Living through the pandemic away from home

International students who have remained in Tarragona and local students who have not been able to return home at the end of their studies abroad describe their lockdown experiences

Aurora Munegato with her flatmates, who are also Erasmus students at the URV.

The year 2020 will be remembered by everyone as the year of the pandemic. Everyone will remember it differently depending on the changes that that they have had deal with, and none more so than the many students who were, or are, caught far from home on international exchange visits. Their host universities and institutions have played a crucial role in providing them with what they need and in ensuring that, despite the situation, the experience has been positive. This has been the experience of URV students who found themselves abroad when the pandemic started and of international students who were studying at the URV.

Aurora Munegato is a student of Hispanic Studies from Milan, the epicentre of the pandemic in Italy, who has been doing her Erasmus year abroad in Tarragona during the pandemic. First of all she had to look on from abroad while the pandemic hit her home city: “I was worried, I was constantly watching the news”, but she was able to find support from the other URV Erasmus students that she was living with. “They showed me that it was a situation beyond my control and that meant that I was able to concentrate on looking after myself”. When the epidemic arrived in Spain and the lockdown was imposed, Aurora decided to remain and once again found that the routines with her flatmates and the ability to continue her classes online helped her manage the situation much better than she imagined. “We have done loads of things: yoga, pilates, training at home, we have learnt how to make bread, pizzas, traditional dishes from other cultures and I have even learnt a little Croatian. We have celebrated many birthdays and Easter and, most of all, we have studied a lot.”

The fact that the concern has been widespread has helped lots of international students to deal with the uncertainty. This has been the finding of Montse Domènech, who is a psychologist and professor from the URV’s Department of Psychology and who led the webinar “Emotional wellbeing during lockdown”, organized by the URV’s International Centre to provide students with emotional tools. “It is important to recognize and accept that you are allowed to feel bad, but that you can adopt strategies to deal with it, such as thinking objectively, having a daily routine, doing exercise, eating healthily and even making small changes such as moving your desk so that you get more sunlight”.

Estefania Arias, a student from the Universidad Autónoma de Occidente in Cali (Colombia), is currently studying Audiovisual Communcation at the URV and recognized that living away from home during the current situation is “really difficult, especially when the state of alarm was being extended and they closed the borders of Colombia”. However, by joining forces with her flatmates she was able to deal with it. Domènech insists on the importance of getting on well with each other and of “emphasizing the good things, in particular any successes, and not focusing on the things that we don’t like in others”.

Oscar Gil, third year student on the Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration and Management, has been studying at the Cork Institute of Technology in Ireland.

Not all countries have imposed the same restrictions and this was one of the reasons why Oscar Gil, an Erasmus student on the Degree in Business Administration and Management, decided to stay at the Cork Institute of Technology in Ireland. “We were allowed to go out to do exercise so we established a daily walk as part of our routine, and it became really important to us”, he explained. He lived in a student residence and the uncertainty forced him to reduce his activities and contact with others, although he made sure to maintain his relationships with those closest to him. He is grateful to his host university for having “made their lives easier” through initiatives such as creating a small shop on campus for international students where they could obtain essential products one day a week for 10 euros a month.

Like Oscar Gil, Sònia Adell, who has almost completed her Degree in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, has now returned home. When the lockdown came into force she was in Switzerland where she was doing an internship and her bachelor’s thesis in one of the laboratories of the Institute of Food, Nutrition and Health of the Edigenössische Technische Hochsule in Zürich. The various extensions to the State of Alarm coincided with the end of her internship contract, her rental accommodation agreement and the period that she was legally allowed to reside in Switzerland without a visa, all of which made it very important to return home, but she experienced considerable difficulty in leaving the country. Given the airspace closure, she enquired at the Spanish consulate and found out that there was going to be bus service back to Spain which was going to stop in various Swiss cities. On returning home, she has had to rethink how she completes her Bachelor’s thesis because the lockdown means that she cannot go back to her laboratory.

Sònia Adell, final year student on the Bachelor’s Degree in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, on public transport in Zürich.

Despite this, she regards the experience as positive. In terms of her professional training, it has been good because “with my thesis supervisor I found a way of continuing my research using Biocomputing tools, which meant that I acquired laboratory experience before the lockdown, followed by in silico experience at home”. It has also been positive in personal terms, such that she advises students who are thinking of studying abroad “not to be afraid of going for it because although anything can happen, you will also benefit and learn from the experience”.

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