By: Ryley Lopushinksy
I am Canadian. I was born and raised in a small town in Northern British Columbia, Canada. On December 19, 2019, after months of going through an application process, I had been accepted into law school at Queen’s University Belfast. My small-town dreams were all coming true… until a global pandemic hit. As an international student, there were already many worries in my head. I convinced myself in March of 2020 that come September, everything would be fine. Covid-19 has changed the world and we would all have to adapt to the new reality.
Over the summer months of 2020, my University sent out multiple communications ensuring International students that classes would be on campus come September. They had put in place safety measures to ensure all student’s safety. Luckily, I was in a small cohort class with roughly 20 students. This meant we could safely be in a classroom and maintain social distancing. Come August of 2020, we received word that cases in Northern Ireland were extremely low compared to a lot of other countries. The excitement of a new Country began to take over, and I found myself on a plane.
Since living in the UK, specifically Northern Ireland, my experience has not been what was promised. I moved here on September 4, 2020, with the promise of my classes being on campus with extreme safety measures. My classes started on September 21 and I luckily got out of quarantine two days before. Everything was open. Bars, restaurants, retail, close contact businesses… everything. It was as if everything was normal, just with masks. When I arrived, this excited me. However, it did not last long considering it was the beginning of a new school year.
Not even one month into on-campus learning, the Northern Ireland Government announced a circuit breaker lockdown. The University decided it was best for our learning to switch to online so, on October 16, 2020, I became an online student. With everything closing, mostly all the students in my class decided it would be best to travel back home. I chose to stay in Belfast. I was a student who paid thousands of pounds to move to another country and attend three-weeks of classes. Hope lingered for the day classes could return to campus… but this was just false hope.
It doesn’t end there. The Northern Ireland government decided that after five weeks of the circuit breaker, they would open everything for one week before continuing the lockdown. From November 20-27, 2020 everything opened and then closed in the blink of an eye. This then happened again, from December 19-25, 2020 they opened everything. On December 26, 2020, they announced another six-week lockdown going until February 6, 2021, with only essential businesses being allowed to open. On January 21, 2020, the Northern Ireland government met again to extend the lockdown until March 5, 2021.
Luckily, Queen’s University Accommodation has been great for the students living within it. They have provided students with the option to pause their contract if needed. Many students have been able to take part in this and moved home while classes are online. However, this has not been the case for a lot of students. Many students living in private accommodations have been isolated and unable to travel home. They cannot get relief from their contracts and must remain to pay their fees.
A lingering question is, will classes return? The University has not said if this will or will not happen. Which at this point, what are they really waiting for? We know until March 5, 2021, our classes are online. Between March and April students are given three weeks off for Easter. That leaves three weeks in March and one week in April. Why would any international student who has returned home come back for a total of four weeks of classes? Students need certainty. Living in a state of limbo creates more stress during an already stressful time.
Being an online student is not what a lot of us signed up for. We were promised, on-campus classes. Now, we have been online for three months and will be online until at least March 5. The Northern Ireland Government has even said there is still potential to extend the lockdown until after Easter. Students are sitting around wondering what will happen next. Having a set schedule is something students need to have with their professors and peers. Finding any kind of motivation is incredibly difficult right now without one.
To add to the already stressful times, the Canadian Government has now implemented extreme travel restrictions. If any Canadian student wishes to travel home, the guidelines are very unclear. The Federal Government announced a mandatory stay at a government-regulated hotel (expected to cost at least CAD 2000) for three days while waiting for a negative Covid-19 result. If negative, you can go home and finish the 14-day quarantine, if positive they will then move you to a government facility to finish quarantine. It is believed to only be for non-essential travellers; however, the government has not given anyone clarity on what constitutes a non-essential versus an essential traveller.
As a student, this has been completely exhaustive and draining. Mental health problems are at an all-time high and motivation is at an all-time low. The resources we were promised are nearly inaccessible. We watch videos of our professors and try to teach ourselves content. We have barely met our peers and with time-zone issues, creating study groups is impossible. We sit in lectures listening to people accidentally turn their microphones on and off and constantly struggle with technical issues. But we are still expected to produce the same level of comprehension and achieve the same level of performance.
With all that has gone on, one would think students would be given some kind of break! Wrong. The Russell group announced that there will be no safety net for students this year. In their statement, they said, “We recognise that students have faced and continue to face significant challenges as a result of the ongoing pandemic” and yet, they still decided to take away our safety net. Some students have limited access to the internet, and some have lost jobs and cannot afford to purchase all required texts. But I am sure we will all “perform” up to par.
Imagine this, a student who moved thousands of miles away from home. No in-person classes. No friends. No family support. Living in a foreign city with lockdown after lockdown, restriction after restriction. Paying rent to live and not being able to find a job because nowhere can hire. Yet, this is seen as normal circumstances and does not warrant the need of a safety net.
This is not just the case for students in Northern Ireland or even the UK. This is a global problem to go with the global pandemic. I spoke with students from a variety of Universities in Canada and the issues are clear.
One student, Jessica* said, “being a student right now is like walking through the most beautiful jungle… but the trees are on fire, the ground is on fire, everything is on fire, yet you somehow manage to come out the other side”.
Another student Amy* expressed major issues with professors, “[they] don’t seem to care about student success, they don’t attend their own set office hours and they take more than 48 hours during the week to reply to emails. I get it is a tough time for everyone, but students are getting the brunt of it.” She even went on to tell me, “they are still charging me $100 for my bus pass I can’t use, but luckily I got $10 back for not being able to use the recreation facilities”.
Students paid thousands of dollars to their universities this year. Why? What resources are they getting? What experience?
Speaking with nursing student Chelsea*, she expressed concerns for her and her peers lack of education. The school she attends informed them “[we] will be making marking adjustments based upon [students] lack of experience”. Chelsea’s* concern is not having proper education to be a nurse in the real world or not being able to pass licencing exams. She also expressed concern over peers being inexperienced in the field. Chelsea* said, “If this is slipping by what else is slipping by?”.
With all of this: lack of resources, lack of education, lack of assistance and the lack of a university experience… what have students paid for? Stress? Self-education? Now more than ever I understand why they consider us “customers”. We made a purchase this year that has no warranty.
The Queen’s University Students’ Union is working hard to help and change things for our students. They are advocating for tuition refunds (the SU has a strong belief in free education) and the implementation of a safety net. As well, if you are a student in need of financial support see if you can apply for the Student Support/ Hardship fund! Information regarding these can be found below!
*The names in this article have been changed for privacy reasons.
Queen’s Students’ Union Covid-19 information: