For 22-year-old Mexican student Miguel Gúzman, 2020 has so far proved to be an exceptional year. He left Mexico in late January for the first time in his life to spend a semester studying at Masaryk University in the heart of Europe, which is something that many Mexican students view as a very prestigious opportunity.
Like many other universities around the world, Masaryk University cancelled all in-person classes in mid-March to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. All lectures and seminars were moved online. One week later, the Czech government declared a state of emergency, closed the borders and, with a few exceptions, imposed an entry ban on foreign travellers. Understandably, many international students started to consider returning home.
“When the state of emergency was first declared, I thought about going back to Mexico, particularly as all flights were cancelled for god knows how long. In the end, I decided to stay. It was my dream to study abroad since secondary school and it took a lot of effort. Although the coronavirus has made everything more complicated, it is still a unique experience for me,” says Miguel, adding that 16 other Mexican students also decided to stay at Masaryk University while only one returned home.
Unexpected benefit: online teaching is more interactive
Miguel is in the last year of his bachelor’s studies at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico (UNAM), one of the largest Mexican universities. “I study actuarial science, which is something of a cross between pure maths and economics. We learn to assess financial risks in insurance and finance using mathematical and statistical methods. It’s quite an unusual field of study and fairly difficult, as we work with theorems, topology and so on, but I really enjoy it,” says Miguel.
This spring semester, Miguel is enrolled at the MU Faculty of Economics and Administration, where he has registered for three classes. “In two of the classes, we have online Zoom lessons every week, four hours per class, so that’s eight hours of video lessons every week. For the third class, we get presentations and homework every week from the lecturer.
While Miguel attended in-person lectures in macroeconomics and econometrics for about a month at the start of the semester, he says that the other students became much more responsive once the teaching moved online. “I’m used to being active in the class, answering questions from teachers and asking my own. In the first month, there were only two of us out of twenty students who would speak up during the lessons. Now that the classes have moved online, everybody joins in the discussion. I think that’s because you don’t have to raise your hand and become the focus of attention of the whole class, and also because you are sitting at home alone rather than being surrounded by other people. It has given everyone the courage to participate, which makes the classes much more dynamic and fun.
Besides the video lessons, students use video conferencing to work on team projects every week. Since he has already completed a similar class in Mexico, Miguel helps his classmates understand the more difficult points in econometrics, while they help him with macroeconomics. The exams at the end of the semester will also be organised online.
Daily routine and hoping for an early end to restrictions
Due to the coronavirus restrictions, Miguel now spends most of his time in his dormitory room and has established a daily routine that he has been following for over a month. After breakfast, he studies from 10 a.m. till 1 p.m. Then after lunch, he spends twenty minutes learning German on the Memrise app and exercises in his room. He usually spends his evenings watching TV series and skyping with other international MUNI students, whom he mostly met during the welcome week.
“Despite all the complications, I’m trying to stay positive. Although I don’t like the restrictions, I think it was very sensible of the Czech Republic to introduce such strict measures so early on. It will certainly reduce the period of self-isolation and social distancing. I was planning to travel through Europe before going home in early July once I’m done with my exams, so we’ll see how that goes. At any rate, I’m happy that I could remain at MUNI because, despite everything, I have been able to experience what I was looking forward to the most – to meet people from all over the world. I’m really happy that I have had this opportunity.