Why did you choose to finish your final semester at Queen Mary in Athens instead of London?
After having to cut short my year abroad in Utrecht (one of the best experiences of my life) in March 2020 because of the pandemic, I moved back home to Athens, Greece, where I spent the following five months living with my family – the longest time I had spent back home since moving for university in 2017. It was lovely, it was tense, it was special, and it provided countless brother-sister fights, but also, subconsciously it became my comfort zone.
In September, the opportunity to go back to London and move into a flat with my friend who had also finished her year abroad in Berlin, presented itself. I was thrilled at the idea of a change of scenery, returning to a more independent lifestyle and building a proper routine around my university schedule to focus on studies alongside my socially-distanced peers. Although I knew that classes would be running online, moving to London was the right choice for me, because I wanted to make the most of my final year at QM, make the most of my time with friends (government guidelines permitting) and crucially, make the most out of my degree for which I knew I needed all the focus and independence I could get. To me, that meant using QM’s study spaces at the library, Arts2 or Laws buildings, or creating an IKEA-sponsored workspace in the flat.
After returning home for Christmas for what was only meant to be two weeks, Covid-19’s second wave hit the UK. I turned my return-ticket into a voucher, expecting to use it soon, and waited for things to get safer before I could reschedule my return. 1 month went by, and the situation got dramatically worse. 2 months went by, and it started getting better. 3 months went by, and the UK government released an optimistic four-step plan for reopening the country. April seemed like the perfect time to return to my life in the UK. However, although I knew that the QM library and my shared-flat in London offered me more than my cosy, yet small bedroom/office/lounge/gym ever could, and although I was determined to return and set myself back onto the path I was on in the first semester, I ended up making the decision to stay home in Athens and work remotely.
Looking back now, how do you feel about your decision?
There were many reasons for my decision, namely the UK government’s advice to restrict travel if possible and the safety concerns, but, a main part of my decision was based on mental health. It was not at all an easy decision to make, especially since my flatmate and I had been looking forward to returning together and forming our support bubble. But, after many phone calls, many conversations, many lists weighing out the pros and cons, I found that given the pressures of a final year degree, and the current situation of the world, I wanted to be in a space where I could prioritise my studies, which meant prioritising my mental health. In Greece, I had the privilege of being surrounded by family, friends, good food (see Greek Koulouri and Gyros below) and also the chance to motivate myself by enjoying refreshingly good weather which allowed for walks and runs to help combat Zoom fatigue.
My decision definitely didn’t come without its challenges. When a week of blizzards hit Athens and cut off the internet, when a family member tested positive for Covid-19 and others went through health issues, when I was require to quarantine multiple times at my relatives, when I felt far away and disconnected from my classmates and friends, all neatly tied together by the anxieties of finals coming up and the global pandemic, I felt the weight of choosing to study remotely upon me. Certainly, these challenges were not limited to the fact that I had decided to stay in Greece, in fact I assume those were probably globally shared sentiments of apprehension, concern, compromise and adaptability. So I knew that in order to avoid feeling overwhelmed, I had to continue on the path that I had settled into at home for the past three months, and I had to tell myself that it was okay to stay within my comfort zone, so as to focus on completing my degree and dedicating whatever energy I had left to my books and my computer screen.
How did ESN contribute to your experience of studying remotely?
I remember the puzzled reaction I got when I told a friend that I was joining the committee of ESN in what seemed to him like the worst possible time to do so – “Why would you join an Erasmus society based on travel, socialising and cultural exchanges, during a pandemic when no one can neither travel, socialise nor engage in any sort of safe cultural exchanges?”. Fair points were made, but I took a moment to think to myself, and my answer boiled down to two things: first, I had been craving to regain and share the amazing experience of ESN that I had discovered in Utrecht which had essentially defined my year abroad; second, to me it felt more necessary than ever, in a time when people are separated and isolated, to be part of an effort to create a community bringing people together, sharing stories about different experiences and creating links across countries, which is what ESN at its core is all about.
During my first lockdown in March 2020, the friends I met through ESN Utrecht helped keep me company virtually through game nights, Zoom calls and Dutch language classes. And then again, throughout my time with ESN QMUL, I got to meet amazing like-minded people not only within the committee and its diverse members, but also through the international network that ESN constitutes. I had the opportunity to meet national ESN UK committee members and to help organise events in collaboration with other ESN sections across the UK (e.g. a travel quiz with ESN Newcastle and Italian Society, and a Language Café with ESN City). Most importantly, I met first years and exchange international students who were looking for a community to join either because they had just moved to London or they were studying remotely and looking for a taste of the London experience, which in one word can best be described as – international!
So, to go back to the question my friend asked me, although ESN is definitely known for its parties, trips, and social events, I would recommend ESN to anyone who is looking for an international community to join, looking to learn about cultures and experiences across borders, and looking to have fun while doing it alongside wonderful people!