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For students

When we met at the beginning of the year the Rīga Stradiņš University International Student Association (RSU ISA) had big plans for the coming year. The current global crisis and changes to the study process have naturally affected the association. ISA President Hannah Katharina Schöberl and Head of Academic Affairs Max Zwartjes talk about how the changes have affected them on both a personal level, and as representatives for the international student body at RSU.

What is studying like for you personally at the moment?

Hannah Katharina Schöberl: I feel quite OK with studying remotely. It is a little bit more difficult to know what knowledge level you're on, because you can't compare yourself to your groupmates. We submit papers and receive grades even during shorter Zoom discussions, but it's harder to see if you're missing information in some field. Otherwise the courses I've had so far have been well-organised. My B-course takes place at the Medical Education Technology Centre (METC) and the teacher there does all the manipulations live. Depending on the case, we suggest what she should do and then she performs the procedure for us, like using a defibrillator and administering drugs.

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There are some teachers who have really thought about how students can take part in the practical side of our studies.

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Max Zwartjes: I feel similar. Luckily we're studying medicine, which is theory-heavy anyway. We usually do the practical stuff over the summer in our home countries. The one thing that we don't get to do is see patients. That's the biggest difference. Last friday, during my B-course in Internal Medicine, Prof. Artem Kalinin, who's the Head of echocardiography at Gaiļezers (Riga East University Hospital), managed to show us what he's doing now via Zoom. His daily life is very different because he's dealing directly with coronavirus patients.

It's been good to gain insight into what doctors' lives are like right now.

You said that you usually do your practical placements during the summers. Are these plans going ahead? Do you have anything lined up for yourselves?

Hannah: I have an internship in Bavaria that has not been cancelled so far, so I'm still planning to work in anaesthesia for four weeks. 

Max: It's tricky for me at the moment, because I was supposed to do a clinical placement in Latvia. Because of this I had not planned for a placement elsewhere, and it's difficult to find internships at hospitals in the Netherlands if you don't study at a local university. I've emailed the Dean to see what they're planning for clinical placements over the summer, or whether they might move it to next semester.

What are the biggest issues that international students are facing right now?

Max: I'm more in charge of academic issues, and Hannah does the bigger picture stuff regarding travel, returning to Latvia etc.

Talking about the academic side - the biggest problems come from the subjects that are really practical, like orthopaedic surgery, nursing and dentistry. The dentistry program uses mannequins, or patients to demonstrate procedures and this is obviously not possible at the moment. The teachers are doing their best to deal with this to ensure the quality of teaching that students came to RSU for.

The majority of teachers are really investing in online teaching right now, but there is always room for improvement. My task is to liaise with the Dean, the international students and the heads of department. There is also a cultural aspect to this, as professors here don't always welcome students' critiques. Luckily, the majority of teachers and professors are very interested in working constructively to improve online teaching at RSU.

Hannah: One of the main questions that I have to deal with is when international students can come back to Latvia. Some have left in the hopes that they'd be back in a couple of weeks, so they packed lightly, but the majority of their personal belongings remain in Riga! Some might have also received study places in their home countries in the meantime, but still have rooms with all their belongings in Latvia.

What kind of help can you offer?

Hannah: When I will return to Germany, I'll take other people's personal belongings with me, because I have a car. I'm also in regular contact with the Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and various embassies to find out when travel will be possible again.

When we met at the beginning of the year, our conversation was very different! You were full of hopes and ideas and plans. How has that changed for ISA?
 
Hannah: A lot has been restructured and moved to a later date. ISA used Zoom for a virtual game night with students at the beginning of lock-down, and we've organised a guest lecture for 20 May. We're still trying to give students an opportunity to get to know the ISA board better. I am quite optimistic that we will be able organise our bigger events in the fall, but we'll have to wait and see what the regulations will be and whether 50 people or more can gather.

Max, what are you working on at the moment?

Max: As I mentioned, I am in charge of the academic side. The university will possibly have to change its teaching style in the future. This is a huge task that I'm trying to be involved in and give feedback on as a representative for international students. We have been working on introducing new rules and regulations for online teaching. One big task we've been working on together with the Student Union, Simon Vogel from the US Student Association and RSU officials, is the new accreditation recognition system by the World Federation for Medical Education (WFME). Students applying for residency in the US and Israel have been particularly interested, as they need RSU to be accredited by a WFME-recognised institution in order to be able to apply for residencies in their home countries. The Latvian accreditation agency is currently not recognised by WFME of the World Health Organisation, and we are trying to change this. These are all things that we can continue to work on together online, so that's good. Finally, I represent ISA at the weekly meetings of the Dean’s council, which continue online. 

Is it easier to combine ISA work with your studies now? 

Hannah: I save a lot of time on commuting! I don't have to go to Gaiļezers and then rush to a meeting at RSU, and then later to another meeting somewhere else. Now you're just at your desk the whole time.

Max: I agree.

Hannah: There's more time for other things like sports and cooking. The pandemic also has some positive aspects!

What has it been like trying to organise online lectures?

Hannah: In the beginning the doctors were all very busy at their hospitals, but as the situation is now moderately under control our Medical Science Directors Francesca Zanghi and Stina Jantke are organising a guest lecture on the topic “Covid-19: Do you know it all?” together with Assoc.Prof. Sīmanis. Time permitting, seeing as the exam period is approaching, they will also try to organise another guest lecture.

Do you feel that students are observing the guidelines?

Max: Personally, I think people are listening to the guidelines. Maybe it's because we're in the medical field, so we understand the consequences for others better.

How is it to compare the news from your countries, your families, to what you're going through? 

Max: The situation is more worrying in the Netherlands than here. My parents live in Haarlem, which is close to Amsterdam, and they are very worried when they go outside. But you can't compare, because Latvia has had fewer cases, and is also less populated. I have a family member working in intensive care, and he has a lot of work on his hands. It's very heavy, but things are luckily looking slightly better now.

Hannah: It's rather relaxed in my home region, luckily, because it has not been hit that hard. My mother is a GP there and for a couple of weeks they took strict precautionary measures to keep interactions as safe as possible for everyone, but now her office is more or less back to “normal”. They're wearing masks and also have protective shields set up at reception. A lot of people in my village started sewing fabric masks for hospitals and offices. My mother received a donation of face shields from a butcher's shop! They wanted to help as the supply of protective gear from the health ministry was not sufficient. People have been hesitant about going to the GP, but from this week on my mother said more people are starting to come by during office hours.

As you both have relatives working in healthcare. How do you feel about the public's reaction expressing support for the healthcare system - the clapping, the instagram posts? Is it a symbol people will slowly forget about, or does the support and the attention make a difference?

Max: I'd say both, actually. It's really nice to see the support, so it helps. But I think that if you're a good doctor you don't work for others' approval, you're there anyway, so there's no change in doctors' mentality.

Hannah: I think that the strength of a country should not be measured in economic terms, but rather based on how stable a country's healthcare system is.

We know that a lot of countries have been cutting healthcare budgets - not just Latvia, but also Germany, for example. Our public hospitals are underfinanced. We are now realising what happens if we take shortcuts in health. Maybe our politicians and society will now realise that healthcare needs more money than they thought. The crisis has also helped highlight how dependent we are on supplies like masks from outside the country, or Europe, because we don't have the economies to produce these items. Hopefully this will lead to a change in mentality.

What are your personal tips for how to get through the crisis? How are you staying sane at home?

Max: For me it's about going outside. I've been enjoying spending more time in parks and taking long walks. I've also been renting electric scooters. Luckily the weather has been great!

Hannah: I've started doing more sports. That's definitely something that's helped me. I still try to go on trips as this is probably my last summer in Latvia. I'm making the best of the current situation, while still following the guidelines. Every two, or three weeks I've gone on a longer drive to areas I haven't been to yet - I went to Koknese a few weeks ago.

What do you think will happen with studies in the future?

Max: We all hope that things will return to normal soon but understand that things will be different, like that teaching will probably take place in smaller groups in the future.

Hannah: Like Max said, maybe we'll return to studying in smaller groups, but RSU is already planning different approaches they can take. They have had a more or less good experience in transitioning to digital learning, and they are also aware that there is a high demand for the practical. Many dentistry students come to Latvia because of the very, very practical approach that we don't even have in Germany. We will also have to think more about safety measures. Maybe only certain semesters at certain times? And theory studies at home? This will be the challenge over the next couple of weeks.