Amid pandemic’s isolation, French students turn to each other for support

It’s a Wednesday night, just after sunset. On a remote street hidden from view, hundreds of college students stand in a line that snakes around the block, waiting to collect bags of donated food. Volunteers meander through the crowd offering hot tea, as a jazz band from the Paris Conservatory of Music plays to boost morale.

Myriam and Deborah, friends from Marseille, have been waiting in below-freezing temperatures for a half-hour with another half-hour to go, but they say it’s worth it. “I moved to Paris for school and had all these initial expenses, and then it was impossible to find a part-time job because of the pandemic,” says Myriam, a first-year law student who has been living off a meager internship. “It’s so difficult.”

“I haven’t attended my online classes since October,” says Deborah, a graduate student in philosophy. “I’m giving myself until next week to get back on track. I really don’t want to drop out.”

Since France’s first lockdown nearly one year ago, university campuses have been shuttered and students have been limited to full-time online learning. Unlike other schools here, where in-person teaching opened up this past fall, university students have been left behind.

The social and academic isolation of online learning is only one consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic for college students. Many have lost part-time jobs and are struggling to pay rent, leading to a newfound financial uncertainty. Others have moved home or dropped out of school. A cluster of recent suicide attempts has highlighted the urgent need for more mental health and financial support for students.

The French government allowed in-person teaching to begin on a limited basis in late January and has implemented a handful of initiatives to support students financially. But students say these offers are mere “bread crumbs” and don’t begin to scratch the surface of the damage wreaked by the pandemic. They’re not waiting for top-down directives. Instead students are banding together, creating support groups and services in order to find solutions and be heard.

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“We feel forgotten by the system but moreover, we feel sacrificed,” says Jean Robert, a third-year political science student in Montpellier and member of the student movement Étudiants Fantômes – “ghost students.” “We don’t understand why we can’t go to class when all other levels can, as if we’re the cause of COVID-19 cases exploding across the country because we aren’t behaving well. It’s not too late to let us go back to class, but now we also need psychological and financial support.”

“Completely demoralized”

Students across the country have gone public about their distress – from financial woes to social isolation.

COVID-19 restrictions have resulted in students losing their jobs babysitting or in restaurants, cutting their individual incomes by several hundred euros per month, which they rely on for food, rent, or necessities. French companies – dealing with their own pandemic-caused setbacks – are struggling to integrate students into internship programs, which in turn sows uncertainty about students’ future. 

Dropout rates have been hard to calculate officially, but students themselves note a drop in motivation as classes continue in front of a screen. First-year students, who may have arrived on campus just as lockdowns went into effect, have struggled to find community. In January, two students attempted suicide at their student housing in Lyon, and a student in Paris took her life after telling friends of her social and academic isolation.

“I have students who are far from home, stuck in tiny apartments, and can’t find the motivation to work or even get up in the morning,” says Anne Delaigue, a psychotherapist who treats doctoral students at the Polytechnic Institute of Paris. “They’re completely demoralized, worried, and isolated, which translates into a sense of doubt about their overall abilities. It’s extremely difficult to work when you’re totally unstimulated.”

University professors and student groups have sounded the alarm about a rising student crisis since the fall. But it came to a head last month when Frédérique Vidal, France’s minister of higher education, hinted that the reason university campuses had remained closed was due to student irresponsibility. During a visit to a Paris university, Ms. Vidal said that COVID-19 was being spread by le brassage – students meeting one another in cafes or in the school cafeteria.

The comments caused a firestorm. A Montpellier student wrote an open letter to the minister in consternation and another created the “Étudiants Fantômes” Twitter hashtag. In the space of one day, the hashtag had been tweeted more than 70,000 times by students demanding the government do more.

The French government has responded to the growing crisis with a handful of measures. Since Jan. 25, students can purchase two meals per day at college cafeterias for €1 each. They now have the option of returning to class one day per week. And starting Feb. 1, they are being offered a “psy check,” which allows for three free 45-minute sessions with a psychotherapist.

But student groups say the measures don’t address the deeper impact the pandemic has had on college students, and that the government’s piecemeal measures aren’t enough. A student in Metz posted a photo of his meager €1 state-funded meal on Twitter in rebuttal, while professionals say the “psy check” doesn’t make up for the dearth of available mental health services. A recent study by the nonprofit listening hotline Nightline France showed that there was only one university psychologist available per 30,000 students in France. 

“Some students are waiting four to six months to get an appointment with a therapist,” says Ms. Delaigue. “It’s unbearable, especially for those in a state of crisis.”

“There is no shame in asking for help”

For starters, student groups are fighting to destigmatize mental health problems and show the importance of reaching out to others to maintain social links. The Étudiants Fantômes movement is positioning itself to become a proper nonprofit, which will include a mental health arm. And Nightline France has created a website dedicated to student resources, from suicide prevention hotlines to addiction services. 

“College students were already a vulnerable population before the pandemic, and their particular anxieties and difficulties will exist after the pandemic is over,” says Florian Tirana, a college student and the president of Nightline France. “Our overall goal is to remove the taboo surrounding mental health, and offer the right information so this topic becomes normalized and something we can talk about freely.”

Aid groups are also trying to reduce the stigma about asking for financial help. Anti-food-waste program Linkee sets up distribution stations close to college campuses five days a week, sometimes three times per day, providing an estimated 25,000 meals per week to college students in need.

“Many of these students are not used to asking for this type of aid and have never had to take handouts,” says Alexis Carer, a press representative for Linkee. “We want our food donations to happen in the best circumstances, to show there is no shame in asking for help.”

Campuses around the country have joined the effort. A corner room within the hallways of the University of Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris holds bags of food donations, which students can sign up to take home. It’s bringing students back onto campus, as classes here slowly get underway. Universities are only allowed to operate at 20% capacity and most students are only coming for one class per week. But many are braving regional trains, early waking hours, and even COVID-19 to find social interaction once again.

“Now, for many of my students it’s not mandatory to come back to class, but they’re coming anyway,” says Nancy Nottingham, an adjunct professor in business English at Sorbonne Nouvelle, who has been teaching online classes for the past three months. “They’ve missed being together and with their teachers.”

“I live alone and don’t have family here; I’ve been studying at home for the past three months without much social contact,” says Tianyi, a Chinese graduate student in applied foreign languages. “It’s really helpful to be able to come back to class. I really appreciate the gesture. We’re kind of risking our lives by being here, but I feel that it’s worth it.”

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