Making the Most of Our Student Life During COVID-19

International students Nathan Bouton, Louise Lacoste and Utkarsh Arora all share their firsthand experiences studying with Berkeley Global!

We—Nathan, Louise and Utkarsh—are part of the GETT program. This is a transnational Master's degree program that brought us together along with 47 other international students. Our first semester began in Paris, France, then to Seoul, Korea, and concludes in Berkeley, California—but all virtually!

Bringing Together Different Students and Three Universities

For us, studying at UC Berkeley was supposed to be the heyday of our intensive, international and long studies. Thus, we were frustrated not to be physically visiting the Bay Area, meeting entrepreneurs and supporting the Cal Bears during sports competitions. However, renouncing our enthusiasm to have the time of our life was not an option for us. This just meant we had to do things differently. We realized we had to redefine what we call our “perfect combo.” We reflected on which activities bring well-being into our lives. For us, our perfect combo as international students combines learning, exploring, sharing and developing. We hope that we can inspire you to turn your situations into positive opportunities during the COVID-19 crisis.

#1 You Are Not Studying—You Are Learning!


Nathan: I believe we often associate “studying” with a negative and compulsory task. What is helping me this year is to think that I am not here to study, but to learn. It makes everything more exciting! My strategy is to include what I want to learn this semester, such as programming, growth marketing and social business, into my studies.

We are fortunate at Berkeley Global to be able to take at least one class of our choice from any department. One class that has stood out to me is Introduction to Programming and Computation. In it, I learned how to code in Python, a skill I’ve wanted to develop for a very long time. Similarly, my final-year project is a growth-marketing mission for Makesense. Makesense is a nonprofit organization that inspires and empowers citizens, entrepreneurs and other organizations to build an inclusive and sustainable society together. This project has made me feel that I am contributing positively to society while developing my marketing skills. 


Louise: This summer, when I figured out that this semester would not be at all like we had expected, I decided to turn the frustration into motivation. I was about to start my final year of studies. This was the ultimate chance to learn a significant amount of things—and what better place than the #1 top global public university in the world? Thus, I was determined to make the most out of this year by learning rather than just studying. 

That is why I decided to dive deep into subjects that I am really fond of: data and entrepreneurship. Since the beginning of the semester, I have been in a data science course that allows me to code in Python and improve the analytical expertise I developed during my gap year.  I also decided to develop our master project to its fullest. I maximized our efforts in order to learn as much as possible from this entrepreneurial experience. Indeed, having “student” status gives us access to many resources. I have become involved in both the Student Technology Equity Program (STEP) in Berkeley and Station F in France. It is the perfect opportunity to gain new skills and explore new areas of expertise!


Utkarsh: For me, this semester has been all about unlearning what I know about conventional education and discovering how to learn in a solely remote environment. The future of work and education is virtual, and what a crash course we’ve had! While I was initially quite skeptical about doing classes remotely, my opinion has changed quite a bit after attending the Berkeley Global courses. Moreover, I feel like I have much more time on my hands to work on certain skill sets that I believe will be very useful for me in the future. Additionally I have been able to pick up on hobbies that I started cultivating but lost somewhere along the way.

#2 Keep Exploring—Even Locally!


Nathan: I had always pictured myself buying a car and exploring the West Coast during my year at Berkeley. Traveling is one of my biggest passions—discovering new cultures, looking at the architecture of the buildings and learning languages. Not going to the United States did not mean not having a new adventure. Therefore, I decided to move to Bristol in the UK during the first semester to learn more about my British wife’s culture. While respecting the COVID-19 restrictions, I have managed to visit many cities, including London, Cambridge and Oxford. Exploring London helped me to picture myself there in the future, and visiting Cambridge and Oxford was a great way to feel like a student. The current situation also helps me to have more appreciation for the local area in which I am based, rather than wanting to move to different places all of the time!


Louise: When Berkeley Global announced that the campus will be closed for the first semester, I promised myself not to stay at home and to keep exploring the world while targeting safe destinations given the global pandemic. I had really enjoyed discovering Korean culture for six months as it really made me grow as a person. Therefore, it was clear to me that I will use this semester to leave my comfort zone—even if it was not physically in the San Francisco Bay Area. That is why I decided to move to Lisbon, Portugal, for the whole semester with several other GETT students. There, we enjoyed the Portuguese way of life while discovering the rich history of the country and exploring its West Coast. Hiking and surfing in safe places far from crowds allow us to get a breath of fresh air and escape from our everyday computer life.


Utkarsh: For most of 2020, I have found myself confined in France, without the possibility of flying back home to India without putting myself or others in harm’s way. While it was great to discover France and intern in Paris, I had been tremendously looking forward to traveling to Berkeley. Unfortunately, this wasn’t possible for the Fall 2020 term so I had to improvise. For most of the summer, I found myself exploring France. I insisted on making the most of the situation I was given and traveled as much as I could while following all social-distancing measures and movement restrictions. I camped, hiked, climbed and swam and I drove across some of the most beautiful landscapes the country has to offer. It’s hard to not feel grateful for the opportunity given to me, despite being in a global pandemic.

#3 Do Not Isolate Yourself. Share With Others, Even Virtually!


Nathan: One of the most negative impacts of COVID-19 is being separated from the other students of the GETT program. We studied together in Paris and Seoul, which led to strong and trusting relationships. I continue to invest in my student life by regularly messaging and calling my friends from the program. As I am the only student where I am based, I always feel encouraged to talk to other students as we are experiencing similar things. Physically meeting with friends several times a week when allowed—and when respecting social distancing—helps me to maintain an active social life. For instance, before the second lockdown in England, I played football with a team, contributed to a student Christian group and went to a restaurant with my wife each week. Now that there is a second lockdown, I am still trying to disconnect from my virtual life by focusing on creative projects such as writing in a traveler’s notebook about my experiences, which is something I have wanted to do for a long time.


Louise: For me, the GETT program is above all a collective experience. The most frustrating aspects of remote classes are definitely being far from each other and discovering Berkeley classes alone. However, the idea of spending the whole semester lonely in front of my computer was not an option for me. That is why eight GETT students and I joined forces and decided to live together in two different apartments in Lisbon. Experiencing this unprecedented semester with other students was a game-changer. This gave us the chance to share our everyday student life, discuss our classes and projects, and share our thoughts, questions and difficulties in real time. We have learned a lot from one another, and I hope we can repeat the experience during the second semester!


Utkarsh: Being quarantined does not mean being isolated! Being confined to my tiny Parisian studio for a couple of months gave me a lot of time to reflect on friendships both current and old, and I managed to reconnect with a lot of friends online. Not only that, but also I made it a point to stay connected with my current friend circle through Zoom parties and virtual hangout sessions. I even got myself a virtual work-out partner!

#4 Do Not Get Bored, Develop Yourself!


Nathan: Our classes are in the evening, meaning that we have the whole day for ourselves. This situation could have led to a lot of boredom as many activities are restricted due to COVID-19. I decided to use my free time to do activities I have wanted to do for a long time and to develop myself. The most impactful is playing football with a club. Football is quite aggressive in the UK compared to in France. This has helped me to develop my resilience, my winning spirit and my stamina. It is also a fantastic way to make new British friends. Another activity I am enjoying is learning the guitar. My father-in-law is giving me classes while I am teaching him French. These activities are keeping me busy and highly contribute to my current life balance.


Louise: During these tough times full of uncertainty, taking time for ourselves is crucial. Remote education frees up a lot of time, so let’s take advantage of it. It allows opportunities to focus on the things we really love to do in our free time or simply to develop new skills. For me, I instantly saw it as the perfect opportunity to take up some hobbies that I had left behind in the past. For example, I bought a ukulele before flying to Portugal and I challenged myself to learn how to play it on my own. I really enjoy it because it reminds me of the days when I used to play the guitar and I can take it with me wherever I go. It is also a pleasure to discover new disciplines. One of my roommates decided to organize some yoga sessions twice a week, allowing us to spend some relaxing and quality time together.


Utkarsh: I made it a point to keep myself busy and quickly realized it’s not going to be easy. This was mostly because we have come to expect too much of ourselves in terms of productivity during the pandemic. So the first couple of weeks were spent reflecting upon what I really want to spend my time on. I thought about how I could balance between doing things and keeping general confinement anxiety at bay. Eventually, I spent most of my summer exploring France and working remotely, usually from campsites or off-the-grid chalets. I have had a startup idea for a while that I was able to formalize during this time. I was very excited to make it through STEP where I am developing it further with my team, albeit remotely. I was able to focus on my French-language skills, learn Python and take a few online courses!

Moving Forward 

Continuing to learn, explore, share and develop ourselves are the things that have helped all of us enjoy our student life during this unprecedented year. We are aware that we will have to switch back to more online activities as Europe is facing a second wave of lockdowns. However, we believe that our enthusiasm and our experience from the first lockdown will encourage us to keep making the most of the year. We also hope that our experiences gave you ideas on how to face the current educational challenges.