Since March 2020, everything has been somewhat different, even at the University of Potsdam. Examinations at a distance, lectures online, seminars via Zoom. How is the transition to the first online semester in the history of the university actually working out for those for whom studying at the University of Potsdam is already an adventure abroad: young people from all over the world who leave their home country behind to study at the University of Potsdam. Olha Zolotarenko studies Computational Linguistics and describes how she reconciles parenthood and life as a student in Germany during the corona pandemic.
Since the beginning of March, Germany has been in the grip of the corona pandemic. What is your experience of this exceptional, challenging time?
The corona crisis has a somewhat paradox effect on me and my family. On the one hand, hardly anything has changed in our everyday life since I am currently on parental leave. We still go on several walks in the park every day, snuggle at home or have domestic chores to worry about. On the other hand, a certain anxiety about the future has been added to this, which is not easy to deal with psychologically in isolation.
Did the measures taken to contain the coronavirus restrict you personally or did they even create certain freedoms?
As I said, I recently became a mother. Parenthood requires (at least in the beginning) a certain change in lifestyle, in which some things are often sacrificed for the good of the child. Therefore, the corona containment measures gave me more time for everything that had been put on hold. In addition, the digital semester has made my studies much easier, as the on-site courses are very difficult to reconcile with a small child.
What are the most difficult aspects of this for you?
The border closures and the uncertainty. It was always the greatest pleasure for my family and me to welcome our parents and relatives here in Potsdam. Now, the grandparents can only see their grandchild via WhatsApp and the saddest part is that it is still uncertain at what point the world will return to normal.
What was surprisingly good?
The digital semester, definitely. I understand, of course, that it most likely has to do with my degree program (Computational Linguistics) and those who are completely dependent on face-to-face classes in their studies will not agree with me. In any case, the start of the semester was very comfortable for me and I hope that it stays that way.
You are far away from home – in the past few weeks, did you ever think about returning early?
Not at all, because I want to build a future for me here in Europe. When you’re alone, it can be quite easy to drastically change your life. But with a family, there is a lot to consider before making any decision. I also realize that it can be difficult to find your way around and build a network in a new city. There’s always a risk that you will remain a stranger.
What is the situation like in your home country?
Many drastic measures were taken in Ukraine quite early and quickly and therefore the spread of the coronavirus seems to be under control at present. However, the question of how well the available figures reflect the actual pandemic remains, as not enough testing is done and people infected with the coronavirus often seem to have no symptoms.
As an international student at the university, do you feel that there is enough support and information? What could be improved?
The support offered to international students at the University of Potsdam is excellent. The International Office has always been able to help me with all my questions, not only about my studies, but also about my family. I can only imagine that there will be more digital offers in the future, which would relieve the International Office team and at the same time provide flexible information on many questions 24/7.
The first digital semester at the University of Potsdam started a few weeks ago. Is it a big adjustment for you?
As a young mother, the digital semester made things easier and has helped me a lot. I was finally able to stop worrying about the compatibility of my family and student life. However, before completing my degree, I will no longer have the chance to meet with my fellow students like we did in the past. It is also currently not possible to research the literature for my bachelor’s thesis in the library. In general, the digital semester is an important organizational solution for me, even if it reminds me time and again that the world is going through a crisis.
What conclusions can you draw after the first weeks of online teaching?
In my degree program, everything is going exceptionally well and things are well-organized. My personal key to success is to find the self-discipline to learn and to deal with the alluring amount of free time in a sensible way.
If things went back to normal for the most part in the coming semester – which aspects of this current semester would you like to be able to adopt?
I think it would have to be the flexibility of online teaching. This allows students to watch the lecture from home at any time and repeat it later if necessary, which can be very useful for exam preparations. In addition, students in my degree program tend to start working at an early stage in addition to their studies. You sometimes don't manage to be at the university in time for lectures on a regular basis in this situation. In this case, online teaching is also a big step towards reconciling studies with your professional and private life.
What should not continue under any circumstances?
The lack of personal contact with teaching staff members and fellow students. I think flexibility is good and important, but I would not want to continue with a fully digital semester without any face-to-face teaching, which we have now. Being able to participate in a study group, go to the lab or just go see a professor during office hours is, in my opinion, extremely important. Nowadays, a lot can be done through social media and video conferencing, but one should not neglect the need for exchange and social contacts.
How will things continue for you in the coming months?
In the next few months, I would like to finish my bachelor’s thesis and, above all, prepare for the end of my parental leave and my studies. I am also looking forward to my return to the Max Planck Institute and my professional life after my bachelor's degree. I intend to stop studying for a while and gain new professional experiences. Most of all, I very much hope that the corona crisis will pass soon and that we will all be able to meet our families and friends again.