The classes for the EMGS Ghent University cohort started much earlier than the other universities, even before the semester at the University of Leipzig had formally started. On one hand, summer ended before autumn, but on the other hand this gave us time to meet before the second, more infectious and deadly, corona wave. Ghent university had a blended learning concept. Despite wearing masks during the long lectures and freezing because the windows were always open, it was great to study on campus again and get some of the famous “student city feeling” of Ghent. Fortunately, we had some pre-lockdown meetups. Watching classes together or cooking in small groups was luckily the reality of the first weeks. Although most of the group was in Belgium by the day the classes started, most of the non-EU students had to sit in self-isolation for another two weeks. The day the last person was allowed to join us in offline activities, Belgium announced new measures, which made a group picture impossible and changed the trajectory of our student experience.
We had a taco night, which was our last leisure-based mass group meeting before the measures forbid having more than 4 guests at home. We found some outdoor benches sheltered by a roof by chance which from then on were our corona-friendly meeting spot.
UGent also has some study-OOs in place, which was a really nice event, as we could sit there as a group–with 1,5m distance, and have a somewhat normal study feeling. Mandarines were shared and we had water from our Ugent reusable water bottles. A week later, face masks were also at the desks compulsory and then rapidly, the next week the study-OOs were closed by the rectorat in face of the spiking corona-cases. Some EU students went back home to spend time with their family instead of sitting isolated at home in Gent. Those who stayed or could not leave made the best of their stay with certain new hobbies: bike tours, grocery shopping, and also taking pictures of the beautiful city.
Another very important feature of the EMGS studying experience right now is of course our Whatsapp group. It serves as a substitute for chatter before and after class. There not only all doubts about assignments, administrative procedures will be solved and new corona measurements will be shared, but it is also the place where the real discussion takes place apart from the seminars. We have many engaging lectures this semester and personal discussion time is sadly limited in zoom sessions. This is why many additional arguments are shared on this virtual forum, together with acknowledgements of our fellow student’s thoughts and – not to be missed – the general student talk about zoom/bongo issues: „is your image also frozen“ „could you tell them there are still people in the waiting room“ „wifi in the university housing is just bad“ „why don’t people mute themselves when they’re in a lecture and cooking“. Due to this Whatsapp group, we can share additional examples from our respective countries that otherwise would have been missed in the lectures. Evidently, some countries are more talked about. This Whatsapp group particularly spiked in activity during the US election “week” where many of us postponed their readings due to the newsfeed of commenting and sharing memes for the time of the count.
We must say that the first semester of EMGS at Ghent University has had a challenging workload, and we have remained abundantly busy critically engaging with our lectures that, at times, we wonder how much of a social life we would be able to have if the lockdown did not forcefully inhibit our social life.
Nonetheless, despite all restrictions, the program has continued to be a culturally diverse and enriching experience, as the common effort to make the online sessions as fruitful as possible makes this a positive start in the new academic year.