An Ocean Away, A World Apart: International Students at Universität Mannheim

by Maya Moritz

A sense of isolation has been a running theme in this pandemic, especially for students. First-year students may struggle to establish friend groups with the ease afforded to earlier cohorts, while older students mourn the loss of intimacy from in-person classes. An ailing job market pulls many away from living in their student city, so dorm-mates are replaced by parents and classes compete with the din of daily in-house routines. While German students may find themselves a few hours from Mannheim, international students may be whole countries and time zones away.

International students are acutely affected by the pandemic, worrying that they may not have the time or ability to come home if lockdown situations changed or a family member became ill. Many at the University of Mannheim are electing to remain in their home country, dealing with six-hour time differences so that they may save money on rent and not risk becoming “stuck” in Germany. While many elected to remain in Mannheim over the summer break to avoid re-entry limitations, students are now finding themselves forced to remain in place for the long run- in Germany or at home.

One Greek student praised the empathy of Mannheim’s teaching faculty. “They have shown a great understanding these past two weird online semesters,” she wrote. Staying at home and taking her classes online, she found that her “productivity increased because I don’t have to take care of trivial things like cooking or cleaning, which are time-consuming.” She has also benefited from a stable situation in her home country, which may not be the case for all students. The only problem appears to be a somewhat unreliable internet connection and she reflects that “it’s not the best, of course, under these circumstances, but it could be worse so no complaints.” For some, the comfort and convenience of home coupled with the support of teachers eases some of the burden of studying from home.

Another colleague reaping some benefit from the situation is a Lithuanian student currently living in Mannheim. “As it’s basically the second semester for me like this, I have to say I’m quite used to this already. And I think I would actually even want some things to stay after the Covid-19 is over. For example, recordings of lectures. But on the other hand, I hope I will have some normal semesters before I graduate. Because now I don’t feel like I’m getting the maximum from my time at this university.” She also bemoans the unpredictability of her internet connection and additionally contends with the loudness of the student dorms. She wrote that she fears her connection may drop during an exam and hopes that professors have a plan for that circumstance.

Professor responses, however, have been more hit-or-miss. “There were all kinds of situations. There are some professors who are very flexible, understanding, and willing to adapt to all this situation. But at the same time, there are those who, it feels like, live on some other planet and haven’t even heard about Covid-19, have no idea about the problems it can create for people.” In fact, some professors have been direct with their unwillingness to accommodate student needs. “Last semester, in our program the professors had the option to offer the second exam date (usually, we have only one exam date for elective courses in our program). And while we were told that Covid-19 is the proper reason to choose this alternative date, one of my professors managed to ask me in front of all the class why I need this alternative date. Then I had to kind of prove to him that there is Covid-19 outside the window and all sorts of problems along with it. I couldn’t believe that was happening.” She also commiserates with teaching staff struggling to juggle online classes, exam preparation, and now the possibility of a second exam date with all the work it entails. “I just want to wish creativity and strength for the teaching staff as well as for the students.”

Such strength is certainly needed, as she reports lower productivity due to fatigue and boredom. With most distractions closed and limited release from study stress due to lockdown, students are finding it difficult to seek the same solace as they once had in social life, sports, or hobbies. She will be prolonging her studies by one semester, as she felt “all the teaching quality seriously dropped last semester, in many courses we didn’t cover as much as was planned/promised” despite department reports that grades rose, ostensibly reflecting a better semester according to some staff. For those who cannot increase their study duration, this semester is more of a hurdle as professors attempt to squeeze “fast-paced” courses into a shortened semester. She wonders whether this shortened semester was the best decision. Most of all, she fears not being able to return home for Christmas.

Similar concerns were voiced by a student from Sri Lanka, currently staying near Mannheim. Though she appreciates Germany’s handling of the pandemic, staying abreast of the latest restrictions has been difficult with limited English resources available. She hasn’t been home for a year and finds that attempting to keep up with news from home has hindered her ability to concentrate on her studies. She also finds Zoom to be limiting, as “professors and teachers struggle to use zoom and other online resources effectively sometimes – which causes delays and confusion.” Her slow and crash-prone internet add difficulty to class participation, which is graded in some of her courses. She finds that sticking to her plan of graduating in five semesters is now “increasingly challenging and constantly exhausting.” Unable to afford additional semesters, she feels that the shortened semester shows a lack of caring on the University’s part for the student’s situations. “The program and all decisions are tailored to the convenience of the faculty and staff and students, especially international students, simply have to survive (and we can’t thrive – which is what the University should want us to do).”

Some professors have done little to alleviate the strain on students. “In general, I feel that professors can do much more to assist student during this time. My professors have not altered the workload despite many pleas to do so. The problem sets are long- despite a shorter semester. They avoid any topics that revolve around mental health issues. I have mentioned these topics by email and it was brushed aside. Nevertheless, not all professors are like this. Some have been responsive and even offering exams on the second period. Overall, there’s a disconnect between professors and students. It feels that many of them think we want good grades- which is only one part of it. What most of us want is a good education, to study something we find interesting/we are passionate about and to have a positive impact on the world in the future. I often feel that professors misunderstand me and also ignore me.” Students at the mercy of their professors may be facing differential workloads and different levels of understanding for their condition.

She has also found that the semester is taking a toll on her mental health. While the semester began with at least one day per week spent overwhelmed and unable to leave her bed, the addition of second exam dates and conclusion of some seminars has alleviated some stress. Her mental health is now “the worst it’s been.” Overall, she would like to appeal to professors and faculty. “There’s a lot of misunderstanding about students, our psychology and our life goals. This disconnect between student and professor is causing the University and professors to make decisions that make life easier for professor and unjustly more difficult for students.” There appears to be considerable room for improvement in staff and school accommodation for student mental health and stress. It remains to be seen how these problems will be addressed and how permanent these changes will be.

In all, students have found varying levels of support from teaching staff and the administration. While some have been able to offset the difficulties of the shortened semester by prolonging their studies or staying in their home country, others suffer with the increased pressure of graduating within their financial deadline and face the distractions of home news and travel restrictions. If students are “stuck,” whether at Germany or at home, they will need university and community support for both their academics and their health.