Privilege and pressure: international students in Germany during Covid-19

The complexities of today’s world have enabled an ever extending exposure to stress, often a combination of stress factors of an existential nature that threaten the balance of our overall health. Those of us who are migrants have also had to live with the stress of moving, and its consequences on our wellbeing. Add to all this the current Covid-19 pandemic, and the further uncertainties and traumas it has brought along in the middle of reduced mobility, and it is clear that the negative impact on one’s mental health can be tremendous.

I am originally from North Macedonia and I am considered a “privileged” migrant from outside the European Union, identified as an international student in Germany, the country where I currently live. Privileged because my entire PhD studies are funded by a renowned scholarship organisation, and because I am perceived by others as a cosmopolitan who has had numerous international education experiences and now lives in Berlin, a city with a cosmopolitan reputation.

Yet, these privileges also come at a high emotional cost for people in my situation. Why? Because coming from a country outside the European Union, we feel even more vulnerable and live with feelings of guilt, which arise from multiple pressures. The Covid-19 pandemic has made these feelings more evident, it has further defined their contours. There are two main sources of guilt that I am experiencing in the current moment.

One is isolation, something that frequently becomes a necessary companion at some points in your migrant life. I feel isolated from everyday life back home, even though I try to keep up to date with the latest in my family and friends’ lives. Living away from family means learning to rely on myself, I have to manage without the immediate support of my close family.

Yet, now, as I have had to socially distance and completely isolate myself as a result of the Covid-19 measures, I realise more fully the psychological and emotional toll. The first thing my friends here did when the lockdown started in mid-March was to go and be with their families.

I did not have that opportunity, because North Macedonia closed its borders completely before I was able to go. The humanitarian flights organised later for returning citizens were not an option for me. I did not know how the situation would develop, and I feared that, if I returned home, I might not be able to get back to Berlin for some time, and as a consequence I could possibly lose my scholarship.

After some weeks of complete isolation, I started to notice the grieving that slowly sneaked in. I grieved the absence of my loved ones like never before, I grieved the absence of touch. I tried to video chat with my family as often as possible, they were scared and I was scared – we still are. As the situation in my home country worsened, I felt that absence even more.

Then I started asking myself how I can best support my family at distance, how can I care for them while being absent? So, guilt crept in, it grew as I wondered whether I had been selfish by prioritising my job over family. As the number of Covid-19 infections rose, I imagined worst case scenarios and started to feel that I had abandoned them.

The second source of guilt has to do with work commitments and performance pressure. Numerous studies have shown that PhD students are at higher risk of experiencing mental health issues. In the neoliberal era we live in, universities on the whole continue to neglect this issue, and refuse to seriously take into account the social, cultural, and economic factors that contribute to work performance by graduate students – and researchers and lecturers more generally.

This is another area where the pandemic has further sharpened our understanding. Despite statements about the need to prioritise our health and wellbeing in these difficult times, the reality is that we have been encouraged to focus on productivity, rather than dealing with the negative psychological effects of the pandemic.

Even as we tried to deal with the trauma and anxiety of Covid-19, I and my colleagues were still inundated with motivational messages, invitations for coaching sessions on better time management, and peer group sessions to improve productivity. We were made to feel that, as long as we were productive, everything was good, and everyone could continue their activities without too much disruption, regardless of what was happening “out there” in the real world.

While I was struggling to come to terms with the distance that separated me from my loved ones – and the fear that I might have been prioritising my academic work over them – I also started to feel guilty about whether I was performing well enough, caught up in constant comparison with my peers.

I kept hearing about other scholars who used this time “productively”, and took the “opportunity” offered by the lockdown to write and publish more (as academics, we are truly socialized in the “publish or perish” culture). Was there something wrong with me then? Did I use this “opportunity” as well as I was advised to?

But not all is bad, and certainly it would be a mistake not to acknowledge that, aside from perceptions and stereotypes, I am indeed in a privileged position: as a result of the pandemic, millions of people have lost their jobs, or have had no choice but to perform in-person contact work with the high risk of contagion that comes with it.

As a graduate student, I am constantly pushed in my own work to reflect: about society, about other people, about my position in society and in the research I conduct, about the often blurred boundaries between the personal and the collective. Academics use the rather obscure word “reflexivity” to indicate this process of deep reflection and self-reflection.

Like many other peers around the world, I embraced the privilege, and started thinking about who is actually able to “focus” and be “productive” during a pandemic. What home means to myself and others. What kind of social and institutional processes shape the uneven experiences of lockdown, and of reduced mobility of migrants and non-migrants. What are the issues that shape the lives of migrants. What are the changes that we want. What role do dimensions such as race, gender, and class play.

The next months and years we will likely see the important results of these reflections, as they are transformed in valuable research endeavours and meaningful academic outputs that break beyond the ivory tower, and provide that public service to society that academics are legitimately expected to perform.

In the meantime, I sense an inexplicable relief in embracing the fragility, insecurity, instability, and vulnerability of my condition as a migrant, together with my physically and intellectually nomadic academic privilege. Privilege is a responsibility, and our responsibility is to raise these questions while caring for ourselves and for others. This is a necessary step towards creating a more inclusive environment in host countries for so-called “highly qualified” migrant women.

Gordana Angelichin-Zhura is a PhD candidate in sociology at the Humboldt University in Berlin. Her main research interests include international education, transnational migration, social inequalities and qualitative research methods.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Corona Times' editorial stance, or the position of any institution or association.

Show Comments