Campus

Campus life in the era of Covid-19: a year of adapting, serving the community and reinventing yourself

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The university saw some drastic changes between March 2020 and March 2021, altering its practices and its environment to cope with the global pandemic. From remote classes to new hygiene rules and the reinvention of on-campus life, students and student life personnel tell us about a very unusual year as they await better days.

Illustration de la vie étudiante confinée au printemps 2020 par Marius Buet, des Beaux-Arts de Paris

An illustration of student life in quarantine during the spring of 2020 by Marius Buet, a student at Beaux-Arts de Paris

From the initial quarantine to the start of the 2020-2021 academic year

In March 2020 the university was holding its breath, preparing for a major change in its operations but not quite believing it would happen. Once French President Macron made his announcement on March 12, the instructional continuity plans came into effect. The doors to classrooms, laboratories and practicum areas and university offices were all closed. Daily schedules were rearranged and apps like Teams, Gotomeeting, Zoom and Discord gradually became widespread and part of the university’s daily vocabulary. Each component school adopted the solutions it found most appropriate for teaching and supplied faculty members with software licenses, equipment and resources. At the same time, PSL’s staff training facility established a program to help faculty members adapt their courses to the new remote teaching formats and keep track of their students.

Séminaire de recherche sur ZOOM

Student life isn’t just an added benefit alongside classes and learning. It’s an essential part of the university, helping students maintain their equilibrium by socializing, relaxing and enjoying themselves through concrete, fulfilling projects. Florence Benoît-Moreau

“During the first few weeks and months, the urgent task was to maintain educational continuity,” says Florence Benoît-Moreau, Vice President for Student Life and Social Responsibility. “Student life activities were reorganized around maintaining contact with students via weekly newsletters and social and digital support funds that were open to students from every PSL school. When the academic year began in the fall, we hoped that organizations could resume their activities, but in the end unfortunately they were very restricted throughout the year. During that period that entire PSL community came to the very sharp realization that student life isn’t just an added benefit alongside classes and learning. It’s an essential part of the university, helping students maintain their equilibrium by socializing, relaxing and enjoying themselves through concrete, fulfilling projects. This experience will have a positive impact in terms of the way we think about programs and define priorities.”

Once the quarantine was announced, PSL’s schools very quickly realized there was an urgent need to maintain links with the student community and aid students who found themselves in difficult straits. The first task was to repatriate French students doing internships or studying abroad and assist international students enrolled in PSL programs. Special support programs were put together for students facing financial, psychological, medical or other issues. Some of those programs were already in place, while others were created specifically for the pandemic and will be maintained once the crisis is over. Some students, for example, were able to draw on emergency funds to pay a portion of their rent, while vouchers for various services were distributed to needy students and new grants and equipment loans helped them cover the cost of computers and other equipment. In addition, an emergency social and digital support fund was established in July 2020 to support all PSL students getting ready to return to school in the fall.

A unique start to the academic year

Once the initial lockdown was lifted, the registrar’s office and the logistics and student life offices at each PSL school focused on collectively getting ready for the 2020-2021 academic year. Although the heads of PSL’s various schools and the university’s president shared a desire to allow every student to return to in-person classes, they had to be prepared for every eventuality. The summer was put to good use: classrooms were equipped with added computer equipment, the faculty training offered through the in-house PSL School was enhanced and each school set up appropriate sanitary protocols to ensure that students could return to campus in an optimal environment.

At the same time, student services expanding their offerings for students. The launch of the new PSL student health service was moved up to September.

Says Benoît-Moreau, “We already had a taskforce in place that had been working for some time on setting up a joint preventive health service for students from across PSL. The pandemic prompted us to speed up the launch and establish an additional service for remote consultations. The Covid crisis showed there was a need for psychological support services for students that was undoubtedly exacerbated by the pandemic. But it’s an essential service for students regardless, since university is a time of change, when you’re building your life and going in a new direction, and that can make young people vulnerable.”

In additional to traditional consultations with a physician, nurse or psychologist at two locations on campus, the new student health service offers the option of remote consultations with more than 30 medical specialists seven days a week, with extended hours. Although that unique service proved especially valuable during the pandemic, it will be maintained in the coming years.

Meet and Greet 2020

The PSL Welcome Desk, which offers orientation services to international students, also beefed up its offerings. International students were among the communities most adversely affected by the pandemic. With flights cancelled and visas suspended, the crisis significantly added to the bureaucratic difficulties faced by campus newcomers. To help students manage these tasks remotely and provide support to students before they arrived, PSL’s Welcome Desk set up an online platform. Once they were in France, a buddy program helped international students get off to a smooth start and provided an essential resource for understanding the health measures and protocols in place. Despite the Covid crisis and an estimated 20% drop in the number of student visas issued in France (as of October 31, 2020), international students made up 22% of PSL’s academic programs when classes resumed in September. That’s a major success, just months after those students received their official invitation to France!

So, with everyone wearing masks, frequently washing their hands and complying with classroom distancing rules, instructions from Covid advisors and sanitary protocols, PSL students returned to school in September.
“It was a real pleasure to return to in-person classes in September and that had a major impact on the rest of the year,” says Juliette, a CPES student. “I was able to meet new people and make new friends. Ultimately those friendships were really strengthened during the quarantine, because we were counting on each other to provide mutual support! We called each other before and after class, as if we were spending time at the coffee shop, and gradually we arranged things so we could do some classes together, at my place or someone else’s. That made us closer friends and it was a big help.”
Each school appointed teams of Covid advisors. They were tasked with advising and guiding students through the pandemic’s ups and downs, and with their help, on-campus PCR tests were offered to students beginning in October in partnership with a laboratory.

Reinventing student organizations and activities

The usual annual events had to be completely revamped, while all-new events emerged out of our talks via Teams (so it’s good for something!).

So unlike in March 2020, research and teaching activities, alternating between in-person and remote learning, were able to resume until the quarantine was reimposed in October. In January 2021, thanks to the efforts of Alain Fuchs and the heads of each PSL school, first-year bachelor’s degree students were gradually given the green light to return to university classrooms. Eventually, by February 8, all students at every level were able to attend a portion of their classes in person for one day a week, with classrooms limited to 20% capacity.

But student organizations had a very different experience. Beginning in September, as the pandemic began in surge again, most of the major regular events on the student life calendar had to be revised or cancelled completely.

Anne Boisjot is Events co-chair at the new office for the PSL Student Union, PSL’s student council. “I came into my position as Events co-chair in May 2020, shortly after the Garden Party had been cancelled and ThinkWeek had to go online,” she says. “When the new academic year started in September, we were more ready than ever to get the organization’s events going again. But very quickly, as the health situation deteriorated, we found ourselves in the same situation as in the previous lockdown. We went through every phase: disappointed and frustrated at first, then tired and no longer motivated. We felt powerless and overwhelmed by what was happening. We couldn’t meet with the Student Union members and PSL students and we weren’t able to fulfill our mandate and gain experience with the organization. Fortunately, that dry period helped us regain our ability to get inspired and invent new things. Collectively we were able to see the positive side of this very unusual and uncertain situation. So the usual annual events had to be completely revamped, while all-new events emerged out of our talks via Teams (so it’s good for something!). That’s how we came up with the online Pub Quizzes, an Advent Calendar with several events in December and La Castagne, a week of competitions between PSL schools. We transformed Les Cousinades into a scavenger hunt in the streets of Paris, and the Agora into a digital guide that really showcased the wealth of PSL’s organizational network.”

La castagne cr Université PSL

A drawing submitted by a CPES student in response to a PSL Student Union contest designed to enliven PSL student life.

For Yann, an engineering student at Mines ParisTech – PSL who organized the first TEDxPSL event in 2020, the experience was similar.
“This year brought a lot of twists and turns, to say the least. In the winter of 2020 we were gearing up to organize the first TEDxPSL event, which was scheduled for May. Obviously that didn’t happen, and the vagaries of the pandemic forced us to keep things in suspense for a little while longer. Some students had to leave the organization because they were taking their gap year on the other side of the world, while other students joined us along the way, and we were constantly having to revise our goals based on the government’s latest announcements. But we believed it would happen and ultimately it taught us to be extremely flexible!”

We wanted to do something to help our classmates. Having been through the lockdown, we’d already seen how difficult it was for some people; helping out was an obvious step. We didn’t have to be asked twice.

And students proved they were not only flexible, but community-minded. Over the course of the year, the solidarity among students on campus at every level was more apparent and tangible than ever. As early as the spring of 2020, the student entrepreneurs in the PSL Pépite program began using their projects and start-ups to come to the aid of caregivers and families. Some engineering students put their know-how to work on behalf of global initiatives to compile data on the disease, while others printed 3D face shields for caregivers – and that’s not to mention the many students who volunteered their time for the Nightline helpline and other projects. One example is the PSL – Dauphine chapter of Fleur de Bitume, a charitable organization, which had to cancel some of its activities in the spring but was able to make a fresh start when classes resumed in the fall, despite having to recruit new members remotely. For Juliette, Ethel and Camille, the fact that it was “a charity organization that takes concrete action” helped attract new members, and once they got past the disappointment of not being able to hold the traditional recruiting night event at a bar, the organization marked a successful start to the academic year. Alongside the PSL Student Union and the Chemistry Student Council, Fleur de Bitume stepped up on behalf of the PSL student community over the past winter by partnering with Linkee, a community organization, to distribute food to PSL students.
“We wanted to do something to help our classmates. Having been through the lockdown, we’d already seen how difficult it was for some people; helping out was an obvious step. We didn’t have to be asked twice,” says Camille.

Fleurs de Bitume Dauphine - PSL

The group distributed more than 200 food baskets during the first campaign in late February, and is planning events every two weeks on campus. Fleur de Bitume is also working on organizing a mobile food distribution event in April and staffing a new office for the organization beginning in the fall of 2021.
Despite the difficulties and the necessary adjustments, the outlook is gradually looking brighter and a mask-free start to the 2021-2022 school year is on everyone’s mind. This atypical academic year may have disrupted campus life, but ironically it’s also helped to strengthen ties, generate a spirit of solidarity and shake up old habits for the better.