Montreal·Out of the Dark

Montreal students who eat, sleep and study in one room say they feel 'suffocated' during lockdown

University students have been facing a set of unique challenges over the past 11 months, as they have had to adapt to online learning, drastically limit their social activities and try to keep on top of their academic work despite feeling weighed down by stress.

Students living alone, often for the first time, particularly affected by confinement

Montreal students who eat, sleep and study in one room

CBC News Montreal

4 months ago
2:48
Three international students reflect on how the pandemic confinement has impacted their lives. 2:48

Since the start of the fall term, ​Juan Bátiz has been mostly living off microwaved eggs and takeout. That's because, in his tiny Montreal apartment, he doesn't have a kitchen.

Bátiz is one of thousands of international students who come to study at Montreal's universities. Originally from Mexico, he lives in a residence located close to McGill University, where he is a second-year finance student.

The residence, Campus 1, houses students from different universities. During normal times, it offers amenities like a gym, communal study areas and recreation rooms, but all these have closed due to the pandemic.

The other hitch? The communal kitchen is shared with 250 other students and has to be reserved a day in advance.

"In my opinion it's a bit of an inefficient system, because everybody has breakfast, lunch and dinner at the same time, right?" said Bátiz, who doesn't have a meal plan through McGill.

Under normal circumstances, Bátiz would be happy to be living centrally downtown, spending time on campus and eating out with friends. But the pandemic rules have made in-person socializing — even when you live in a building with hundreds of your peers — nearly impossible.

"It's been difficult to cope with living in residence without it really feeling like residence," said Bátiz.

Stuck in one room

Bátiz said it's been tough trying to carve out a routine when all his studying, sleeping, eating and recreation takes place between four walls.

His window, the only one in the room, faces onto the stark white concrete of the building next door.

"My life really just consists of sleeping in my bed, waking up, spending eight hours in this cubicle or more," he said.

University students have been facing a set of unique challenges over the past 11 months, as they have had to adapt to online learning, drastically limit their social activities and try to keep on top of their academic work despite feeling weighed down by stress.

This is even harder for international students, who are separated from their families and support networks.

For Nada Khalil, a student from Egypt, her second year at McGill was the first time she'd ever lived alone.

Her apartment, while bigger than Bátiz's, is a studio and her kitchen, dining room, living room and bed are all located in the same one room.

I find that my relaxing activities just aren't relaxing anymore because I'm doing them in the same physical space as my stressful homework.- Nada Khalil, student

Khalil said that after months of keeping to herself at home, her living situation has affected her mood and stress level.

"I eat, study, relax, watch movies in the same space which makes it harder for me to get into the mental space of study time vs. relaxation time," she said. 

"I find that my relaxing activities just aren't relaxing anymore because I'm doing them in the same physical space as my stressful homework. So the emotions start to overlap when you're in the same physical space."

While Khalil identifies as an introvert, she said talking about her anxieties has proved helpful.

"One thing that helps me is I have a therapist that I can go to whenever things get too tough," she said. 

Due to demand, she said, it's difficult to get a counselling appointment through McGill health services, but she had luck going to a private clinic.

Looking back on the past year, Khalil said she's proud of the resilience she's shown during this stressful period.

"I'm actually, in a way, very proud of myself that I've managed to do so well. If a year ago, you told me I'd be spending my days just alone in my apartment without exiting for weeks and not seeing my parents for a year, i would have told you that there's no way I could handle that."

Loss of motivation

Setareh Lajevardi, an Iranian graduate student in engineering at Concordia, said she was supposed to defend her thesis a few months ago, but it's been hard to get motivated at home.

"I was never really feeling motivated and happy like a lot of people did [during the pandemic], starting these habits of cooking and exercise, it never happened to me like that," said Lajevardi.

Also living in a studio, Lajevardi said it's been hard to turn on her student brain.

"It was repetitive. I would wake up every day and not move at all, and see my bed the whole time," she said.

Unable to spend time on campus or in a coffee shop, Lajevardi said she felt stifled sitting at home day in and day out.

"After a while it became a little bit suffocating, so I started redecorating even though I don't have a lot of money," she said. "It helped for a bit but it's starting to be suffocating a little more than before."

Despite the challenges, Lajevardi is confident she will push through and graduate with her hard-earned degree, even if her university experience wasn't what she expected.


This story is part of a special CBC Quebec project Out of the Dark: Real Talk on Mental Health. If you are having a hard time coping, here are some resources that could help.

If you are in crisis or know someone who is, here is where to get help:

  • Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566 (Phone) | 45645 (Text, 4 p.m. to midnight ET only) crisisservicescanada.ca

  • In Quebec (French): Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)

  • Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868 (Phone), Live Chat counselling at www.kidshelpphone.ca

  • Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention: Find a 24-hour crisis centre

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Marilla Steuter-Martin has been a journalist with CBC Montreal since 2015.

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