Science has been global for a long time and universities often resemble a small-scale world community. In addition to more than 2900 international students, numerous researchers from all over the world work at the University of Potsdam – from doctoral students to visiting professors. The corona pandemic may be especially burdensome for them, as they are far away from home. The employees of the Welcome Center are often the first point of contact for them when problems of any kind arise. Claudia Rößling, Manager of the Welcome Center, on problems in a foreign country, good mood in exceptional situations and help in need.
Ms. Rößling, can you draw some initial conclusions after the past few weeks: How are the internationals doing at the moment?
In the first few weeks, we received an increasing number of inquiries from academics about travel restrictions and the related implications for their employment contracts and scholarships. Many of the researchers were abroad on business and could not return or had subsequent contracts abroad. Of course, there was and is a lot of uncertainty with regard to residence law, especially since the respective authorities are closed to the public.
For scientists who had just arrived, it was important to find out quickly which services could (still) be used or to look for alternative solutions. Fortunately, regulations have now been established for many matters – and the necessary information is available in English. So for many, life with the pandemic has stabilized to some extent. Nevertheless, uncertainties remain with regard to the return to their home country or entry into Germany.
Did many of the visiting researchers travel home as a precaution?
We have only heard from a few who returned or terminated their stay early. Instead, it is rather problematic for scientists abroad or in their home countries who wanted to return to Germany, which was and still is very difficult due to the existing travel restrictions.
Do you perceive internationals as “particularly vulnerable” because they are in a foreign country and particularly isolated, or are they better prepared for our current situation because they are used to keeping in touch with family and friends over long distances?
That varies a lot. There is positive feedback, as many scientists are used to living away from family and meeting friends and family online. Some have also reported that right now they can concentrate particularly well on their research work and also use the time to learn German.
Others, by contrast, have problems with exactly this situation, as they have no access to the laboratory, conferences and colloquia are canceled and they may not be able to work independently at home due to a lack of childcare or motivation.
In some individual cases, we were also told that the crisis made them realize how important family and friends at home are to them and that they wanted to return to their home countries as soon as possible. In other cases, families have also been separated, e.g. because one parent is “stuck” in another country or family members are unable to join the family due to closed visa offices and there is no foreseeable reunion.
It is also very difficult for newcomers who have not yet been able to build up a circle of acquaintances and sometimes have to be trained in their home office first. Due to the lack of events and contact possibilities, this will probably remain difficult in the near future.
Visiting researchers from other countries often have shorter, fixed-term employment contracts and corresponding temporary residence permits. Can you help them in this case? Are there any support offers from the Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) or other public authorities?
We have seen a great deal of dedication on the part of the supervisors and the human resources departments to extend expiring contracts at short notice or to find other solutions for those affected. However, there are also doctoral students who, due to corona, are no longer able to earn extra income and who are now looking for financial support.
Is there a greater need for support from the Welcome Center at present?
Not greater, but different. As fewer scientists are entering the country, of course, some preparations have been put on hold. However, local researchers or those currently stuck in another country need more intensive support, as there is a great need to talk due to the situation.
What challenges are internationals currently facing?
I think it's mainly the concern for family and friends back home. Here, on site, they also lack access to the laboratory and the technical equipment needed to make progress with their research. In addition, there is a lot of uncertainty for some about residence permits. These can currently neither be extended properly nor modified for other purposes.
What has been a positive surprise for you?
That some scientists still make it to Potsdam in a good mood despite all the hurdles. Also, the positive way in which international researchers approach the situation and as usual, the very friendly tone.
We were also surprised by how suddenly one of our biggest problems, the lack of affordable furnished living space, disappeared almost overnight and a decent offer has now been created here.
The University of Potsdam has been under emergency on-site operations for a couple of weeks now. Certainly, the Welcome Center also works mostly from home. How is that going?
We work both in the office and from home in order to be able to continue to provide the best and fastest possible assistance with all matters. We offer our support – as we did before corona – by e-mail, Skype or telephone. In addition, we are now making greater use of our social media channels to reach scientists. New digital formats for presentations, chats or conferences are also being used. Without the personal contact to researchers and also to colleagues, however, we are definitely missing something in our work routine.
The coronavirus is likely to remain with us for some time. The summer semester has to take place, in large part, without on-site courses. How does the corona crisis affect the long-term planning of visiting researchers? Will some of them stay longer? Will there be many who do not come or return to Potsdam?
Few scientists have terminated their stay prematurely. A great many have postponed their stay in the spring indefinitely or until fall. So far, none of them have completely abandoned the planned research stay. They all hope that they will soon be able to leave their home countries or enter Germany.
Those who are already in Potsdam and Berlin usually stay longer – mostly because there is no possibility for them to return to their home country, the situation at home might be even more difficult for them to cope with, or they simply want to take the opportunity to continue researching their topics in Potsdam. Some also wish to extend their temporary stay a bit, as the closure of the laboratories limits their ability to work on their scientific projects.