A couple studying side by side in bed.
Zoey and Alexandre. ALL PHOTOS: LUIS ALEJANDRO CUÉLLAR 
Life

Students Stuck in Tiny Apartments During COVID Are Not OK

“I’ve had hallucinations of myself jumping out of my fifth floor window,” said 24-year-old Xavier.
March 2, 2021, 8:45am

This article originally appeared on VICE France.

For almost a year, millions of students across the world haven’t had a single class face-to-face. With high schools and universities still empty, it’s a struggle to remain motivated while studying from home. Worse still, having a designated space to focus on your coursework is a luxury most students living away from home simply don’t have, leaving many no option but to work on sofas, beds and kitchen tables – especially in wildly unaffordable cities like Paris

The cramped reality of being a student during the pandemic is taking a serious mental health toll. According to an Ipsos study published in January of 2021, almost two-thirds of 18 to 24-year-olds in France said the pandemic is impacting them negatively, and 22 percent reported having suicidal thoughts. The study suggested that 22 to 24-year-olds living outside the home were particularly at risk, with 47 percent reporting high anxiety levels. Similar feelings of depression and anxiety have been reported by young people across the world.

We asked students living in tiny apartments in Paris how they’re coping.

Zoey Ginsberg, 23, and Alexandre Periano, 26, living and studying in 20 square metres

Zoey and Alexandre, sitting on their bed with their laptop and headphones.

Zoey and Alexandre.

Zoey and Alexandre have been dating for five years and living in their shared 20-square-metre apartment for a few months. Both masters students, they were studying in Los Angeles when the pandemic began, and rushed back to their native France for the first lockdown in March of 2020.

They chose their place, which is €900 a month, for its central location in Paris. But just a few weeks in, problems arose. The apartment turned out to be mouldy and badly lit, which makes it hard for them to read. “My eyes used to get so tired I ended up buying blue light glasses for the computer,” said Zoey.

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They alternate working in the kitchen and in the bedroom when they have video calls. Otherwise, they study side by side in bed, wearing their headphones. Alexandre gets a sore back and knees after sitting in bed all day, but said he’s just happy not to be living alone during this time.

Zoey and Alexandre, hugging on their tiny couch, their laptops piled on top of each other.

Zoey and Alexandre on their tiny couch.

The Diary of a Student Rent Striker

Zoey, however, felt claustrophobic during the second lockdown, which lasted from late October to the 15th of December. “I panicked – I wanted to leave immediately,” she said. “I didn't want to be locked up here.” Eventually, she decided to stay.

To make rent, Alexander pitches in his salary, since he’s doing a work-study programme, while Zoey relies on babysitting and help from her parents.

“It’s the first time we've lived together,” said Zoey, “and it's complicated to be constantly on top of each other.” With the possibility of a third lockdown looming on the horizon, the couple has decided to move out of the city to a more affordable suburb. "Paris is too expensive and too small,” Zoey said. “Everything's closed now – there’s no point being here anymore.”

Xavier Ouzounian, 24, living and studying in 10 square metres

Xavier standing in his cramped flat with one foot on his mattress on the floor.

Xavier in his cramped flat.

Xavier is doing a masters in cultural engineering and management. On paper, his apartment is 10 square metres, but his real living space is much smaller than that. “My hallway is at least two square meters,” he said, “and my bathroom fairly large, so my room is literally the size of my mattress.” When Xavier unfolds his mattress, it bunches up against the wall, forcing him to sleep diagonally to fully lie down.

This fabulous rental opportunity costs him €500 a month. Space-wise, it’s quite the change from his previous 30-square-metre sublet, which he had to leave in September. “It was nice to change rooms, especially during the lockdown,” he said. “But now, my bed is also my office, my dining room and my dressing room.”

Xavier attended class in person with the rest of his cohort at the beginning of the school year in 2020, but after a month-and-a-half everything was moved online. “It wasn’t enough to make friends at uni, but it was something,” he said of the time spent physically in class. His classmates try to keep in touch on Zoom and by organising small meetings at each other's homes.

Xavier sitting up on his mattress and working on his laptop.

Xavier studies sitting on his mattress.

Sometimes, Xavier has to work on his computer from 9AM to 1AM. It’s painful on his back and legs, but the toll on his mental health has been much worse. “I’ve had hallucinations of myself jumping out of my fifth floor window,” he said. He’s now experimenting with CBD oil to “stabilise his emotions and take a step back from the situation”.

“I’m trying to see my apartment as a partner more than a jail cell,” he said. “But this is only working right now – I'm afraid I’ll eventually feel suffocated, like a caged lion. Especially since I have so much energy.” His classmates are trying hard to stay on track, but many are struggling to find an internship in this period, which is required to finish their programme.

Despite COVID risks, Xavier wishes he could go back to attending class in person. “That’s our only place to socialise,” he said. “It’s the essence of studying, being able to talk and exchange ideas.”

Lénora Kessab, 25, living and studying in 12 square metres

Lénora sitting on a chair at the bottom of her mezzanine bed.

Lénora.

Lénora, a masters student in international law, has been living in a 12-square-metre studio near her university for two years, paying €540 a month. Even before the pandemic, she always preferred working in the library, surrounded by people studying. Now that she’s at home, she works on her sofa, since there is no room for a desk in her apartment. 

"Since the start of the school year, I’ve been enjoying my classes less and less,” she said. “I almost dropped out.” If Lénora doesn't understand something in class, she now tends to mentally disconnect or turn off her computer altogether. 

Lénora sitting on her mezzanine bed, her legs dangling in the air.

Lénora on her mezzanine bed.

During lockdown, Lénora couldn’t stand living in her studio. Not being able to physically separate her workspace from her downtime left her feeling disoriented. “For students, it’s like the lockdown is never-ending,” she said. With no social life and heavy coursework to tackle, she’s also hoping universities will soon open back up.