As COVID-19 precautionary measures require students to remain isolated in their rooms, QF’s student housing staff and partner universities are coming up with new ways to maintain a sense of community
In March, when university students at Qatar Foundation were on their spring break, Jeta Kreka, an international student from Albania living in student housing at Education City, decided to use the week off to stay indoors.
She wanted to relax in her room, but little did she know that the COVID-19 pandemic would herald a lockdown that meant she would have to stay indoors for several months.
“Many of us had decided to settle down in our rooms after the mid-term exams and get prepared for the second half of the semester, but what we didn’t know was that this situation was awaiting us on the other side,” said Kreka, a freshman at Georgetown University in Qatar (GU-Q), a partner university of Qatar Foundation (QF).
As universities were closed and flights suspended, many international students found themselves having no option but to remain on campus. While most educational institutes around the world requested all resident students to vacate campus housing, QF has allowed students to continue living on campus if they choose to, even if flights to their home country were available.
Kreka decided to stay in Qatar over the summer as traveling wouldn’t only put her at risk of exposure to the virus, but also her family in Albania, which includes her grandmother and a brother who suffers from asthma.
It has been quite frustrating and hard over the past four months of staying alone in one single room, but if I were to go back to the start of this, I think I would make the same decision to stay in Qatar
“It has been quite frustrating and hard over the past four months of staying alone in one single room, but if I were to go back to the start of this, I think I would make the same decision to stay in Qatar,” said Kreka.
Community coming together in hard times
Realizing the mental and emotional stress on-campus students would go through during the pandemic, especially those who could not financially pay for summer housing, QF waived the housing fees for all residents staying on campus during this time.
Our focus has really been on how we can support the students best, and make sure that their needs are taken care of and that they are feeling safe, comfortable, and secure so they can focus on their academics
“Our focus has really been on how we can support the students best, and make sure that their needs are taken care of and that they are feeling safe, comfortable, and secure so they can focus on their academics,” said Dr. Matthew Nelson, Head of Student Residence Life at QF.
About 85 percent of the students staying on-campus are international students, many of whom were unable to return to their home country due to travel restrictions, which Nelson says led to QF making the necessary arrangements for their stay.
Student housing staff also collaborated with QF’s partner universities to start a pantry in each of Education City’s student housing complexes, where all residents could obtain food, grocery, and other essential items free of charge.
“The idea was that students can get basic supplies within their housing so they don’t have to go out for groceries, or take a taxi or anything that might expose them to the virus,” said Basit Iqbal, Residence Life Supervisor at QF.
Students who have remained at Education City are currently also provided with three meals a day free of cost, regular supplies of masks and sanitizers, and shuttles to nearby Lulu hypermarket, as well as to the airport if they decide to leave.
I think it’s all about how QF wants the residents to feel they are safe, and they are part of a community
The main challenge that the QF student housing staff, and student affairs staff at partner universities, had to resolve was how to maintain a sense of community when people are unable to physically meet each other or gather in communal spaces.
The solution was to host virtual events to keep the student community connected, such as through virtual iftars during Ramadan, online yoga sessions and gaming sessions, and regular check-ins through WhatsApp and emails.
“Human beings are social animals, and we need company. We need to feel supported, and support others, and without that we don’t really have much. Especially at times when you are supposed to be socially isolated, we need to stay united to move forward,” said Ameni Abida, a student at QF partner university UCL Qatar and a QF Student Housing resident. “It is something to be grateful for and shouldn’t be taken for granted.”
Community Development Advisors (CDA) — student employees responsible for housing affairs — have been ensuring they do regular one-on-one check-ins with all residents to ensure any issues or challenges can be communicated to the housing staff and taken care of.
And Moom Thahinah, a Northwestern University in Qatar (NU-Q) student who serves as a CDA for female student housing, says she can’t think of single occasion when a resident requested any kind of support or a daily essential item that wasn’t provided.
“I think it’s all about how QF wants the residents to feel they are safe, and they are part of a community,” said Thahinah.
“With every email that we receive from QF Student Housing, the first or last line of the email is ‘Know that you are part of the family and we care for you’. It might be formality but reading that makes you feel that you are taken care of.”