With the ongoing uncertainty of coronavirus and Brexit, ESN Erasmus and International Exchange Students society have had to relentlessly adapt this academic year. We caught up with Alfie Milnes-Dobbs, the president of the society, about acclimatizing to the current circumstances, what the future looks like for the Erasmus programme and how international students can settle in an isolating time.
What does the society aim to do?
Alfie: We operate in two parts because we represent the EU-wide Erasmus Student network (ESN) on a sectional level in Leeds and we also operate as just the international students society too It’s still a bit uncertain where ESN will find itself after Brexit but, at this time, we still represent the Leeds section of the Erasmus Student Network, while also welcoming any international student or home students looking to go on a study abroad year and learn about cultures. As we are part of a bigger brand and network, we do have some quite concrete pillars and aims of the society which they lay out for us in a framework: being inclusive, welcoming people to new cultures, a big sustainability focus and global citizenship, to name a few. Generally, we welcome students to the English culture and give students going abroad a chance to meet people from the country they’re about to go to.
You mentioned that one of the big parts of the society is making people feel comfortable and helping them settle. With most things taking place online this year, how has it been for the society?
Alfie: I won’t lie, it’s been mega tough, as I’m sure it’s been for any society president at the moment. It’s just not normal, it’s new territory. For instance, one of the main things which affects us is that we’re an international society and no-one is travelling right now. We had 416 members in the 2019/2020 academic year and this year we only have 78 members active on the Facebook group. For those who have joined, we’ve tried our best to switch to the online format, doing more non-traditional stuff. For example, in the first semester we ran an online treasure hunt around leeds: students coming to Leeds could pick up the clues on Facebook and go round the city to find landmarks and learn more about Leeds. We’ve also tried to do the typical online events- it has been tough getting people to come. We did quizzes, film nights and we even partnered up with other ESN sections, like ESN Newcastle. But the turnout is very low, which is in part due to lower numbers and in part due to people not finding online events that fun. People are a bit Zoom’ed out or Team’ed out at the moment. It’s tough, right? But we’re getting there.
What does the future look like for the Erasmus programme in light of Brexit?
Alfie: It’s off the cards now. I don’t think it means that students won’t be able to travel, but it won’t be in a way that EU/ UK students will get paid to travel, as is the case now.
What does this mean for students and universities- is it a big loss?
Alfie: It’s a huge loss. I was an Erasmus student, I went to Copenhagen and had the best 9 months ever. It was such an enriching experience! I gained so much confidence, I met so many cool people from all over the world and I think, fundamentally, it has helped with my coming of age story: it was a huge challenge that’s made me develop so much personally. I don’t come from a particularly well-off family; I wouldn’t have been able to do that without the support of Erasmus, so I think its a real shame that taking Erasmus away means that some students can’t do that in the future. Answering that on a second part, regarding the future of the society and the future of international students in Leeds, I think (more optimistically) it won’t mark a massive change for the society. I think we’ll still attract a massive amount of students: Leeds is such a great student city and I think with the University as a whole, with LUU being one of the best unions, I don’t think we’ll have fewer international students going forward. I think the future of the society is still strong and we will have the same amount of students but it will be just an international student society rather than an Erasmus one.
Finally do you have any tips for international or Erasmus students feeling isolated during the second national lockdown of the academic year?
Alfie: For one, whilst it is winter, the lockdown at the moment is not restrictive in terms of going outside or exercising. I think that plays a huge part in the way I deal with things: getting out the house, going for a walk or, if you can get your hands on a cheap bike, maybe on Facebook Marketplace or something, going for a cycle. What’s great about Leeds is we’re equidistant to the city or the Dales- you can get out of Leeds so fast on a bike. You could visit the Dales, go to Eccup Reservoir or Ilkley Moor on a sunny winter day; maybe towards the spring we’ll get some nicer weather. I think it’s also really easy to think you’re the only person feeling isolated but it’s really important to feel comfortable in the fact that almost every person our age feels this way. Don’t feel like you’re the only person. I think the pressure to be productive can be quite a harmful thing but if you can muster up some energy to maybe take an online course in between deadlines, I think that’s great. There’s so many societies at Leeds you can get involved with. If you can do that: fantastic. If not, don’t give yourself a hard time about it! If you can just get out of bed and have something to eat, that’s good enough during this time, so don’t feel like you have to do so much. I think just take comfort in the fact that everyones in a similar situation.