Interview conducted by Johanna Pieper
Rhys Nugent (2019-2021), from the UK and Ireland, spent his first semester at the Georg-August-University of Göttingen and the second at Universidad de Deusto. He holds a Bachelor degree in Modern Languages and decided to apply for Euroculture to develop his interest in European affairs and culture while taking advantage of the social, professional and personal opportunities that formal education provides. He is currently residing in Bilbao, Spain and working as an intern at the European Citizen Action Service.
Euroculturer Magazine: What were your expectations when you applied/started the Euroculture MA and does it match the reality at the moment?
Rhys Nugent: I had expected that studying in multiple countries would challenge my preconceptions, improve my language skills and enable me to gain better insight into the cultural and social dimensions of Europe. I had also hoped to meet students from around the world, learn about new projects and opportunities and make memories to cherish alongside new friends around Europe. Needless to say that a global pandemic had not been at the forefront of my mind when applying for MA Euroculture but, alas, here we are.
Most of my expectations were met during my first two semesters of MA Euroculture. I was able to study in two fascinating countries that lie close to my heart. I managed to improve my German language skills in my first semester while refreshing my Spanish language skills in my second semester. I feel like I have a significantly better understanding of European affairs and politics, partly thanks to my degree and partly thanks to my extracurricular activities, and I have made new friendships which I value greatly from all corners of Europe and beyond. I am particularly grateful for the flexibility that both universities have provided me, whether it was their relaxed approach to class attendance or how generous they were regarding essay deadlines. This might seem an odd point to make but one of my greatest fears in returning to formal education was that my epilepsy might disrupt my studies and hinder me from making my deadlines – fortunately, both universities were incredibly compassionate when I faced issues. In this regard, my expectations have certainly been met.
EM: How has the pandemic affected your studies?
RN: Unfortunately, the pandemic has thrown a spanner into the mix. One of the main attractions of MA Euroculture for me was the ability to spend a 3rd semester studying outside of Europe, partly to make up for the fact that I was denied such an opportunity during my BA studies due to my medical condition. The pandemic has certainly been a disruption to my studies and plans but it has also helped me grasp the extent of the immense privilege and fortune I possess. I feel incredibly lucky to be answering these questions in good health without having to worry about paying my bills for the next month and to have people in my life who believe in me and support me. It would be disingenuous of me to say anything other than Euroculture has matched my expectations and, in spite of everything that has happened in the last 6 months, I feel grateful to be studying this degree.
EM: Can you tell us more about your IP paper and the overall topic of the IP 2019/2020? How did you manage to find a suitable topic?
RN: My IP paper explored how countries of different European social models reacted to the COVID-19 pandemic (namely Germany, Spain, Sweden and the UK) during its emergence in Europe between January and February 2020. I had originally planned to write a paper exploring the sustainability of Welsh language in Welsh-diaspora communities but changed my topic at the last moment once the COVID-19 pandemic had become so ubiquitous in our lives that it felt like an opportunity to gain insight into a clearly historic period of our lives. Our overarching topic for the IP was sustainability which I felt was sufficiently broad that, by adopting a theoretical framework focusing on crisis management and social models, I could compare different countries’ responses to the spread of the coronavirus disease and still be deemed relevant to the topic.
As I decided on my topic fairly last-minute I would strongly discourage any Euroculture students to follow in my footsteps; I would be the last person to give anyone advice on how to approach finding a suitable topic for the IP!
EM: What was the most difficult thing you encountered during the preparation phase of the IP?
RN: Finding a suitable theoretical framework was fairly difficult. The reason I switched my topic was that I was curious about how countries reacted to the emergence of COVID-19 in Europe at the beginning of 2020 before it had become so widespread. Finding a theoretical framework that enabled me to research this while contributing to literature and providing relevant, valuable initial findings to the COVID-19 pandemic was not easy.
EM: How did your second semester university prepare you for the IP? What can your second semester university improve and what should it continue to do regarding the preparation ?
RN: Although IP supervision was one of the least positive elements of my 2nd semester at Universidad de Deusto, I was personally rather content with the supervision that we received. The focus was placed on peer-review and peer-feedback, meaning that we were all expected to read one anothers’ ongoing proposals and to provide each other with support and feedback. Given how lovely and supportive my 2nd semester colleagues were here in Bilbao, I received incredibly valuable comments and insight from my peers which guided me through the IP preparation phase.
Beyond this, we had very limited contact envisaged with our supervisor and we were not scheduled to receive feedback on our graded proposal until it had already been submitted to be assessed, which was quite contentious to say the least. In spite of this, I approached my supervisor on two occasions outside of our IP preparation classes and was extremely pleased with the feedback that I received regarding how to improve my methodology. Two additional Euroculture Professors also helped a number of us in improving the methodological sides of our IP proposals and were very swift and elaborate with their responses, which was incredibly generous and kind of them in the middle of the pandemic. Overall, I feel rather happy with how our IP preparation phase went and I would hope that Universidad de Deusto continue with their student-centric approach to feedback while incorporating more regular personalised feedback sessions for students with their IP supervisors.
EM: Can you tell us more about the evolution of your topic? When did you start writing and when did you finish?
RN: As alluded to earlier, my topic changed as soon as the COVID-19 pandemic emerged. I decided on my original IP topic back in February after we had brainstormed potential topics as a class and it became that I had a fairly unique perspective and interest. I spent the rest of the month prior to moving to Bilbao researching literature exploring the development of Welsh language in Welsh diaspora, which is hardly the most expansive field of literature out there.
When the pandemic was announced by the WHO, however, all of a sudden my research paled into insignificance in my head and I felt it somewhat inappropriate to pursue the topic further given what was happening on my street, in my city and around the world. I wanted to focus on something immediately more relevant to my peers and I feared few other students would be willing to change their topics at such late notice and write their paper on an ongoing development with few modern points of reference for comparison.
Regarding when I wrote the paper, I left my paper fairly late in order to get as much research and information as possible so that my paper was not hopelessly out of date by the time we got around to presenting our papers at the IP. The most time-consuming process of the IP paper for me was establishing a theoretical framework and methodology suitable for my research. Once that had been ascertained and approved by my coordinators, it did not take long to write the paper itself – there was hardly much else for me to do in the middle of a lockdown!
EM: How did you manage to organize yourself during the second semester?
RN: To be frank, I honestly have no idea how I organised myself. I don’t think I was organised in the slightest and, contrary to what many others might expect, I don’t think there was anything wrong with that. What matters is that I got everything done and that I did the best that I could. The second semester of Euroculture flew by for me and a large reason for this was that I always had something to be working on. I had been assisting with the organisation of three different Model European Union conferences between January and May 2020 and these projects took up the majority of my free time. When I was not studying, my voluntary work always provided me with something to work on and was a welcome source of solace and respite from everything taking place around the world. The friends I had around me for regular conference calls (shout out to Mathias Story Time and the 2019 Europamobil crew) made sure that I always had somewhere to vent my frustrations and escape for a while, for which I could not be more grateful.
EM: What were your main struggles and challenges? What would you recommend/not recommend to the new Euroculture students?
RN: In terms of struggles and challenges, I fear I can’t separate my second semester from the pandemic. One of my main struggles was being there for those I hold dearest and trying to be a friend for all those in my life who were struggling and wanted “to vanish”, as one of my friends put it. In 2017 I spent almost two months bed-ridden following a particularly bad tonic-clonic seizure of mine that left me unable to leave my flat without suffering from severe anxiety and panic attacks. The experience was life-changing and reminded me of the power of the so-called “small things” in life. It was the people who dropped me daily messages, the people who sent me spontaneous postcards and the people who quite simply asked me “how are you doing?” that got me through my darkest of days and helped me slowly grasp that there were better days to come.
Although I did my utmost to reach out to those I hold dear, to send them regular voice messages and to check-in on them on a regular basis, I cannot help but feel it wasn’t enough and that I too often failed to pick them up when they were down. In this regard, I suppose my struggle was a lingering sense of powerlessness and helplessness to be there and raise the spirits of those I care about in my life.
EM: In your opinion, what are the challenges of studying Euroculture with a health condition?
RN: It’s difficult to provide a comprehensive response to the question given that all disabilities and (chronic) health conditions are intrinsically personal and unique. Everyone’s situation is different and, as such, I feel that I can only share my thoughts on my own personal experience of studying Euroculture with my epilepsy. My experience has, fortunately, been very positive and the only hurdles I have faced have been in relation to fair treatment during examinations and access to healthcare due to mobility.
I am fortunate that my epilepsy is controlled by medication and my condition has rarely been a source of inconvenience during my studies in itself. There have been a handful of occasions when I have needed to not attend a class or leave a seminar due to feeling unwell, or feeling as if I’m going to suffer a seizure. Fortunately, however, the Euroculture staff have always been incredibly understanding and supportive in such circumstances. The only concrete example I have of my condition being a thorn in my side was during examinations held at the end of my first semester.
EM: What difficulties did you encounter regarding examinations?
RN: My first epileptic seizures took place in the middle of my end-of-year written examinations back in 2014 during my BA. Ever since then, written examinations have been a source of great stress for me, causing me to panic, feel uncomfortable and make me believe that I am about to suffer a seizure. I am unable to think straight in such an environment and I cannot express myself to the best of my ability. Upon hearing I had two obligatory written examinations during my first semester, I raised my situation with the Euroculture staff who referred me to the university examination offices.
The staff I met were extremely friendly and, once again, very understanding of my condition and wishing to help me overcome the additional hurdle I faced. Despite requesting an alternative means of examination such as completing additional coursework, undertaking research assignments or answering the examination aurally, the only power the university had was to provide me with 15 minutes of additional time to complete the examination. Unsurprisingly, the additional time had little-to-no effect and I still ended up feeling very uncomfortable and getting the two worst grades of my MA thus far. I would like to recognise, however, that the problem with examination is one that transcends the subject of health and only demonstrates the need for further flexibility at universities when examinations are strictly necessary, thereby allowing students to better express themselves and, ideally, have multiple opportunities to demonstrate what they have learnt.
EM: What difficulties did you face regarding healthcare and access to medication?
RN: One of the most beautiful parts of an Erasmus Mundus Joint Degree Masters programme is its mobility, but the need to move every 4-5 months creates an array of problems for students requiring medical care or treatment. I am fortunate to have not faced any language issues, which can be a huge issue for many international students when studying abroad. Likewise, my EU citizenship has been a source of great privilege and has enabled me to use my UK EHIC abroad to acquire my medication with very few issues.
The problem for me has been that for the duration of my MA course so far I have been unable to see a neurologist and my only option would have been to seek private alternatives. Due to the combination of short academic semesters, a general shortage of certain medical professionals (such as neurologists) and the disruption caused by the pandemic, mobile MA students face additional hurdles in acquiring the consultations and treatment they require. In the 11 months I have lived in Spain, I am yet to see a neurologist, which has been frustrating given the side effects caused by my medication and my desire to seek alternative treatment. I have been able to consult general practitioners via phone or in person with few issues, but such consultations have been little-to-no help due to my inability to officially register with a doctor.
All in all I feel very fortunate that, despite my ongoing issues with my medication, the universities where I have studied have supported me to the best of their ability. I would nevertheless like to stress that this has only been my experience and my health condition is, itself, not so disruptive in the grand scheme of things.
EM: What were your expectations of the online IP ? What can the Consortium and students learn from the online experience ?
RN: I tend to expect the worst and hope for the best, so my expectations were virtually non-existent once the IP had converted to an online format. I had hoped to meet some of my fellow students, read some interesting papers and take part in some interesting discussions. These basic expectations were largely met and the online experience was ultimately a positive one, even if I doubt it rivals anything close to a physical format.
EM: Did you decide to extend your IP topic to use it as your master thesis topic?
RN: Not in the slightest. Researching and studying COVID-19 back in Spring 2020 was fascinating (albeit challenging) during its emergence but, by this point, I would rather study anything else. I have plenty of other interests, not least political youth engagement, and I would rather explore these interests further than having to spend every waking minute of my life thinking about COVID-19.
EM: Is there something you would like to add?
If you’re reading this and you’re going through a rough patch right now : know that it’s human to hurt. You aren’t alone. Your life is valuable and meaningful. Don’t be afraid to reach out. Things really *do* get better and you have so much to look forward to.
EM: Thank you very much, Rhys, for answering our questions and sharing your IP experience with us!
Picture credits: Personal file