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Student journalism competition: Moving to Brussels during the pandemic

15:37 21/07/2021

The Bulletin launched its inaugural student journalism competition in the knowledge that adolescents risk being Covid’s “lost generation”. On top of the normal stresses of being a teenager, the social distancing and interruption to routine caused by the pandemic have taken an emotional toll.

So we felt it was important to hear their voices and give them a platform. How has the virus affected their studies and their lives? What has the experience taught them, and how has it changed them? Students aged 15 to 18 from international schools in and around Brussels responded. Although the competition was in English, all the entrants were multilingual, with experience of living in other countries.

Together, their essays reflect the difficult but frequently mundane reality of lockdown, or living under “house arrest” as one young writer described it. Their remarkable honesty shines a light on an unprecedented period in their lives. We were impressed by their creativity, their storytelling skills and their capacity for self-reflection, and would like to thank each of them, and their schools, for their enthusiastic participation.

This week: Moving to Brussels during the pandemic, by Smilla M Petkovic

Brussels, as the beating heart of the EU, witnesses a turnover of new workers each year, something which my family and I looked forward to being part of when we signed up for a new adventure early last winter. A new city, friends, community and home. That is to some extent what the diplomatic life entails, a life characterised by extensive travelling and an endless network. But as a child growing up in the midst of this, it is sometimes easier to see all the things you leave behind rather than those ahead of you. Changing homes is often tougher than one might think – not what the TV shows might suggest. You miss that faraway home which you become ever more detached from. It grows tedious to constantly be the new kid.

With this in mind, we convinced ourselves that this would be yet another opportunity to explore a new part of the world and so we settled into our apartment during a boiling day in August. Unaware that we would be unable to see our family back home for more than a year, my sister and I were excited to start a new in a school which presented itself as a welcoming environment. Entering its halls for the first time, we did so with anticipation.

The masks took some getting used to, but starting this new school we thought that that would be the extent of our isolation. But as soon as we started, social distancing was redefined. As a new kid, starting sophomore year of high school in a foreign city, I was ready to do anything to find friends. A natural response, one could think; something we had had to do many times before. But it was not at all like the previous school starts. Having my very first interactions with those I would come to call my friends, we were interrupted by 2-metre rulers shoved between us. Soon after we weren’t allowed to spend break or lunch with each other, but had to be confined to the people we had class with. The grade was split in half, ripping apart the new friendships many of us had formed. Between the autumn break and the Easter break, we never spent an entire week in school.

It’s all understandable; we had to respect the pandemic. Our health. But I think this pandemic has caused us to grow negligent, too practical. Yes, isolate students and no disease will spread, but the extent to which mental health has been neglected is laughable. I have seen friends turn away from their studies to daily drug and alcohol use. Once-cheerful friends can only manage a half-hearted nod in the hallways. 

Persevere, they told us, it’s not as tough as you say. “You are overreacting!” is what we are told. But they never went a year without seeing if their friends are smiling or hurting. And if you know that they’re hurting, they were never sent to the principal's office for giving them a hug. So, yes, this experience has taught me to persevere, but I wholeheartedly hope that it is not something that any new student has to endure ever again. 

Smilla M Petković
Age: 17
Nationality: Swedish
School: International School of Brussels
Residence: Belgium; I have moved around Europe and also lived in Italy
Interests: Writing
Ambition: I aspire to study political science or something in that field

Written by Smilla M Petkovic