Guidance in uncertain times

15 June 2020

Picture of Liselott in a field of canola.

“Of course it's hard, because it’s impossible to give the students any clear answers right now, “ says Liselott Dominicus, study counsellor for international master students in information technology.

In a time in which new guidelines and decisions are changing on a daily basis, how does one go about advising students? Study counsellor Liselott Dominicus van den Bussche encounters many students who are facing an uncertain autumn.

“Often all I can say is ‘keep calm and carry on’.”

In the era of the pandemic, being a student is a challenge in itself, entailing distance education and uncertainty about exams and summative assessments. International students face even more concerns. As a study counsellor at the Department of Information Technology, Liselott Dominicus is on the front lines when it comes to answering the IT students' questions, usually via Zoom.

“For the first ten minutes, the international IT students want to talk about the coronavirus and share their experiences and what people are thinking in their home countries, which are still on lock-down. They also have some concerns. The international students stay at home, period. Even now that society is opening back up, they don’t go outside their front door unless they have to go shopping.”

Still, Liselott Dominicus tries to encourage them to go outside and gaze at the beautiful canola fields, an activity that was documented on social media in photos of the international students standing amid Flogsta's golden crops. At the same time, many of the international students ask what Swedes are thinking, and what their reasoning is about the virus and the risk of infection. Many find it very strange that people are out about and interacting in close proximity to each other. For Liselott Dominicus, it is difficult to explain and account for different behaviours, but she usually says that Swedes are also quite confused.

“What are we meant to do? You're scared, but at the same time you want to be able to live your life somehow. We also think differently in different families: some venture out but are very careful, while others want to be really close to other people. Our society encompasses the entire spectrum. When I tell them that, it often elicits very nice conversations with the students I encounter in connection with this issue.”

A wide range of countries

The students that Liselott Dominicus advises are all enrolled in one of the international Master's programmes at the Department of Information Technology. The vast majority come from countries such as Greece, Germany, India, Pakistan, Iran, China and Colombia.

“We have students who have really gone crazy because many of them have families, like a wife and kids, in their home countries. Some have worked for nearly five years and struggled to raise the money to cover their tuition fees and living costs in Sweden. Most of the time, it's the man who's left his home and pinned his hopes on getting a Master’s in the West. They are often very young, and if you come from Bangladesh or Pakistan, the social security systems in those countries don’t take care of people like ours does in Sweden. If things happen on the home front, it's serious. That makes it very easy to panic. And you can't go home because there’s a lock-down in place.”

While the students are in close contact with their family and friends in their home country as they strive to find solutions, they are quite isolated in Sweden, says Liselott Dominicus. This leads to both financial problems and psychological strain, and all the while the students must maintain their academic performance.

As a study counsellor, Liselott Dominicus’ foremost task is to listen and try to help sort out the students' thoughts by identifying what is most urgent.

“We have to figure it out based on what I’m familiar with, for example in questions about the Swedish Migration Agency or about how one can test out of a course component. The conversation often ends with the student having decided what to investigate further in order to find a way to deal with their situation.”

Postponed course components cause concern

The requirements for staying in Sweden are tied to being enrolled in and completing a certain number of courses. But the requirements for obtaining a residence permit a relatively low: 15 credits in the first year and 22.5 credits in the second year. However, during the ongoing pandemic, the regulations for international students who are already in Sweden have become much more difficult to navigate. Parts of the education programme may have been shifted to the next academic year, which means that foreign students may need to extend their residence permits in order to complete their studies.

At the same time, it is often a difficult transition to come as a student to a foreign country to begin with, which can also cause the student to fall behind.

"As long as you can show that you have adhered to your study plan and conducted full-time studies with passing grades, there is a good chance that you will have your stay extended," says Liselott Dominicus. "But if you have missed all or most of the courses with compulsory parts, then you need to finish these. This while you have to read new courses full-time in accordance with your study plan in order not to have to retake them as well. And that's where things start to get tough timewise.”

At the end of May, another obstacle arose for the international students: The Swedish Migration Agency's regulations do not grant residence permits if the majority of the autumn semester's studies will be conducted remotely, and this rule applies to both first-time and extension applications, according to their website.

“In terms of the Disciplinary Domain of Science and Technology, it’s been decided that certain international programmes will be conducted remotely throughout Period One (31 August to 25 October, eds. note). This means that for half the term, the majority of teaching will not be conducted on campus. So the international students will not be granted a residence permit for Period One.” *(Please note that new information on the issue came on 16 June, 2020 - see footnote.)

Campus teaching postponed

As soon as the Swedish Migration Agency had made its announcement, Liselott Dominicus' inbox was flooded with e-mails from the international IT students. She had to explain that the starting point of this rule is the reason for the residence permits: to pursue studies here. If you do not need to be in Sweden and are instead studying remotely, you should not be granted a residence permit, either. Although the Swedish Migration Agency has now broadened this approach somewhat, the university's decision of 9 June remains in place: the vast majority of on-campus teaching will not start until Period Two, i.e. 26 October to 17 January.

Liselott Dominicus points out that the situation is even trickier for current international students. Although in theory they may show up on campus, it is very possible that they will not even be offered on-campus studies. The reason is that many of them are taking a mix of courses in grades one and two, and the teaching form for each course - digital or on-campus - has yet to be decided. At the same time, these students must also apply for an extension of their residence permits.

“As a civil servant, where do I end up in all of this? After all, I’m the one who writes all the letters with study plans for the international Master's programmes at our department, based on which the Swedish Migration Agency then makes assessments and takes external decisions. And we do not yet know what the final word will be, or even how the pandemic will develop and what will happen then. As a study counsellor, I’m being forced to take a trial and error approach to people's futures. It all depends on what I write, on what point of view the Swedish Migration Agency takes, and on what Uppsala University does,” says Liselott Dominicus. She adds,

“Of course it's hard, because it’s impossible to give the students any clear answers right now. The only thing I can say is that a lot of people are working to solve this – and we just have to remember to breathe.”

*Please note that since the article was written, a new notification arrived on 16 June, 2020: "The interpretation of the Swedish Migration Agency’s rules has changed and our students can come as early as August and our existing students can get a residence permit," says Liselott Dominicus.