Student Fernando*, 25 years old, talks about his struggles with the covid19 pandemic, his family, the burden of debt and the support from the VUB Caroline Pauwels Relief Fund.

Aiming for a global career in business

Fernando is 25 and comes from Mexico. He is studying to obtain a Master’s in International Business at the VUB and is currently in his second year. He should graduate in two years but because of the covid19 pandemic he could extend the Master program with one more year. ‘I wanted to study at the VUB and also learn French and Dutch. Once I finish my Master’s, I would like to work for a multinational company in Brussels’, Fernando says.

Working and studying at the same time

Fernando’s life in Brussels was hard from the beginning because of the cultural differences and some requirements to work here. His idea was to start working while he was studying. He even landed a job in tourism and was saving some money. ‘It was nice but then the pandemic happened, and everything stopped from one day to another. I had to live off of my savings and look for something else’, Fernando explains.

Disaster in Mexico

There were huge problems in Mexico and his parents could not send him money anymore. Both his grandparents became gravely ill and needed intensive care. ‘My parents decided to move my grandparents to their home to take care of them’, he says, ‘I would have to wait, and they would try to do whatever they could to send me money.’ It was a big blow for Fernando. He even had to return to Mexico for two months to help his parents. When all the classes were online, he asked for permission to return and could continue his education online.

An impossible combination

At that time Fernando was also studying Dutch and French. But those classes switched to online teaching as well. Trying to learn a language online is really hard because you don’t get to experience the natural conversation. Additionally, Fernando received even more assignments. He became stressed because of the workload. Then he couldn’t find a new job when he finally returned to Belgium after two months in Mexico. ‘I found a job in Antwerp, but it was irregular. Some days they called me, some days they didn’t. Even when I was already on my way, they called me to cancel, so I couldn’t rely on that’, Fernando sighs.

Lending money to study

International students need to lend money to study. When they lose a student job, they have to go out looking for money and cannot focus on their studies. These international students require a relative to back them up financially in order to obtain a visa. But that financial back-up became difficult too. Fernando: ‘In Mexico, when you lose your job, you don’t get insurance or help from the government. If that happens, the student needs
to return.

In one month, the exchange rate also changed and the fees to extract international money orders became a lot more expensive’, Fernando explains. Then he found out about the VUB Caroline Pauwels Relief Fund through a friend who was working at the VUB restaurant. Both friends applied.

Support from the VUB Caroline Pauwels Relief Fund

The response was very fast. Within a week he did an interview with the VUB team and soon after, he received his grant. Most part of Fernando’s debt was for rent. Fernando: ‘I received the financial support in February, now I am living in the student dorms at the VUB. They also sent an allowance for me to use to pay the rest of the rent and also some courses because I wanted to finish my Master's immediately and enrolled into several paid classes at the same time. I got so many invoices and reminders, but I could not pay everything, so it was really stressful to get all these letters. Even my family in Mexico received bills. After that, everything became lighter, now I can focus more on what I came here for.

Mixed emotions

It proved to be a really tough melting pot of emotions for Fernando. A lot of his friends lost family members and he was constantly thinking about his family back home. Fernando experienced he could not concentrate and study. He sat down and was reading the same part for a few hours without understanding anything. ‘There were a lot of days I thought of quitting. I wanted to drop out and help my family. You work really hard to be here, but this was way more than I was expecting or could handle. Every day was a small fight inside of me. I wanted to go to sleep and wake up in a new situation, but we were here all alone.

Fernando had to remind himself why he was here… He never had to ask for money before. This was a breaking point for him. He was working but he did not make enough to pay his expenses. The Relief Fund was indeed a huge relief, and it actually gave Fernando some hope: ‘I got it, and it gave me a second breath. I recovered and kept going. This gave me focus on the university and some hope to continue and go on with my plans.

A better tomorrow

Fernando is feeling a lot better now. He is looking for student jobs again and will start working at a restaurant now that they re-open. The grant from the VUB Caroline Pauwels Relief Fund helped him not to worry about the financial aspects of his education. ‘Now I think I am able to pay my rent’, he says, ‘But that is because I got help from the VUB. If not, I would probably have quit to go back to Mexico. With debt, you cannot focus anymore. I can aim higher now. It really helped me a lot.

*Fernando is a pseudonym to protect the student’s privacy.

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