Opinion

All my champagne problems: The unique internal struggles faced by international freshers during the pandemic

For prospective students around the world, the idea of studying at ‘Oxford University’ is both elusive and romanticised. Scenes of walking on broken cobblestones and visions of lazing in mystical meadows before attending balls in grand halls overwhelm our minds. For me, knowing no one who ever even applied to any universities in the UK, it was this idealised vision of Oxford that stood at the forefront of my mind during all stages of my application, to such an extent that any hesitations about the Oxford experience such as the workload, the pressure or even the move itself were outshone by the allure of Oxford that I had created.

However, two months after my acceptance in January 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic became more serious as the world locked down. This meant that our personal and professional interactions became almost exclusively virtual. Of course, this disruption jeopardised the idea of Oxford that I had built up, but given the gravity of the pandemic this was nothing other than a small champagne problem. Still, even though I knew that public health was indeed far more important than fully gaining the ‘student experience’, I could not suppress a sense of sadness and lamentation of missing out on the ‘Oxford’ I had imagined. As the pandemic worsened, along with my understanding of the extent of its human and economic cost, I started to feel an overwhelming sense of guilt for my lamenting that vision of Oxford, since Covid’s effect on others has been so much worse, and it would be selfish of me to be upset.

However, this guilt was not just unique to me. Rather, the pandemic has created a novel internal struggle for all international students: between choosing to travel during a pandemic and permanently pack up your life with no sight of being able to return home soon, or staying home and learning remotely from which results in a sense of alienation and isolation.

Summer was almost a half-time show for the pandemic. A global decrease of cases meant many restrictions were lifted, and it seemed as though our steady journey towards normality had begun. It was with this optimism, and arguable naivety, with which I and many others greeted Freshers’ Week. Yet this was undercut by an ignorance to the necessity of the rightly placed social distancing restrictions and, as a result, it was not long before the facade faded. As the weeks went on, the sharp upturn in cases across the country and within the university halls, the continual periods of household isolations, and the announcement of a second national lockdown right as the 5th Week blues were onsetting, created an environment that shattered the fun freshers experience we were trying to craft. It was then, when I was locked down in my dorm room, 17,046 km away from home, when I realised how alone and unhappy I really felt during this transition. 

The household system meant that the 8 random strangers who were allocated to your corridor were, really, to be your only friends. Although, the corridor dynamic is more complicated than that: there are inevitably people with whom you don’t get on, people who have different preferences for noise, partying, groceries, etc. Since most extracurriculars were on pause, it really was just you and your degree. Though mental health support from College, the JCR, and the university were readily available, I could not avoid the twinge of guilt every time I complained about how alone and unhappy I felt. “ I was so lucky”, “I was being so selfish for even having come here in a pandemic”, I would think. COVID has resulted in people losing loved ones, losing jobs, businesses, and livelihoods. In comparison, I believed my feelings were bratty, selfish and invalid, and that I should just “deal with it”.

As the weeks went on, the difficult economic consequence of moving overseas during a pandemic began to manifest. International students are sometimes heralded as ‘cash cows’, and thus a rhetoric has been repeated that international students could easily stay in halls, or return home. Although this is simply not the case. The reality is that a lot of us do not come from privileged families who can hand out cash for our tuition and living fees without a horrible financial strain. Rather, the payment of fees and living costs is a careful financial investment that involves loans and extreme budgeting. Throughout September and October, there was talk within Parliament of keeping students in halls over Christmas, which would have resulted in a difficult position for students to fund themselves. For me, the caps on repatriation flights to Australia meant that the likelihood of staying in halls over the vacation was high. Due to inflation of flights, it was to cost up to ten thousand pounds for a one-way flight, which was simply unrealistic. Furthermore, despite attempts made by the JCR, the blanket policy of vacation rent was impossible for me and many students to pay.

A combination of luck and obtaining financial support from family meant I was fortunate enough to make it home for Christmas. Despite being given the option to return to college since I had already booked a flight before the announcement of the third national lockdown, I chose to continue the rest of the academic year, including sitting my Moderations, from home. I thought that the familiarity of home would put to rest all the anxiety and guilt that I had developed over Michaelmas. This is because staying at home was the responsible and the right thing to do, and it meant that my financial issues would be temporarily relieved, while my support network was strong. 

But it was not that easy. I was of course so grateful that I was home, and safe, but the struggles of remote learning with an 11-hour time difference brought its own feelings of alienation from college life and distance from friends, as well as a complete abandonment of the ‘Oxford’ identity which I had assigned so much worth to. Again, these were just more champagne problems. But, even though I knew that, and I knew what a privileged and lucky position I was in, I could not suppress them. So again, I developed a distinct and deep guilt for my feelings since I felt as though I was again just being selfish and out of touch with the struggles faced by the rest of the world.

Many fellow expats were unfortunately not this lucky. Instead of being able to return home to isolate with their families or support bubble, they had to endure a long dreary 6 months in college; some of them were the only ones left in their buildings, others the only ones in their college. “A deep sense of helplessness”, was what some described it as. With a peak of 68,053 cases recorded on January 8 2021 and 1,820 deaths on January 20, the announcement of the third national lockdown was taken gravely by colleges across Oxford. Since the vast majority of students had returned home it seemed to be an easy decision to close dining halls and reduce maintenance staff. 

Although for the students stuck in college these decisions were very difficult on them. Many had no access to kitchens and were forced to rely on ordering take-out for each meal, which is hardly in anyone’s budget. Desperately struggling financially, some were left with very few options but to simply just skip meals. In addition, over the vac and during the lockdown most college support staff were working from home. Unfortunately, the unique struggles that they would have faced while doing this meant emails went unanswered for days (and sometimes weeks). Moreover, since execs on the JCR were all home, there was little they too could do to help. So, during this time, students were not receiving the support they needed. It was only so long before their vac work was finished, and they had finished binging everything of interest on Netflix. Soon, it was just them and their thoughts in their room as ‘unprecedented’ times ravaged outside their window. Meanwhile, their friends would casually send videos and messages about them bonding with their families and trying to make the best of the dire state of the nation. But this only served to sharpen the reality of their isolation.

One friend described to me how uneasy they felt when they would go for their daily walk through the hauntingly empty hallowed halls and deserted winding roads; they were reminded of the visions they would have of taking this very walk before they arrived. This dreamt-up scene was, however, romanticised; they imagined how happy and at peace they would feel when they would look up at the cloudy sky and smile at the sun peeking behind the grand sandstone buildings. Never in their wildest dreams did they imagine that actually, when doing so, they would feel so alone and helpless and would do anything just to be home or with friends again. 

As for me, I again decided it would be most responsible to sit out Trinity from home. However, as restrictions lifted, and May 17 passed, meaning everyone has returned, the brief moments where I felt content with being at home, were superseded by only what I can describe as a profound fear of missing out (FOMO, okay?). It seems as though Trinity was the term to make up for all the other, empty terms as people enjoyed the freedom to go to pubs, bars, soak in the sunlight and really live the Oxford life, making the memories that we all thought we deserved. And I was 17,046 km away from the action. I would get messages of people asking “Hey! You should be coming back soon, right?”, but in responding and explaining that it was just not an option to return right now, I felt that this was the point where my friends forgot about me and I lost all connection to Oxford. Being so lost in my own champagne problems I forgot the weight of reality. 

The pandemic is not over, and global cases are increasing. It is so selfish to be angry and sad that I missed out on eight weeks of fun when I am so lucky to be living in a safe country where the health system is not overwhelmed, where all my basic needs are met, and with loved ones who care about me. But getting trapped in a cycle of guilt also does not help me actually be content with my situation. Instead, I just tried to take a step back and stop focusing on what could have or what should have been my experience. When I do this, the FOMO is replaced with gratitude. The global vaccine rollout means that there is light at the end of the tunnel and all I, and we, can do is just try to make peace with the dips and look forward to the peaks that inevitably are to come.

Now, looking back on the past year, the fluctuating emotions brought on by these trying times did teach me one thing. This is that we are allowed to feel anger towards the world. We are allowed to feel sadness and mourn our student experience. Feeling these emotions does not inherently make us ungrateful or selfish. It does not mean that we do not care about the struggles of others. It only means we are in touch with our emotions, and it is only after we acknowledge and process these feelings are we able to accept our situation, and make the best of it.

Stella is an Opinion Editor at The Oxford Blue. Originating from Sydney, Australia, she has a keen interest in writing about student life, issues facing international students, as well as politics, and legal issues. Stella is currently in her second year reading Law at Lady Margaret Hall.