Digital lessons, online exams, Zoom drinks. And all this in a space of 15 m2. For TU Delft students, the days are indistinguishable. A Delta questionnaire shows that the corona restrictions have turned university education and the lives of most students completely upside down. “Nothing proceeds as normal,” says TU Delft student Florian Wilkesmann. Surveys, newspaper articles and House of Representatives letters sketch a sombre picture of studying during the corona crisis. Last month, students from S.O.S. – an alliance of students from TU Delft and universities such as Leiden and Utrecht – wrote a survey report (scroll down for English) stating that the well-being of students declined sharply during the lockdowns. The Minister of Education, Ingrid van Engelshoven, expressed her concerns (in Dutch) in a letter to The House of Representatives at the end of last year. She asserted that the large majority of students have trouble studying at home and they say that they are experiencing stress and symptoms of depression.
There is little to break up the day
The most difficult aspect for many TU Delft students is to stay motivated. They have to motivate themselves to study, do sports, do anything. “I used to play football in the weekend, went partying at the end of the exam week, met up with friends on Friday evenings. But now there is nothing to look forward to. There is nothing. You cannot say anymore that you will study really hard for the next few days and then go and do something fun,” says master’s student Dhruv Gulhar. Another master’s student, Mayukh Sarkar, agrees. “I used to see people around me studying, and the campus helped me remember why I wanted to get good grades. Those stimuli are not there anymore.”
Life between bed and desk
Students are spending almost the whole day in their rooms and there is little to break up the day. Florian recently moved to a small apartment. It is a relief compared to the small student room he used to live in. Dhruv still lives in a small space. “In the morning, I walk from my bed to my desk. And in the evening from my desk to my bed. If you do not go out for walks or do a sport, you only walk about 10 metres a day.” The S.O.S. report shows that many students feel the need for a study space outside their homes. While TU Delft offers spaces, they are often only available on the advice of an academic counsellor.
What about their social lives? There is little optimism there either. Online activities and gatherings are enjoyable, for a while. None of the students has much contact with their peers. The S.O.S. report states that ‘The never ending isolation is making students feel lonely’. Before, they went to lectures and chatted with their classmates afterwards. That chat does not happen on educational platforms. Florian says that “I have project meetings on MS Teams, lectures on Zoom and contact with group apps. Discussions are a lot more difficult under these circumstances than when you see each other physically. They never really turn into real discussions.”
‘I hardly speak to anyone anymore’
Mayukh Sarkar says that “I’m very sociable. At the start of this academic year, when the RIVM (Netherlands National Institute for Public Health and the Environment) restrictions were less stringent, I was out a lot with friends. I went out in the morning to see people and only came back in the evening. Now I hardly speak to anyone anymore. You don’t hang around for a chat after a digital lesson.”
Vice-Rector Magnificus Rob Mudde recognises these signals. He regularly talks with students on Zoom to listen to their concerns. They say that they know very few other students, that it is hard to stay motivated, and that they are concerned about their financial situation. Does he take any action after having these talks? “Holding these conversations does not mean that I then have a to-do list. What we can do is share our joys and sorrows and try to understand each other. We know that we are unable to change all the things that students want. Naturally, the conversations are important to better understand our priorities. In normal times, we hear a lot of things on campus, but now that form of communication is not available anymore. The Zoom chats are a way for us to still maintain contact with students.”
There are concerns too. Concerns about study progress and, even more so, concerns about their financial situation. Now that the whole country is practically closed, many people on zero hour contracts are at home unemployed. And students are often just the ones who have jobs with these types of contracts. Dhruv says that “For me personally it is not that big a problem, but I do hear from students around me that they have run out of money. Studying in the Netherlands for non-EU students in particular is horrendously expensive. Their families can sometimes cover their monthly expenses, but they cannot cover the additional fees if there are study delays.”
‘It is important that students have the ‘Delft experience’’
Instead of throwing in the towel, students are becoming more vocal. They are finding all sorts of ways to stay active and motivated, and they are coming up with solutions. For example, one group of TU Delft students gathered and set up 5voor12, a collective that helps society in the area of welfare, education and communications. The group got together with hospitality professionals and set up Taps & Chaps (in Dutch), a food and drink ordering platform. It also organised the regular Delft De-Stress Festival. The student association boards say that they are keeping an even closer eye on their members.
An S.O.S. student collective report has countless recommendations for the Government and educational institutions. They suggested that municipalities and universities deploy students with part-time jobs to help tackle the crisis. They request universities for more student psychologists and to communicate the availability of the psychologists better through various channels. ‘This could be through email, on websites, social media platforms and during lectures and work groups,’ they write. An additional psychologist was hired by TU Delft at the beginning of last year.
Points of improvement
The TU Delft students who responded to a call by Delta also have ideas. Dhruv would like to hear more from the seven student psychologists employed by TU Delft. “Issue an email, for example, in which you explain that they are there for you and how you can reach them. This would make the step that students have to take to seek help smaller.”
Florian wants greater clarity from TU Delft. Like many other international students, he is wondering if he has to physically be in Delft to write his master thesis. “I pay rent every month in the Netherlands to do things that I can do just as well from my parents’ house. I am not the only one wondering this – I hear it from everyone around me. It would be good if TU Delft would be clear about this. They are just keeping us hanging.”
Mudde recommends students to discuss this with their supervisors and in their degree programmes. “However,” he adds, “We do think it is important that students have the ‘Delft experience’. It is also hard to look ahead. Imagine that the situation here improves and we can spend more time on campus. What would you do if you are abroad and are unable to travel back easily? There is great added value in being together on campus and working on your graduation project.”
- TU Delft’s psychologists have put some tips and tools for studying during the corona crisis online. There is a study skills toolkit, and a page about recognising psychological problems.
- There is an eight to ten week waiting list for the TU Delft psychologists, but there are also walk-in times every day.
- From 15 February onwards, the Sports and Culture Centre X will run various online courses about visual arts, performance arts, dance and music. Registration opened on 8 February.
- X offers free activities and workshops on social media such as breakfast videos and workouts. There is also a podcast every two weeks on a wide variety of subjects ranging from classical music to nutritious food.
- At the end of every exam week, TU Delft holds an online party: the Delft De-stress Festival.
- Since the end of the first lockdown, Vice-Rector Magnificus Rob Mudde has spoken several times a year with students online about their concerns and problems. Check our website regularly for the next meeting.
- Study tip from Florian. “Break up your to-do list into small tasks. This helps you stay motivated as you keep ticking things off.”
Marjolein van der Veldt/ Annebelle de Bruijn