Written by international student tutors Markus Sairanen and Ella Kovanen
Every year, dozens of international students begin their studies in international master’s degree programmes at the UEF Law School. Each incoming student is welcomed by their student tutors: peer students who have volunteered to assist them in beginning their studies, settling in, and finding their place in the university community. Usually, the role of the student-tutor involves communicating information, advising on practical matters, showing the students around the campus, and introducing them to the other students. However, the past year has been different—this blog explains to you how.
It has now been over a year since the Covid-19 pandemic began. Spring 2020 was a time of uncertainty where most plans had the word if in them. The uncertainty was also present when planning international tutoring and we had to prepare for different types of scenarios: the best-case scenario being that everything would be back to normal by autumn and the worst-case being that Finland would be in full lockdown. As time passed, it became clear that the latter scenario was closer to reality. Although the country was not entirely in lockdown, meeting in person was discouraged and studying took mostly place remotely. This also had its implications for international student tutoring.
New ways of international tutoring
Once the autumn semester began, we tutors had to quickly adapt to the new situation. Most of the international students were not staying in Joensuu, either due to travel restrictions or because teaching would be held online. The students were scattered all around the world with all continents represented. Consequently, the tutoring had to take place almost entirely online. Luckily, online platforms such as Zoom, Teams and WhatsApp were available. As usual, we tutors first introduced ourselves to the tutees by email. The tutees were encouraged to keep in touch with us either by email or through WhatsApp. The biggest change in tutoring was the increased importance of webinars. The amount of video-conference tutoring and their popularity amongst the tutees reached their peak during the pandemic.
Despite the challenges, some international students were able to stay in Finland. Usually, one of the most important tasks of the international student tutor is to help students with relocating to Joensuu. This involves collecting the student’s apartment keys in advance, meeting them at the train station and guiding them to their apartment. However, this year there was a new aspect to think about – the quarantine. People arriving in Finland were, and still are, required to self-isolate themselves for approximately two weeks after their arrival. This included the incoming international students, who had to stay in isolation once they arrived in Joensuu–without visiting a grocery store. As packing two weeks’ groceries in one’s luggage would have been impractical, the tutors were asked to fetch some groceries in advance. Usually, the tutee provided a grocery list a few days before arrival, and the tutor bought the groceries and delivered them to the student’s apartment or the train station once they arrived. Kindly the University helped with this, compensating travel expenses, and offering pre-purchased grocery bags.
Both new and old issues
Tutoring is always about avoiding and solving challenges that are caused by the new situation that the tutees find themselves in. The Covid 19-pandemic has changed, at least temporarily, the way students study and socialize, which has also given rise to new challenges. Us tutors had the privilege to be on the ‘front-line’ in finding solutions and addressing these challenges.
A surprising challenge that came up was finding a suitable time for tutoring sessions. Since students are participating from all over the world, finding a suitable time for the online sessions and events was more difficult than usual. It was impossible to find a time that is socially acceptable for everyone. The solution was twofold. Firstly, tutoring sessions were scheduled with the help of online surveys to find a time that was suitable for as many as possible. Secondly, the sessions were recorded and made available online. This way students are not obligated to attend an event that might be in the middle of the night in their time zone.
Although we tutors faced several new problems, many of the traditional problems became less commonplace. Most notably, aiding with the practicalities of relocating to Joensuu took up less of the tutors’ time. Nevertheless, the problems faced by the tutees that decided to relocate had new twists. For instance, tutors are often asked to help in getting access to the internet. During the pandemic, this became even more challenging for the incoming students as they were in quarantine.
Loneliness and lack of community
The most difficult problem the tutors faced was addressing the feeling of loneliness and lack of community that was caused by social distancing and travel restrictions. Since most international students studied from abroad, connections to their peers and the university were at risk of remaining underdeveloped. For instance, a student who had decided to relocate to Finland commented that although distance learning and online lectures had their benefits, the lack of student interaction present in normal times was difficult. The student missed the informal chats between the lectures and talking about assignments or making weekend plans. Group discussions during the lectures provided an opportunity to socialize, but according to her, it felt ‘a bit bittersweet to think about how different the student life could have been if we were not in this situation — meeting new people, going out together in the evening and just having fun.’
We tutors attempted to address these issues by organizing informal online events. Additionally, several events were organized by the University and the Law School. It was also important that students felt that they could always contact their tutors and the UEF staff. We made sure that the students could always contact us by email or by sending a message. Thus, some means to address the feeling of loneliness and the lack of community were available. However, it must be admitted that face-to-face interaction could not be entirely replaced by online interaction. Despite the circumstances, at least those students who stayed in Joensuu managed to find some company: from their flatmates, peer students, and online. Furthermore, according to one student relocating to Joensuu was worth the effort despite the lack of active student life. The restrictions in place were less stringent than elsewhere which allowed them to experience different activities.
The tutor’s view and the future
The past year as a student tutor has been both taxing and rewarding. Tutoring takes a lot of hours when the new students arrive at the beginning of the semester. It involves a lot of information gathering, writing dozens of emails, answering countless questions, and organizing several meetings. The effort put in is rewarded by having a unique opportunity to meet and discuss with people from all over the world. Furthermore, the experience develops intercultural competencies and language, communication, and organization skills. Especially this year, online tutoring has taught all tutors how to organize and hold a webinar and communicate effectively online. Most importantly, tutoring has been a fun and gratifying experience even in these exceptional times.
Conventional wisdom has it that after a crisis there is no return to the old. The pandemic will certainly influence how international student tutoring is organised in the future. Tutoring on online platforms will probably stay popular. Especially webinars are likely to stay popular as the threshold of organising and participating in online events has lowered. Secondly, the problem of the social and mental well-being of students has now been brought up and will probably gain more attention than in the past in the context of tutoring. In any case, the thing that we tutors most look forward to is the return of in-person tutoring, which will certainly make a return sooner or later.
Special thanks to NOMPEL programme students Elisabeth and Leonie for sharing their thoughts on how the pandemic has affected their studies and student life.