Scraping by because of corona
‘All that I struggled for seems in vain’
Artificial intelligence student Conor Ward (21) repairs devices for people who can’t afford to go to the stores. But after the Dutch government’s first press conference on the coronavirus on March 12, the Irishman stopped his work. Things had gotten serious in the Netherlands, and the risk of infecting his live-in girlfriend, who has asthma, was too great to take.
‘There are a lot of exchanges, and for all I know I’ve already brought it back into the house’, says Conor. He always takes precautions: he wears gloves and uses alcohol to sanitize the devices, but that doesn’t put him at ease. ‘I still meet people and I’m handling things of which I don’t know where they’ve been.’
Conor isn’t too worried about getting sick in itself. It’s the vulnerable position it could put him and his girlfriend in that scares him. Because of his girlfriend’s asthma, he only goes outside to get groceries. ‘If I do get sick, I wouldn’t know what to do. I can’t rely on other people helping us.’
To make matters worse, a week after he stopped working, Conor received an email from the university saying they’d be collecting tuition payments as usual on the 26th. He sent them an email asking for leniency, but he had to presume he still had to get the money together.
If I pay my tuition, we may not be able to survive
He has some money saved up and luckily his girlfriend still has her TA job. ‘We were fine with using our savings over the next months, but having to pay uni fees on top of our rent is not doable. I could pay tuition, but then we may not be able to survive.’
So Conor went back to work, reluctantly. ‘I’m being forced to bring contaminants into the house, and this isn’t a position I want to be in.’
He is deeply disappointed in the university: does the UG think all its students are rich, or can easily get support from their parents? ‘My dad is also self-employed and out of work, so I can’t go back and ask him for money. My parents get about 300 euros a month in support from the Irish government, so that doesn’t leave them much to send to me anyway.’
As a first year student, Conor was told not to work and focus on his program, but for the students who had no choice but to work, there was no leniency. ‘The university might not mean to, but the people who work feel like they’re getting punished for having to work.’
It isn’t just limited to this particular situation, he says. ‘There seems to be a general kind of ill will towards internationals, like with the housing crisis. They’re actively working to get internationals here, without telling us about the housing and the fees, and now this. It’s another nail in the coffin of resentment for us.’
Kathleen Scherer (31), an American master student of applied linguistics, experienced this firsthand. After arriving in Groningen in September, she spent two and a half months staying with other people. ‘Living in someone’s closet really exacerbates your stress. I cried all the time.’
She sold everything she had in the States to get here. Her house, her car, and she saved every penny working as an English teacher. She earned over 25.000 euros to pay tuition for the year and to prove she could live here for the duration of her visa. Now she’s trying to make her money last until the end of her program, but because of the coronavirus no one knows when that will be.
I can’t even afford to stay an extra month
She couldn’t get in touch with her thesis supervisor for weeks and the last email she received just asked her to be patient. As a former teacher, Kathleen says, she understands the strain of having to adapt to the new system. But she’s also really worried. ‘It’s scary. I don’t know what will happen or what I would do if I have to stay longer. If anything is postponed due to corona, I can’t even afford to stay an extra month.’
This situation is catastrophic for her plan, financially and academically as well as professionally. She had a goal: she would come here to get the best education in her field and stay in the Netherlands afterwards to get a job and learn Dutch. ‘At my age, I can’t afford to play around’, Kathleen says. ‘I need to continue my career. I keep telling myself this is a sacrifice I’m making to get this education. I wanted to come here, and these are the consequences.’
Still, she feels frustrated. ‘It’s uncomfortable to say, but I can’t help but wonder where our money is going.’ The quality of education she came here for is not being maintained, she says, yet the financial and academic expectations remain the same.
‘I could’ve gotten a subpar MA in the States, but here I had the opportunity to work with the best in my field. But all the money I’ve spent and all that I’ve given up now seems in vain, when I’m not getting what I struggled for.’
She thinks the university should reimburse students for the online education they’re receiving. Like in the US, where undergraduate students get money back if they take fewer courses, or online courses. ‘I know that I agreed to the full amount before I came here, but if the university can no longer offer the same quality, they have to consider the size of the burden on their students.’
The university has to consider the burden on their students
Kathleen has now taken on a job as a private online tutor for kids all over the world. She gets up at 4 am to teach children in China. ‘I can at least pay my groceries and probably live until August.’
On March 25, one day before the tuition payment was due, the university said it will be more lenient with students who are unable to pay due to the corona crisis. Payment will move to May and the UG will reach out to struggling students.
For Kathleen, this was hopeful news. ‘It cuts it very close, but it helps a little. And it feels like they’re putting things in place to have our backs.’
Conor doesn’t thaw as easily. ‘It would’ve been nice to have known that earlier. Now I’ve already gone back to work.’ He has been cut off from the system before when a payment didn’t go through, so he knows what that’s like and wanted to avoid it at all costs.
His friends also worried about not being able to pay, he says. ‘We understand these are uncharted waters for everyone, but the university needs to be more open: if you’ve made a decision, we need to know, so we can take that into account.’
Photo above by Reyer Boxem