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The "New Normal" at SLU-Madrid

by Katie Gortz on 11/13/2020

Earning a university degree overseas is never without its challenges. A global pandemic has provided unforeseen difficulties—but also unexpected appreciations—for SLU-Madrid students the world over.

Like universities worldwide, SLU-Madrid moved to virtual instruction last March, practically overnight, as students returned to their home countries to finish their spring semester classes online. But classes weren’t the only thing that shifted to an online format. Counseling, advising and student life activities shifted as well, offering students the support and sense of community they needed as they faced newfound uncertainty and anxiety. 

“Throughout this situation, our students impressed me,” said SLU-Madrid Campus Director and Academic Dean Paul Vita, Ph.D. “They were responsible and mature as they faced tough, real-life decisions. My sense is that many students in spring 2020 learned more about themselves and their connection to global issues than any other group could.”

Academic programming for the fall semester was designed to accommodate the varied needs of students. The course offerings include in-person classes as well as both synchronous and asynchronous online alternatives for students who are not able to return to campus due to health concerns or travel restrictions.

As students (and professors) settle into their “new normal,” we are reminded that while studying overseas will always come with challenges, part of the journey is learning how to deal with them. What does this “new normal” look like? Members of the SLU-Madrid community tell you a little more about how they experienced the onset of the pandemic and what their lives look like today.

Natalie Eriksen Turned to Plan B for her Summer Internship

Natalie Eriksen
Natalie Eriksen (Submitted photo)

When the pandemic started in Spain, Natalie Eriksen returned to her hometown of Indianapolis, Indiana, to complete her spring coursework. A junior majoring in economics, Eriksen had planned to spend the summer in Monrovia, Liberia, doing an internship for the Department of State. The post was canceled due to the pandemic. She ended up landing a virtual internship at the Wilmat Development Foundation, a non-profit organization in Uganda that serves underprivileged communities.

“I worked to develop a microfinance project to empower women whose businesses have suffered due to COVID-19. The plan is now being implemented,” she said. “Though it was not my first plan, I still was able to gain new experience through this role. The pandemic has really shown me how you can’t always plan for the future.”

Eriksen returned to Madrid for the fall semester. She is taking in-person and online classes, so she comes to campus regularly. Her social life this semester revolves around her roommates, two other SLU-Madrid students with whom she rents a three-bedroom apartment. In a city known for its legendary gastronomy, culture and nightlife, Eriksen reports that she tends to stay in this semester.

Luca Solidoro Opts For Remote Classes in Fall 2020

Luca Solidoro
Luca Solidoro (Submitted photo)

“The first country in the west affected by COVID-19 was mine, Italy,” explained Luca Solidoro, a SLU-Madrid sophomore from Milan. “My region was immediately considered a red zone and subsequently closed. The situation seen from outside the country made me worry a lot about the health of my loved ones.”

When SLU-Madrid shifted to online learning, Solidoro boxed up his possessions in Madrid, canceled his apartment rental contract, and flew to London to stay with his brother. Shortly after, he returned to Milan via Switzerland.

Solidoro, who is pursuing a degree in international business, opted to remain at his family home in Milan to continue his studies online for the fall semester. “I did not want to risk being in the same situation as last semester.” He has settled into a new routine of working out in the morning, then studying in his father’s office, where he encounters fewer distractions.

In terms of his social life, Solidoro said he has enjoyed catching up with a childhood friend who he does not see often since he attends university in Spain. Nevertheless, he tries to stay home as much as possible.

While he hopes to return to campus in the spring, he is waiting to see how the situation develops in Spain and Italy before determining the best course of action. “Life is unpredictable,” he concluded.

Mariana Casanueva Returns to the Soccer Field (with some new conditions)

Mariana Casanueva
Mariana Casanueva (Submitted photo)

“When the pandemic started back in March, I was having the time of my life,” said Mariana Casanuena, a sophomore who is originally from Mexico City, Mexico. “I truly began to feel like Madrid was my home. I was enjoying life with my amazing friends and was performing well on the soccer field.” An elite-level soccer placer, Casanueva trains with Union Adarve’s senior women’s team.

When SLU-Madrid pivoted to online learning, she returned to Mexico City, where she completed her spring semester studies. For Casanueva and her family, the pandemic brought an unexpected silver lining: they realized that this was the first time in the last five years that all three siblings and both parents had been home at the same time. “It was great to have this family time that we all never realized we needed,” she reflected.

Casanueva returned to campus to resume studies this fall. She is pursuing a double major in communications and political science with a minor in psychology. She reports that her “‘nueva normalidad’ is not so bad. She has had the pleasure of spending more quality time with her close friends and has also gotten to know some new friends better.

“COVID-19 has tremendously affected my soccer life. We have no idea when we will start the league, given that every week there are new regulations that limit the number of players that can be on the field, apart from the fact that we have to compete and train wearing masks. But this is not a complaint! I'm thrilled to be back on the turf with my team, and, hopefully, the situation will improve.”

“This pandemic made me realize that we take things in life for granted; we never stop and realize how special those little moments we have with people are. Life is short and the one life we get should be enjoyed to the fullest without regrets,” she said.

A Professor’s Perspective: Dr. Gustavo Saluste Discovers that Young Learners Truly Value Direct Human Interaction

Gustavo Saluste
Gustavo Saluste, Ph.D.

The shift to online learning last spring presented considerable challenges to professors like Gustavo Saluste, Ph.D., who teaches General Chemistry I and II. Saluste explained that the first thing he had to do was find virtual chemistry experiments to simulate the normal on-campus labs. “I realized right away that students are of a generation that is accustomed to virtual life more than I am,” he said with a smile. “They immediately understood what they had to do.”

This semester, the laboratory sessions for General Chemistry meet on Mondays. However, due to several public holidays this fall, students had to make up three lab sessions. Saluste offered his students the option of doing virtual labs or meeting on Friday afternoons to make up the sessions in-person. The students opted for all in-person labs.

“I was delighted with their decision. From a pedagogical point of view, hands-on labs can never really be substituted by virtual labs, though the latter is a good surrogate. And from a social/psychological point of view, I also believe there are clear benefits,” he said.  “Young people still value human interaction!”

“The first Friday make-up lab session met on the most beautiful autumn day one could image. So, we decided to hold the session outdoors on the Padre Arrupe Hall patio,” he explained. “The students made a mistake and were keen to repeat that part of the procedure to get it right. So, from my point of view, it was a true success for a make-up lab!”

Outdoor Chemistry Lab

Students in Dr. Saluste's General Chemistry I class conduct a laboratory session in the open air on Padre Arrupe Patio.