DOHA—The first semester for Turkish student Mohamed Dukan at Qatar University was a difficult one. As a new student, he had to adapt to living away from his family in university housing in a foreign country.
Just as he started to settle into his new college life and get to know his roommate, Covid-19 cases soared in Qatar and a complete lockdown was put in place.
“I had to stay in the housing for 24 hours. The same routine was repeated over and over again,” Dukan said. “I was depressed. I felt that I didn’t want to do anything. Some days I couldn’t even get out of bed or attend the online classes.”
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, living in student housing was a way of creating social bonds that eased the feelings of homesickness, especially for new students like Dukan.
Now, with many universities in the Gulf region opting for hybrid or full-time online learning, many aspects of the students’ experiences changed, including the housing.
Mohammed Siddig Magzoob, acting director of Qatar University Student Counselling Centre, says students in general experienced an increased level of anxiety about their health and future because of the pandemic. However, international students in Qatar had additional stressors.
“International students had concerns about their future and whether or not there will be a possibility to travel to see parents in the vacation, while those who traveled were anxious about the possibility of being unable to return to Qatar due to travel restrictions,” Magzoob said.
Unable to Leave the Dormitory
Magzoob also noted a sense of boredom among students as they were unable to leave the dormitory, or even eat out.
As part of the procedures to contain the spread of the virus, Qatar University asked local students to move back with their families, while international students were asked to evacuate. An exception was made for students who were unable to travel back home because of flight restrictions, as well as those who couldn’t continue their online study in their home countries due to poor Internet connections or other reasons, according to Hassan Ali Hassan, head of the Male Students Housing Department at Qatar University.
As a result, occupancy in the housing decreased and students were moved from double to individual rooms. At common spaces like the restaurant and students lounge, tables were rearranged to maintain a safe distance between students.
Health Effects of Staying Indoors
Universities in the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Kuwait have taken similar measures.
Samer Jamil Radwan, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Nizwa, in Oman said that due to the pandemic, most students suffered from anxiety and worrying about the future, like other people in the community.
According to Radwan there are no regular mental support programs targeting students living on-campus, but several awareness activities directed at students in general were held online and the university continued to provide counseling services to those who need it.
During the peak of the pandemic, students were not allowed to receive visitors from outside the residence and were only allowed to leave the dormitory for one hour once weekly to buy their necessary needs.
“I felt down most of the time and wasn’t motivated to work,” said Hamza Kamal, a Ph.D. student at the College of Engineering at Qatar University. “It turned out my symptoms were caused by a vitamin D deficiency due to the lack of sun exposure as I stayed inside most of the time.”
For Some, Positive Outcomes
But staying in student housing during the pandemic was not a negative experience for everyone.
A recent survey from American Campus Communities, a company that owns and manages student housing communities in the United States, found positive academic and social outcomes for students living on or near campus in college housing during the fall semester, even if all of their classes were online. Company officials attributed that finding to the sense of community students felt while living with other students in residences on or near campus.
Mukhtar Abdulaziz, an Algerian student at Qatar University, agrees.
“I felt lonely at first when I moved to an individual room, but because we all live in the housing, we got to meet at the restaurant during meals and at prayer times,” he said. “This gave us an opportunity to interact with colleagues, reduce the feeling of loneliness and occupy our spare time between lectures.”
Maintaining a sense of community was the main challenge for student housing staff at Qatar Foundation, whose Education City complex contains eight Western university campuses and one Qatari graduate institution.
“A big component of the university experience is the in-person interactions with peers, faculty and staff,” said Indee Thotawattage, student life manager at Northwestern University in Qatar. “Many of the international students living in the on-campus residence halls were experiencing isolation and homesickness,” she said.
“A big component of the university experience is the in-person interactions with peers, faculty and staff, Many of the international students living in the on-campus residence halls were experiencing isolation and homesickness.”Indee Thotawattage
Student life manager at Northwestern University in Qatar.
To help students at on-campus housing stay connected, the student housing staff at Qatar Foundation and Qatar University opted for virtual events, such as virtual iftars during Ramadan, online yoga sessions, gaming sessions, and online competitions. (See a related article, “Universities in Qatar Help Students Stay Connected in a Remote-Learning World.”)
Regular Testing for Covid-19
In addition to their efforts to boost mental health of students, some universities, such as Qatar University and Zayed University, in the United Arab Emirates, carry out periodic checks for early detection of the coronavirus among students in the on-campus housing.
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While annoying, Abdulaziz said the tests provided a sense of reassurance to students.
“Carrying out regular Covid-19 tests at the housing provided a sense of being in a safe and healthy environment which allowed us to move around the housing with confidence,” he said.
Now that Qatar has passed the peak of its first wave of the pandemic, restrictions in the country and, in turn, student housing have eased and students have developed awareness on how to move around while keeping safe.
“The unexpected changes were difficult to endure at first,” said Abdul Razzaq Abdullah Shuaib, a student from Ghana at Qatar University. “Now we got used to remote learning and adapted to the precautionary measures with the support of the housing staff, but attending classes on-campus is still the best part of my college experience.”