual avenues set up by the university such as a weekly session on ‘Culture through Comedy’, and joined a few societies of my interest. It was interesting to finally see students from different nationalities and courses. The hangout decorum such as using the chatroom for participation, or clicking the hand emoji for asking doubts was learnt quickly and both academic, as well as co-curricular, pursuits began to take place through the same screen.
Making yourself heard
I often googled stuff that I didn’t know about to add my two cents to the conversations. This was the way of making yourself heard in the age of advanced technology. After a few sincere efforts, the zeal to find more interaction through such online events began to simmer as it was difficult to elbow one’s way through the more lived-in and locally shared experiences.
I was already wary of the winters as they carry a bad reputation, especially for those coming from a warmer climate, but I was determined to see through them, as they also bring with them my favourite time of the year: the finale. Knowing a few locals who kindly opened their doors to me on Christmas and let me have a taste of their traditions kept me warm for weeks.
With the lockdown not allowing indoor seating and the Atlantic winds not allowing even a stroll, there were times when the isolation got too overwhelming, and I would end up taking short cab rides (despite the dent in the monthly budget ). It was wonderful to find local drivers, especially the older ones, usually quite affable and chatty, and sometimes my exchanges with them were the only conversations that I would have had in a couple of weeks. On one such cab ride, failing to guess my nationality, the driver, who seemed to be a local and in his late thirties, opened up a conversation that I won’t easily forget.
After the introductions and the regular ‘where are you from?’, ‘what are you here for?’, and ‘are you going to stay here after your course?’, our conversation graduated to the exchange of the predictable grievances of the lockdown. I shared how I was missing out on the whole on-campus experience and most of the cultural exchange that I had hoped for, without denying the ease of flexibility that online learning provides, especially to mature students or to students who are parents or are differently-abled, and he told me how it had hit his business.
What should be learned from 2020
I’m on the other side of the last winters, and it is already time to step into another fall season when the global universities will turn over another academic year, and students from across the globe will descend to claim their dreams of international education. The social media platforms and websites of such universities are abuzz with their annual templates on how to arrive, how to find accommodation, and how to find part-time jobs, but there’s a gaping need for taking a leaf from the diary of the year 2020 lockdowns and preparing for social, mental, emotional and even financial challenges that students are likely to face if the country goes into another lockdown or under similar restrictions, leading to only online education abroad.
Creating more virtual interactions through social events, group activities, mental health workshops, and counselling sessions falls quite short of going to the root of the issue of isolation. While these small steps and others such as limited funding schemes do contribute to lifting the morale of students struggling to make their way in a foreign land amidst financial, academic, and career-related pressures, they don’t provide enough support that the students can get from a strong peer group or a trusted circle that the students are likely to form only in-person.
Although, most of us would tremendously benefit with at least partial fee refunds, we can’t be monetarily compensated for serendipitous events such as chance encounters over the same library book or random discourses that follow from borrowing a pen, or finding a teacher who might just end up becoming one’s life coach.
As students, at some point, we will also have to ask why university campuses remain shut or restricted when even pubs, non-essential shops, other retail, and cultural events have opened up. The idea is not to get discouraged from embarking on new journeys of education and exploration, but rather come together with the university management, the academia, and the larger student communities to ask the right questions and find solutions to the many problems that arise in the times of restricted movement and isolation.