By Santo D. Banerjee
COVID-19 pandemic has forced more than 1.5 billion students in 165 countries out of school, enforcing the global academic community to explore new ways of teaching and learning, including distance and online education, according to UNESCO estimates.
This has proven challenging for both students and educators, who have to deal with the emotional, physical and economic difficulties posed by the illness while doing their part to help curb the spread of the virus, notes United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI).
UNAI is an initiative that aligns institutions of higher education with the United Nations in supporting and contributing to the realization of United Nations goals and mandates, including the promotion and protection of human rights, access to education, sustainability and conflict resolution.
“The future is uncertain for everyone, particularly for millions of students scheduled to graduate this year who will face a world crippled economically by the pandemic,” UNAI alerts.
In the COVID-19 and higher education series, United Nations Academic Impact talked to students, educators and researchers in different parts of the world to find out how the pandemic has affected them and how they are coping with the changes.
Bowen Xu, a student of Chinese-English Language Translation at the Graduate Institute of Interpretation and Translation, Shanghai International Studies University, is in his final year of graduate school, scheduled to graduate in summer 2020.
He moved from China to New York for at internship at United Nations Headquarters in January; weeks after that, the COVID-19 outbreak disrupted the celebration of the 2020 Spring Festival in all parts of China.
As Bowen approached the end of his internship, the situation in China had improved, but his return flight was cancelled and it became extremely difficult to book a flight, as New York rapidly became the epicenter of the pandemic.
Listen to the interview with Bowen, in which he shares his story of not being able return home, and the different ways in which COVID-19 has impacted his life. He also talks about the overwhelming sense of loss that all graduates are experiencing, unable to have a traditional celebration for their graduation or say goodbye to their friends and professors, and the feeling of uncertainty about their professional aspirations as they graduate into an economic recession.
Despite all the difficulties, Bowen remains positive and has used the time to develop new skills and do things he normally didn’t have enough time to do.
Another person UNAI talked to is Talitha Dias, a Brazilian lawyer currently pursuing a master’s degree in International Contractual Relations at the Federal University of Pernambuco in the Northeast of Brazil.
Talitha’s master’s program was scheduled to begin in March, but classes have been postponed due to COVID-19. With the unexpected changes in her 2020 calendar, Talitha had to quickly devise a plan B: she started teaching English online, began taking online courses for her professional development, and explored new skills such as cooking. This new routine has helped Talitha remain patient and positive despite all the uncertainties about her future.
Like many countries, the pandemic has had a devastating impact on Brazil and Talitha shared her concerns about the capacity of the country’s public health system to handle the number of coronavirus cases. It has also been difficult for many Brazilian schools and universities to pivot to distance learning and it is taking time for them to adapt to the new virtual learning landscape, while some Brazilian students have misgivings about the quality of online education.
Despite the challenges, Talitha believes this difficult time will pass and it will teach us some important lessons such as the value of time spent with loved ones and empathy for and solidarity with others. Listen to the full interview with Talitha here.
UNAI also talked to Hana Ibrahim, a medical student at the University of Paris, who has been volunteering at the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) of the Lariboisière Hospital in Paris during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Hana is 21 years old and is in the middle of her practical training, but when the pandemic started many departments of the hospital, including the Department of Endocrinology and Diabetology where she works, were closed and those resources diverted to treating patients with COVID-19.
Seeing the struggle that the Intensive Care and Infectious Disease departments were going through with the overwhelming number of patients pouring in, Hana decided to volunteer for the ICU, despite her heavy academic commitments.
Hana shared with UNAI her story of being a medical student and a volunteer during a global health emergency, including the extraordinary levels of mental and physical pressure and concerns that many members of the public don’t realize the gravity of the situation. Hana has also thought about changing her medical specialty as a result of this experience.
In an interview, Madalitso Kamenya, a student pursuing his master’s degree in Agricultural Economics at the University of Pretoria, South Africa, said the e lockdown caused by COVID-19 has created great challenges.
Trapped in a student bedroom at his university, he has been trying to keep a daily routine that includes physical exercise, conversations with family and friends in his home country of Malawi, and academic assignments. For him, being alone and isolated is one of the most difficult parts of this pandemic, but technology has played an important role in helping him stay connected with people.
Madalitso remains optimistic and believes the world will be a better place after COVID-19, but he also doesn’t believe this is the last pandemic we will face. He believes this situation presents opportunities for us to change the way we do things and universities should continue exploring new ways of teaching so we will have systems in place if there is another pandemic. Listen to the full interview with Madalitso Kamenya here.
Listen to the full interview with Marina Romanova. She is an undergraduate student of International Relations at the Lomonosov Moscow State University in Russia. The COVID-19 outbreak began in the middle of her exchange program in Switzerland and she was forced to leave the country and return to Russia due to the uncertainty of the situation.
Despite the stress created by the pandemic, Marina is grateful that she and her parents are healthy, and she has the tools necessary to continue her studies remotely. Her classmates in Russia had to go through a much more challenging time, as Moscow State University did not have online learning platforms prior to the lockdown. However, the situation is improving, and new platforms are being developed for the students.
Read and listen further UNAI interviews:
- Interview with Heba Hany, Helwan University (Egypt)
- Interview with Pablo de Castro, University of Chile (Chile)
- Interview with Dr. Michael Krüger, Ludwigsburg University of Education (Germany)
- Interview with Dr. Michael Moore, Adelphi University (United States)
- Interview with Dr. Bushra Naeem, Balochistan University of Information Technology, Engineering, and Management Sciences (Pakistan)
Marina is scheduled to graduate next year, but the pandemic has made her future uncertain as it is now more difficult to travel overseas and to do an internship or pursue a master’s degree. Marina has been able to find the positive aspects of the pandemic, saying the quarantine has helped her study habits and she has developed a deeper understanding of the interconnectedness of the world and the importance of good healthcare systems for citizens.