Life in lockdown – Internationals at the VUB (1/2) ENG

While the current health crisis poses severe limitations for VUB students and staff alike, the world has not stood still. The same counts for international students, many of whom do not have the social safety net so many students can fall back on. We interviewed six international students at the VUB in order to shed light on their experiences of life in Brussels and at the VUB. In this first instalment of the ‘Life in lockdown’ portrait series, we hear from Cabirou, Jes and Michelle.

Follow this link to view the second instalment (2/2)

By: Filip Lismont and Ima Algra

Cabirou Mounchili Shintouo (Cameroon)

Doctoral student in Gerontology – Faculty of Medicine and Pharmaceutical science

Cabirou Mounchili Shintouo

“Sadly, the biggest part of my experience here has been the COVID-19 crisis. With all these limitations it is difficult to continue to build your life normally. Daily routine at the moment is focused on the necessity of staying at home, with the exception of going to school. The way I am able to learn and engage with school has changed also. Since I do a lot of laboratory work I am heavily dependent on school laboratory facilities. Currently, there is a reservation system in order to safely share spaces, and so I can only work when other people have not picked that slot. The issue with this is that you cannot work freely, you have to work when other people are not available. So on top of the administrative aspect, it’s very different to my usual routine, if there is any routine to be found at all these days.”

“If you’re a more reserved person, and you don’t have a family, you might end up living alone in a single room for a very long period.”

“Luckily I was able to experience Brussels shortly before Corona struck last year. And I enjoyed it a lot while I could. I hope that after the Coronavirus, we can go back to that time, and I can continue discovering what Brussels has to offer. I still like to visit Grand Place. And sometimes I go there to just sit and look at the scenery and the people. Beyond Brussels I still had the chance to go to Blankenberge for a beach trip. Unfortunately for me there was a lot of wind that day and so it wasn’t the best timing. Back in Cameroon I used to enjoy visiting beaches, but it’s a little bit different because back there they have not developed it with buildings, dykes, beach bars and restaurants. It’s just natural. I was planning another beach visit when the waves would be calmer and then the wind would not be as strong. Sadly, Coronavirus is keeping me from making that type of move again.”

“Since activities such as beach trips are not possible now, I have quite some spare time. It has given me an opportunity to draw closer to God, as I spend most of my free time reading the Bible. But one thing I would introduce to make the experience of students better is to create and promote online platforms where students can engage with others and reduce the psychological trauma of being alone. If you’re a more reserved person, and you don’t have a family, you might end up living alone in a single room for a very long period. So it’s an opportunity to create a network where students can communicate with each other and share their experiences.”


Jes Bolduc (West Virginia, United States of America)

Academic researcher – Department of Bio-engineering Sciences 

Jes Bolduc

“Well, in the beginning I was pregnant (laughs). So some things about this crisis were an increased burden, but in many ways I was able to reap the benefits of forced isolation. Suddenly everyone started working from home, which coincided well with the reduced mobility of pregnancy and general need to rest. Being at home was actually really convenient, since doing so was already the intention. That sounds really bad to say since it was a very damaging time globally; so many people were suffering… But it worked out nicely for me: I could work without feeling that I could be doing more, since I was limited anyway.”

“As the lockdown started it was kind of scary since nobody knew what was going on. Suddenly everyone was working from home, which is not straight-forward when your work consists of laboratory observations and requires a physical engagement. So the way we worked changed, as it did for many people. Our whole department had to reconfigure how we approached our work, and to what extent we could still produce the same results in the limited circumstances. There was a bit of a bargaining stage where everyone was figuring out what our work actually consisted of, which eventually often meant finding minimum requirements in the lab to still get things done.”

“I found it quite hopeful that people were still being creative in such a dismal time.”

“The birth of my daughter, Thia, in May was another blessing. Staying in the house did not feel as mandatory for me as it did for others, as I was going to be doing this anyway to take care of her. It gave me the chance to be at home with her with less responsibility outside the house, like I wasn’t missing out on other elements in my life because everything was shut down basically. Eventually I did continue working from home, and also had to make some trips to the lab on campus when possible. But it was not always certain what was and what was not allowed, because the rules changed so frequently. Even as the rules eased up, I was careful with who I was in contact with, and kept quite a small bubble of about three people throughout the entire duration of the crisis. These were also the same friends that took care of Thia when I had to be away, as I wanted to be especially careful for her.”

“As with many people I started getting more into cooking and was painting quite often, but the combination of pregnancy, childbirth and baby-care was already quite an activity by itself. I did commit a lot of the added free time to reading more poetry, watching performances and art. I found it quite hopeful that people were still being creative in such a dismal time. Performance art is quite abstract to conduct at the moment due to the contact restrictions, but there is a theatre group I know that is working on an online piece. They pre-record a performance wherein characters contribute their role via individual recordings that will eventually form the totality of the theatre piece.”


Michelle Garcia Melgar (El Salvador)

Bachelor student Social Sciences – Faculty of Social Sciences and Solvay Business School

Michelle Garcia Melgar

“This is my first year studying at the VUB. Originally I planned to arrive in Brussels at the beginning of January. I wanted to get to know the place, work a bit and learn the language. But then my country went into lockdown and eventually I arrived at the beginning of October. So that was an obstacle for me. I didn’t really get to discover Brussels beforehand and I still really haven’t because we went into lockdown here as well.”

“I got lucky though, I live together with five really nice roommates, who are also all students at the VUB. We have been doing fun activities together and they really try to make me feel at home. I met a couple of really nice people during the few physical lectures I attended. There is not much to do for us right now, but we do try to go on walks and such. I’m willing to wait to get the full-on Brussels experience that I would like to have.”

“When we went into lockdown, I finally was able to spend time with my family, which was really nice”

“As far as school goes, it pretty much feels as if I’m only waking up to do a lecture. I can’t seem to find a routine these days. I wake up late, skip breakfast and go straight for lunch. I do appreciate all that the university does to make these weird times go as smooth as possible. Of course, there are some small things that could be done to make life easier for the students, such as updating their data when necessary. But then again, no one saw a situation like this coming, and I think they are trying their best. It is really good that they offer help for those who need it.”

“Corona also gave me a bit of a break, I am pretty social and used to like being occupied with a lot of activities. When we went into lockdown, I finally was able to spend time with my family, which was really nice.”

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