On the Silent Disaster in Higher Education

Maybe this article hasn’t been accessible to most of you who come to read the Pangaea blog entries, but last week, a Biologist and Statistician of the UGent published an article on Knack.be about the responses he read on a student-survey regarding their lives during the lock-down, and his realisations are heartbreaking, confronting and infuriating.

It’s probably no surprise to most of you: living in the lock-down doesn’t come as easily for one person as it does for another. Sure, introverts have an easier and more pleasurable time adjusting to the new, more socially isolated situation of the moment. I, being more of an introvert myself, am rejoicing in the time I can spend on and with my own person more often than not these days. I’m also more inclined to find any kind of coping strategy so leisurely handed out these days more effective than my highly social and extroverted brother-from-another-mother. There’s other factors though that put me on the more-privileged-part of this experience though:

I have a job that covers my rent. My parents are able to support my monthly expenses without any danger to them financially. I have had, and took, the opportunity to distance myself from members of my circles that would have made this lock-down more toxic to myself and my own mental health. I have means to get some privacy within certain freedoms of movement and general life. I am experiencing more privilege than most of my co-eds, and most of the world population right now. And I want to do better with what I have to offer than what I have done so far.

I remember I would see an article online within the first two weeks of lock-down titled “we’re not all in this together”, and the title made me stop and think. It sounded kind of wrong to me, but when I read the article I had to agree with the author; people differ not only in the amount of money they have been able to put aside, making sure they can overcome this halt in making money easily. People differ in the housing situations they have available to them, making it easier for them to keep active, mentally healthy, and fit during these weeks, months of isolation and stress. People differ in what family situations they have to deal with and take part in, whether or not they have to worry about specific family members or whether they need to take care of someone, or none of that. People experiencing this pandemic-crisis with enough money in the bank and a big enough house to look after the people they care about are lucky and privileged and not the norm. And they, we (yes, I am lucky to count myself as one of them), don’t often get that it’s not like that for everyone.

So we slack on taking perspective, we slack on following measures and guidelines, we slack on the effects and tolls this situation can have on others. And we get surprised when we find some of these effects and tolls actually finding its way to our own lives and mental health.

The article written by a UGent TA (teacher’s assistant) tells the story about how one of us privileged people came to realise just that (if there is no English version, which is likely because this is Belgium, and you don’t want to flex your Dutch skills, let me give you the Cliff Notes’ version): professors and teachers have been donning out assignments and information, lectures and extra materials online to help students grasp things better without face-to-face teaching. This makes sense from an academic point of view of course, and it’s great they do that instead of leaving students to figure everything out on their own (and wonder why we paid the tuition fees in the first place then). But these actions forget one important aspect, namely that it decreases the time students have to spend on their own well-being, especially if they have more things on their mind than how to make it through the exams in this weird time. If you have the added responsibility of taking care of a family member, worrying about financial safety, your own or someone else’s mental and/or physical health, the list just goes on here – how can you even focus on studying for your exams or doing assignments? What does that do for and to you?

When you have privilege, you don’t (have to) think about things that fall outside of this privilege, and therefore don’t think to take them into account. We should not be excused for that, and we should not encourage that, either. We should encourage thinking more empathically, and be more patient with other peoples’ processes.

I really don’t know what else to say about it at this point. If you are not experiencing the privilege of not having to worry too much in this time period, I want you to know that I see you, and I hear you, and I stand by you in any way I can. Tell us, all of us, how we can help you get through this challenging time. More people, more institutions, more governments should hear you and reach out, and help out. Don’t carry your burdens alone, and don’t let others rejoice while you suffer in silence. Reach out; you deserve better, and you deserve to not be alone.

Published by thepangaeablog

We're the staff of Pangaea, the Intercultural Meeting Centre of the KU Leuven in Leuven, Belgium! Welcome to our blog where we aim to inform you of all we are doing, have planned, and keep you connected with what has happened lately!

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