African Physics Newsletter

COVID-19 Through the Eyes of a Tunisian Senior Student in an End of Studies Internship

The lockdowns in several countries due to the COVID-19 first wave created a gap among students who had to pursue internship at the end of their studies.

My name is Ghalia. I am a senior engineering student, and during the last 6 months, I have been pursuing my End of Studies Internship. For those of you wondering, an ESI is a 4-to-6-month immersive professional experience. It is widely regarded as a pivotal point in a student’s career; a gateway from the world of studies to that of businesses.

Students look for internships that will grant them future jobs, or travel opportunities. Most aim for both. Most aim for Europe. COVID-19, changed the game. Here is how I, and many around me, lived the transition.

First, the search

We started noticing the first crisis symptoms as soon as early January. Along with usual default application refusals, we started noticing a new kind of email. “Because of the virus and the absence of long-term economic visibility, we are unable to ensure new recruitments.”

By the end of February, for those applying to France, those answers became more and more frequent. Meanwhile, Tunisia was still spared by the virus. Younger students were still taking exams in crowded rooms, and Tunisian companies were still hiring.

Choices had to be made. Many chose to continue searching abroad. Some changed their destination to countries with lighter paperwork, like Germany. Others chose to stay in Tunisia. I did, too.

Second, the lockdown

I took the internship interview from a couch in our living room. I started the internship a week later.

We were one week into national quarantine. Students had to interrupt exam season midway. People were hoarding essentials, my grandmother was already soaking bread in bleach twice, and all in all, we were two weeks away from Ramadan.

In short, those were not ideal conditions to start a high stakes internship, but we had to adapt by ensuring weekly meetings and working by objective. With that said, the whole situation still seemed completely absurd, and occasionally surreal.

My University took into consideration the special circumstances, and although unable to fully digitalize the paperwork, gave us enough leeway to deposit our papers much later. This was also when people's creativity started thriving.

Local initiatives to fight COVID-19

Under a surge of patriotism fueled by surprisingly bold political decisions, emerged a number of student and teacher-led initiatives which aimed to support the country in its fight against the virus. As for INSAT, two projects were in the spotlight: the Artificial Intelligence-based COVID-19 detector, and Fellag, a robot that uses UVCs (ultraviolet radiation in the range 280–100 nm wavelength range) to disinfect surfaces.

Meanwhile, many students who opted for an internship abroad found themselves stuck. Airports were closed, and companies halted activity.

Students who were already abroad and for whom remote work was not an option found themselves in precarious situations. Some were even asked to leave.

For those still waiting in Tunisia, things were not much better. Many had their internships put on hold until an uncertain date. Others were cancelled and many had to start searching again.

Finally, the aftermath

All in all, quarantine in Tunisia lasted for 2 whole months. We reopened the country in May and opened the borders in June.

That was also the timing followed by most European countries Tunisian students care for. Nonetheless, the bureaucratic freeze engendered by the virus resulted in a gap between students.

As I am now in the final steps of my internship, some of my friends are still waiting to start theirs. This results in a 6–month gap, at least, between students of the same cohort, who would eventually also have to compete with students from the next one. This too, will surely influence the job market.

The quarantine dilemna

Tunisia's first wave was soft. The quickly-imposed national quarantine drowned the need for high-tech approaches in favor of simple, cheap, and fast solutions. Yet, as we now face a second wave of the virus, the government doesn't seem as keen to quarantine the country again.

Most of us acknowledge that Tunisia cannot stand another lockdown. As students are going back to schools, catching up on missed exams, and starting a new year, we can only hope to adapt. As individuals, and as a nation, we can only come together to rise up.

Stay safe, everyone.

Ghalia Ben Jemia, National Institute of Applied Science and Technology (INSAT), Tunisia

This paper has first been published by the African Physics Newsletter -  © American Physical Society, 2020


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