Being 20 in 2020
Kanumera Creiche gives her perspective of a student “supposedly” on a placement year abroad – but actually back home – on what it is like to be a student in France in a pandemic.
On 31 October 2020, my friends and I were reunited in the small near-Parisian apartment of my friend’s father, stuck in front of the TV, drinking wine and beer, when the French President Emmanuel Macron announced a second lockdown. For the last weeks, we had been prepared. A second lockdown was in all the conversations and in all the media. We knew it was coming.
Yet, when he broke the news, we yelled at the TV as if the English rugby team had scored against France. Next to me, my friend broke down in tears. To her, it meant being confined with her very strict and conservative parents while tensions were already running high in her household. As the worst French swear words came to my mouth – as a typical Parisian girl, my sentences are rarely politically correct, those who knows me can testify – Emmanuel Macron had a few words for us: “It is hard to be 20 in 2020”.
Emmanuel Macron had a few words for us: “it is hard to be 20 in 2020”.
All of us agree. Being 20 in 2020 sucked. When we said goodbye that night, we had no idea when we would see each other again, for how long this was going to last, and for the worst part when our next coffee-gossip sesh at our favourite café would take place – this is not a myth, all the student in France hang out in cafés, this is THE social place to go.
Those few words from the President did not engage right away the conversation about the sacrifices made by students and young people in France. The conversation really sparked when a group of economists called us “the sacrificed generation”. That for sure started a debate. Our grand-parents’ generation thought we were exaggerating. We were not sent in the trenches, living under German occupation or deployed in Algeria.
In short, because we had not known war, we were fine. As most in my generation, I thought this was a sterile debate. Of course, what we were experiencing was nothing like being sent to die on a bl***y battlefield, but that did not mean we did not have grievances, and this “sacrificed generation” debate was occulting problems that should have been at the centre for a while now: acute poverty and severe mental health problems that struck an alarming number of students.
Eventually, the media moved away from this nonsense to focus on the real problems, and students made the front page of every news outlet. Brut, Konbini, and Loopsider, youth-oriented web media reported from unsanitary students housing, from food banks over flooded by students, they interviewed dozens and dozens of students, and eventually the rest of the French media followed. Finally, we were being heard, and what we had to say was of primary importance.
…the media moved away from this nonsense to focus on the real problems and students made the front page of every news outlet.
The numbers are bad. Like real bad. According to Ipsos’ last report, published on 28 January 2021, more than one young person out of five declares experiencing symptoms of severe depressive disorders. These scary numbers do not reflect what we were constantly being told: “you are living the best years of your life”. These were definitely not it and I can only sympathise with the first-year students who, for some of them, have not been able to attend their classes since October.
They have no idea what student life is like, to be at university and making friends, meeting professors, going to lectures and seminars… they never experienced it, or so little after having heard so much of it. Online teaching cannot and will not replace in-person teaching and numbers prove it: one in six students stopped their studies – not to mention the difficulty to focus in classes.
And for those who continue to study, most are experiencing real mental health problems. One of my friend was telling me how her work load significantly increased with lockdown, and how exams were so much more complicated than they used to be. She is a third-year student in Economy and Accounting, and her professors buried her under work and pressure. It was so bad that she started to develop skin rashes, diagnosed by her doctor as signs of stress.
Stories about students working day and night, and with zero distractions are not rare. That leads me to another worrying report. The National Resource and Resilience Center reports that 11.4 per cent of the 70,000 students surveyed in those last 12 months had suicidal thoughts. Unfortunately, for some those thoughts turned to actions. No exact numbers are available regarding students who committed suicide last year, but many made the front page, and every time we thought that this was one of us who just could not bear it anymore.
Stories about students working day and night, and with zero distractions are not rare.
Quarantine reinforced inequalities among students, educationally and financially. If each and every one of us has a different online-teaching’s experience from alright to bad, the unequal access to primary needs among students went unnoticed for a while. After the images of students at their desk, their head between their hands, desperately trying to watch a lecture on zoom, we saw the shocking images of hundreds and hundreds of students lining up in the street in front of food banks.
With quarantine, part-time jobs which used to allow students to keep their head above the water, disappeared. No more kids to baby-sit, no more tables to wait on, no more customers to serve and hence for many no more essential revenue that allowed them to live. Food banks were stormed in by students who just could not make ends meet anymore.
Linkee, a food bank which tries to reduce food waste by serving free meals to those in need, organise a free-food parcel distribution to students-only every night in Paris. Since September, the number of students who require their service grows by 50 per cent every month, and approximatively 450 food parcels are served every night. Hence, some students find themselves in the tragic position of having to choose between studying or surviving. In Paris, half of them live with under 400 euros per month – and I am sure you have heard of it, but living in Paris is not cheap.
In Paris half of them (students) live with under 400 euros per month – and I am sure you have heard, but living in Paris is not cheap.
Students and young people will definitely be those who will suffer the most from the economic and social crisis initiated by the pandemic. Indeed, the numbers do not prone optimism. Three million of the under-25 are unemployed, which represents 18 per cent of them. This rate is twice as high as the rest of the French population.
The government tried to provide some help to some extent. Freshers are allowed to go back to their seminars. The university canteens across the country now provide two meals a day for one euro each. But as helpful as it may be, it has not brought back hope yet.
Our grand parents’ generation may say whatever they want, we lost the hope that is supposed to go along with our twenties. Our dreams are fading away and our plans are falling apart. This exciting uncertainty of what the future hold for us has disappeared for a fearful “what if the worst is yet to come”.