The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 was a turning point for universities and students around the world, but it had a special impact on international students. With more travel restrictions and flight cancellations looming, many international students had to ask themselves: Do I stay or do I go? Many decided to abandon the ship and return home. International Master Student from Serbia Silvija Milosavljević on the other hand decided to sit out the situation in Finland.
Reflecting on the measures taken by the University of Helsinki in March, Milosavljević believes that the University reacted adequately. Her lab courses got postponed and all other courses were swiftly moved online. Now her courses embrace a hybrid model, where her lab courses on Viikki Campus are conducted in person with masks and distancing. Some other classes have optional in-person components. She is however concerned about the socialising outside of class and public transport, that can pose a risk for infection.
“I understand that lab courses need to be done in person, but then other courses shouldn't be. Other students might not take the situation seriously. During class, we have safety measures, but socialising outside of class during breaks still happen, where masks are off and distance is not kept. It's quite tricky,” she says.
Deciding to stay changed many of Milosavljević’s plans. Her summer was supposed to be filled with travelling and visiting home. Yet, staying in Finland gave her the opportunity to experience the Finnish summer.
“I didn't really travel during the school year as it would have taken too much time. So I kept postponing travelling, but this summer I travelled in Finland with my boyfriend. It was very nice, I even got to swim in some lakes!”
Her summer job working in the lab and conducting research for her thesis got cancelled due to the tight restrictions on the number of people able to work there. However, a professor was able to give her an alternative job in computational biology, which allowed work from home.
Student life has changed
Milosavljević’s life now is very different from before the pandemic.
“I used to study and have fun at the same time. After a full day of studying with friends, we would go for coffee, to a bar or to get food. I was always studying and mingling at the same time.”
Now meeting up with friends requires more planning and is more difficult, because it is colder and darker outside.
“What can we do that is safe enough? During the summer we could, for example, meet outside and play frisbee golf. It is impossible in the dark.”
For the students who started studying last year, March was a point where they might have only just felt comfortable to form new friendships. The pandemic also disrupted these new relationships. Suddenly, groups of friends were separated by geographical locations of student houses and socialising was made more difficult by emptied out dorms. Friendships often provide the only personal support network for international students as their family typically live far away.
Loneliness can be a grave issue for students who suddenly were not able to deepen their local relationships and might have found themselves without a support network. Milosavljević recognises this and reiterates that there is always support if you seek for it.
“If you don't ask for help, it is likely no one will help. But you will receive help as soon as you reach out to people. It is often said about Finnish people that they are closed or silent, but they are always helpful when you ask them.”
All in all, reflecting on the last months Milosavljević feels that the work-life balance has been the biggest challenge.
“The most challenging thing for me was managing and organising my time so that I had a balance between work and study and my free time. If you are always at home it is hard to focus on the two.“
“However, the most rewarding was that nothing really stopped to the extent that I was really affected. I was able to keep busy. I had good internet and devices for me to switch to remote working and studying. The Faculty of Sciences was even able to lend some computers to new Bachelor students to study remotely.”
People now have more respect for science
Looking ahead, Milosavljević hopes not to feel the economic impact of the crisis significantly. The pandemic has not changed her opinion about staying abroad. She still plans to stay in Finland or work abroad.
“Earlier in the 2000s, it was quite 'fashionable' to work in tumour biology and cell biology in order to find the best possible treatments. It was a huge topic that exploded in terms of funding and the number of people working on it. In 2020 and coming years, I expect COVID-19 to be a similar big topic in science.”
She feels that since the pandemic hit, respect for science has risen at least in Finland and people have started to pay more attention to science. Milosavljević hopes that this respect will be reflected in better possibilities for research and funding.
“Scientists need to be more visible and learn how to communicate their work more efficiently to the broad public so that the politicians or the general public don’t misinterpret the results.”