GLOCAL in the Time of COVID-19

GLOCAL cohorts I, II and III finally met – thanks to Coronavirus. 

At 14:00 CET on the 27th of March, up to 67 GLOCAL students from across the three cohorts, as well as some of our consortium professors and administrators, tuned into a video conference together. Our computer screens were filled with a layout of smiling faces, foreheads, and even the toddler of one of our very own peers’! Coordinated by Dr. Ben Wubs of Erasmus University Rotterdam, our three cohorts were invited to share our thoughts and experiences at this virtual ‘Town Hall’. At first, it was an overwhelming display of familiar and unfamiliar faces, but before long, GLOCALs enthusiastically jumped in to share their stories, lockdown-survival tips, book recommendations, thought-provoking questions, and ultimately, solidarity in these unprecedented times. 

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Owais and his son. Photo: Owais.

Since containment measures for Coronavirus swept across Europe in mid-March, GLOCAL students and alumni found themselves forced to self-isolate in Barcelona, Rotterdam, Gottingen, or wherever they happened to be at the moment their world came to an abrupt halt. While a few were forced to make the difficult and quick decision of returning to their home countries and submit to a 14-day quarantine, many GLOCALs decided to stay in Europe and continue self-isolation. Such a decision was difficult for some to make, as expensive flight tickets, risks of infections, concerned family members, and the uncertain duration of quarantine in Europe weighed in on GLOCAL’s ability to make up their minds to stay or go. 

In these very uncertain times, it is easy to have the darker aspects of being on your own come to the surface. What once started out for so many of us as a lifechanging Master’s education far away from home, has made home farther away than it’s ever been. With the future becoming terribly uncertain, we are left not knowing whether being stuck indoors with plenty of school work to do is a blessing or a curse. 

After attending GLOCAL’s first all-cohort Town Hall online, I was reminded that this was still a very lifechanging Master’s program, and perhaps even more so now with Coronavirus thrown into the mix. As international scholars of ‘Global Markets and Local Creativities’ living through one of the most historical, global events in the 21st century so far, the Coronavirus pandemic is an eye-opening experience to witness how different cultural perspectives of expatriates respond to and make sense of a crisis that touches every corner of the world. Salvador, from cohort III, remarked that the impact of Coronavirus would be very interesting to study from a GLOCAL perspective, and Mashiyat from cohort II, added that we all can all look back on this time in the future and tell everyone that we completed our Master’s education despite the pandemic crisis. By the end of the meeting, Lia, from cohort I, shared everyone’s recommendations onto our GLOCAL LinkeDin group. 

Salvador, Mashiyat, and Lia’s responses at the virtual town hall, remind me of three qualities I’ve come to really admire among GLOCALs: their curiosity, resiliency, and kindness towards one another. They say that crises can bring out the best (and worst) in humanity, but among GLOCALs, it’s impressive to find an international group that is so committed to finding ways to create a family-like atmosphere despite the constant state of flux and uncertainty. Everyone has a genuine interest to know how others were faring, and they were curious about how these events would impact the world around them immediately and henceforth – from our changing perceptions of time and how we view ‘low skill’ workers as vital in our economy, to new ways of working and finding balance at times of flux. They have a big desire to share with each other, and more importantly, build each other up along the way. Seeing all cohorts for the first time in one ‘place’, the experimental Master’s program I signed up for almost 2 years ago, was starting to take shape in its promising potential. Here was the network at work, exchanging book titles and suggesting recipes, and even making nascent plans for a virtual, stay-at-home house party. Sure, it’s only a start, but like many things in GLOCAL (and GLOCAL itself), a lot of the unknowns can be addressed when you bring people together and trust them to find the way.

While the three cohorts shared the similar struggles with self-isolation far away, they also had distinct challenges with the Coronavirus, given where they were at in their GLOCAL experience.

For cohort III, who are in the middle of their second mobility pathway in Barcelona, the pandemic interrupted a busy academic schedule and their last months of bonding as a full cohort before their group splits into their two pathways. Far enough into their education for many not to risk returning home for an uncertain amount of time, many in Cohort III decided to stay in Barcelona. Some shared many creative ideas in the Town Hall on how to cope. They recently organized virtual extracurricular activities with one another, ranging from an Italian cooking show by the University of Barcelona’s GLOCAL Coordinator Robert Toluto to a guide in navigating a Chinese supermarket by Lilac. At the Town Hall, Silvi wanted to extend the invitation to their virtual activities with others in the GLOCAL network. Omar shared that he now makes it a point to dress up for every grocery outing and, dramatically, he took off his beanie to reveal his freshly (and spontaneously) shaved head. For the cohort stuck indoors in the sunniest place of all our GLOCAL destinations, it’s no wonder their minds were busy with the many ways they could cherish their time abroad in Barcelona, with as many fun things to do with each other, as possible. A true ‘glocal creativity’.

For cohort I, who graduated from their GLOCAL program last December and now spread out around the world, Coronavirus is challenging many of them to juggle working from home with living as an expat, at a time when being overseas is burdened by the uncertainty of when anyone can travel to and from anywhere freely. Patricia works her 9 to 5 job from home, which is now Glasgow. Lia, in Barcelona, worries about her parents back in Argentina. Laura, who returned home to Colombia from Nigeria after her new job there went digital, shared that she was in lockdown while her friends in Nigeria were only starting to take such measures. For a few others, the pandemic interrupted ongoing job searches, raising the stress levels of what was already a notoriously draining endeavor. As an advice, Agatha from Italy (but based in Berlin) recommended that any GLOCALs with job prospects on their minds, should consider utilizing the quarantine period to learn new skills online and, of course, to remain optimistic.

On that note, Agatha also added that this Coronavirus quarantine felt like the ‘quarantine’ she was in while writing her Master’s thesis in Göttingen last year. While there is much truth that being forced to stay at home makes it even more difficult to avoid the inevitable, the abrupt closure of both Erasmus University and Göttingen University in mid-March, left many cohort II GLOCALs struggling to adjust their research timelines, let alone their ongoing coursework. Many thesis proposals had to be edited greatly or completely altered to suit working remotely. This was not just about running into dead ends for their topics, but also losing some of the joy and motivation from their initial ideas and needing to regain them in these ‘noisy’ times. No more on-site interviews or field work; no more archival research in Dundee or Madrid; no way of visiting university libraries to check out literature; and no clarity yet on whether our thesis defenses will be online, or if it will be one of the first things we look forward to doing once we go back out again. This palpable uncertainty is unnerving beyond our thesis schedules. As Ashley pointed out, Coronavirus had washed away the remaining months of the second cohort’s GLOCAL experience, and in her wondering when we’d next see each other, she made me realize that that next time is probably at our upcoming graduation ceremony in December at Glasgow University. Such a cliffhanger without much in terms of ‘closure’ for the time being. To cope, Riyoko advised that it was best not to linger in worse-case scenarios, hinting that our mental energy needed to be used wisely now more than ever. Meanwhile, Iris reminded everyone that overworking was also a problem; to cope, she likes to make silly videos in her spare time and share them with friends and family in Taiwan and beyond via Facebook. For Isa, this spare time was also an opportunity for her to ‘de-accelerate’ and reflect more on herself (a good reminder for everyone).

As a GLOCAL from the second cohort, I have found that in this uncertain span of time, it’s ironically difficult to properly reflect. Writing this has been one of those rare opportunities to pause and feel how two weeks of being indoors have impacted me. For me, it is a blessing and a curse to be stuck at home with a lot of work to do. As my days start to blend together, certain mornings feel like getting up from a nap to continue where I last left off — dragging my feet, or being laser-focused if I’m in the mood. Variety in my routine has eroded, and the most exciting thing outdoors are the mischievous neighborhood cats outside my bedroom window that I’ve never paid so much attention to until these past weeks (okay, and maybe indulging in an episode or two of Mad Men on Netflix every so often). Making time to stay connected, listening to others’ stories, and having as much fun as our flats can allow, is not only valuable during these times, it is essential. I’m not sure how many other international students share our situation, nor whether they have the adequate support system to accompany their study abroad in quarantine. In that perspective, we should be grateful that we can weather these uncertain times with a personal community that is as strong in-person as they are virtually. While I didn’t expect this kind of ‘ending’ for my GLOCAL experience, I did expect the GLOCAL network to pull through and help each other out in the best ways they know. It makes me proud to be a GLOCAL, and I look forward to the next Town Hall meeting maybe with one of us being the DJ!

Author: Dyana Wing So