2021 is here and we are ready to give you a glimpse into the achievements and goals that made 2020 unforgettable for our team. This past year has laid many challenges for us as we had to hatch new ideas and rethink the entire planning structure for our events and projects. However, due to the endless sources of creativity and hard work, we have come farther than we had initially planned!
Our 2020 kicked off with the traditional planning of our big Welcome Week, which offers the newly arrived international students the opportunity to get to know Vienna and their fellow exchange students at the start of every semester. Yet due to the sudden spread of COVID-19 and the following first lockdown starting in mid-March in Austria, we immediately had to adapt to the new situation. Not only did we have to cancel all our previous plans for the upcoming summer semester but we also had to find alternatives to keep our international students entertained and informed. Within the shortest time, we shifted our focus from the offline activities to those that we could organize over online platforms and nevertheless, keep a high level of participation. Among our online events, there were cooking tutorials, arts & crafts sessions, game nights, yoga sessions, pub quizzes and a lot more. We have succeeded in also allowing students to engage in these activities without restricting participation and providing the means for them to get to know each other. Notably, the creation of our podcast, called ESN Uni Wien On Air (formerly: Home Alone with ESN Uni Wien), has also benefited our students greatly, as each new upload had a distinctive thematic focus that dealt with topical issues, such as the examination of the new epidemic, eventful stories (Halloween, Austrian culture), and many more that both delighted and educated the listeners! Regarding the informational purpose, we overtook a very crucial task by collecting and translating all official governmental information, thus passing it on to our international students and providing support with any upcoming questions or uncertainties. As a result of these new challenges, our social media network also became a platform of trust and mutual support.
Our team spirit has hijacked more than ever before, not because we had more spare time on our hands (ha-ha) but because we had all gone through the most communal experience since we can remember. A type of experience that for some was insightful, for others saddening, yet as a result of it, we have been prompted to offer our students the more pleasant, hospitable, and comfortable stay as they had in mind when they first decided to come to Vienna. Our productivity and creativity were not only self-induced but was also the product of our regularly organised online team meetings to discuss new ideas, online game nights to recreate from the distressing time, and many more activities that not only offered us a safe place for sharing and communicating with each other but also fostered inclusion and amusement.
Although we refrained from organising offline events for the entire summer semester, with the easing of the safety measures laid out by the Austrian government in summer and autumn months, we took the chance to organise both of our Welcome Weeks in September and October offline. Needless to say, we were more precautious when planning the structure of the offline events as ensuring the safety of our international students was the main priority. Thus, we implemented an internal safety protocol for our events that included measurements such as minimizing the participation rate for all our events, relocating activities that would typically take place inside to outdoor gatherings, introducing a contact tracing system and providing disinfectants as well as enough space to keep distance to others at each event. We also implemented a registration system for those planning on coming to our ESN Uni Wien office to pick up their ESNcards or to ask questions. More than that, there were some challenging times as well, like when shortly after the start of the winter semester the governmental safety measurements got stricter again and we were forced to switch back to only offering online events and to closing down our office for the rest of the semester. Nonetheless, we have overcome these scenarios and always managed to find new methods of creating a safe and comfortable environment for our students, thus offering them a most pleasant stay in Vienna!
Furthermore, as this year induced most of us towards inner introspection and reflection on issues that are important to us, as a team we have evidently organized activities around this framework as well. Following this notion, we have directed our focus towards educating the students on social issues that are dear to our heart and utterly relevant to gain knowledge about. These online events were organized in the context of the ESN International initiative Social Inclusion Days which take place every semester all over the network. Such educational activities included interviews with spokespersons who work for charity organizations, teaching students about the importance of voting, organizations that facilitate the needs of less privileged individuals, and many others. This also provided students with the opportunity to ask questions with regards to each thematic activity, thus, fostering open-mindedness, inclusion, and meaningful conversations.
One project week of ours, the ESN Uni Wien Green Week, was once born out of true passion for our beautiful planet to raise awareness of environmental issues and to educate about global challenges. For the third time in a row, but for the first time exclusively online, it was organised in the summer semester by providing tips on how to reduce your waste, how to cook eco-friendly, how to travel sustainably and by informing about global warming and climate change and the human impact on the environment. Since our monthly Culture Nights fell victim to the pandemic as well, we intended to compensate this by introducing a new project called Austrian Culture Week which consisted of different online events and social media posts. Throughout seven days we offered our international students the opportunity to learn and experience more of the Austrian cuisine, music, cinematography, language, literature and history. That way they could get a better insight into the culture of the country where they spent their exchange semester despite the closedown of the cultural institutions. As this project week became extremely popular, we organised it not only in the summer semester, but also again in the winter semester with a special focus on Austrian Christmas traditions.
This is but a short recap of what this year included, yet there is more to it as our members were constantly faced with new challenges that benefited our creativity surplus (ha-ha)! Thus, we can say that we have come out of 2020 with a light heart, extremely grateful for the people who have made it possible to keep the experience of an exchange student still in the right spirits and grateful for expanding our horizon by learning to overcome many struggles and for holding together through thick and thin!
A big ‘Thank you’ as well to everyone who partook this year in creating memorable times for both our international students and our team members!