There is a bottle of disinfectant hand gel at the entrance to the ISS building and a leaflet outlining the corona measures hangs there too. The hall where students normally go to study or chat is empty. Plexiglas has been installed between the chairs and desks in the reception area. “This is where we welcome our students who have just arrived in the Netherlands,” communications advisor Sandra Nijhof points out.

Despite the corona measures, the ISS is keen to welcome new students in person. This makes it easier for the staff to explain things and help students find their way around. “Our students come from all over the world and are often not familiar with the Netherlands. We think it’s too blunt to say: ‘Pick up the key to your new room at the reception desk and sort it out yourself’.”

Not all students have arrived yet

Most of the ISS students are international students doing their master’s degree and PhD programmes. “The master’s programme lasts a year and a half, so every year we have a new batch and an old batch,” Nijhof says. There are 124 students from forty countries this academic year and 59 of them have meanwhile arrived in the Netherlands.

Marianne van Dieren from the Admission Office welcomed a student from Rwanda today. In her office, welcome bags are on hand, including a map of The Hague, an ISS face mask and an ISS chocolate bar. “In pre-corona times, we welcomed all the students in one weekend and made a party out of it,” she says. “But now we plan in a welcome chat with each person.”

‘In pre-corona times, we welcomed all the students in one weekend and made a party out of it’

Marianne van Dieren, Admission Office

Half of the students have not yet been able to make the trip to the Netherlands, owing to visa problems or travel bans. And although they can follow online lectures from their homeland for now, the ISS still wants all the students to come to the Netherlands. “Obviously, it is not practical for students to be in different time zones when following lectures. Besides, they usually still live with their families and have a bad internet connection as well,” Van Dieren explains. “They are better able to focus on their studies here.”

Breakfast and lunch catered for

Most students are required to remain in quarantine for ten days after their arrival. But at least they do not have to worry about food. Sandy Kamerling, the owner of the legendary Butterfly Bar on the second floor, makes care packages, e.g., bundles of fresh vegetables and other food for them. She also delivers breakfast and lunch to the students during those first ten days. “This makes them feel at least a little bit welcome.” She also often writes a lovely message on the lunch bags. “We can’t make it easy during a pandemic, but we can make it more fun,” she says with a wink.

The Butterfly Bar is the place where ISS students like to get together and blow off some steam. Now that she has had to close down her bar, Sandy is using the time to revamp it so that it is ‘totally ready for when we are allowed to open again’. Next to the bar, Canadian PhD student Brandon Summer squats down to cut an electricity cable. “Usually, you will find me in the library, but I now have a week off,” he declares. So, he decided to help Sandy. “I can’t go anywhere for a holiday anyway. Besides, it feels great to do something that has nothing to do with my research.”

Another subject

Of the 80 study places in the library, 23 are available nowadays. Library staff member Hans van Werven informs us that thirteen students are studying there today. He warns: “The old batch students are stressing out because they have to hand in their thesis in two weeks’ time.”

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Karishma Shelar had to change her thesis subject due to the pandemic. Image credit: Feba Sukmana

That’s true, confirms master’s student Agrarian Food and Environment Studies Karishma Shelar. Her writing is progressing with ‘ups and downs’, but she hopes to graduate in December. “I am lucky to have been able to attend ‘normal classes’ during the first eight months of my studies,” the Indian student notes. But otherwise, the pandemic has thrown a spanner in the works. She had to cancel her Eurotrip and her thesis is not quite going according to plan either. “Since it was no longer possible to do fieldwork, I had to change the subject of my thesis. It is a bit demotivating, but we have to make do with what we have.”

Mental health

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Chikaodili Arinza Orakwue knows fellow students who had nervous breakdowns and episodes of depression. Image credit: Feba Sukmana

Not far from Karishma, Chikaodili Arinza Orakwue sits. It is also a challenging period for the Nigerian Master’s student. “We have been in a kind of isolation since April, it’s just us and our laptop.” She still has plenty of contact with her friends and fellow students, but unfortunately, according to her, this is not the case for everybody. “I even know some fellow students who went through a nervous breakdown or a depression because of the loneliness.”

In order to address the problems surrounding mental health that students are facing, the ISS is providing the services of a psychologist, amongst other things. The institute reports that this service is used on a regular basis, about three to five students and PhD candidates talk to a psychologist each week. PhD student Mausumi recognises this feeling of loneliness like no other. “Doing a PhD is a lonely path anyway,” she laughs. “But I spoke with colleagues about it and it turns out that almost everyone feels the same way.” Chikaodili: “It always helps to talk to someone, so I just hope that students will do that more often.”

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