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With so much invested in the decision to go to uni, students have faced an exceptionally difficult year.

Universities were always going to have a tough time adapting to social distancing measures. They’re buzzing with people who’ve travelled from far and wide, living closely together and crowding into lectures. It’s a model that’s not geared towards separation and the changes have had to be drastic. Whether just starting a degree, or trying to get it finished, students have struggled with an uncertain environment. This was supposed to be a time of freedom; getting away from home, making new friends and stepping out of comfort zones. It’s been mired in anxiety and disappointment instead.  

We asked our Instagram followers what the toughest part of the university experience had been for them this year. The replies were many and consistent. One word in particular kept coming up: Disconnected. It’s not hard to understand why that is. With learning moving over to Zoom, halls being locked down, and socialising cut off, it’s been a surreal experience. Moving into winter, the gloomy days have left many feeling even worse than when they started. There are even fewer opportunities to get out and relax when it’s dark mid-afternoon. People have been left wondering if bringing students back to campus was really the right decision. 

Person writing at desk with computer
Photo by Julia M Cameron on Pexels

MIXED MESSAGES

Many have felt like their university’s handling of the situation has been inconsistent and lacked coordination. There have been a lot of updates to government guidelines and many sudden changes for everyone to contend with. But there’s a consensus that the implications of restrictions being hastily enforced on students have been an afterthought. Poor communication has made matters worse. People have been given conflicting messages where it was hoped they’d be able to get clear advice from their uni. 

LEAVING HOME

When most courses are online, many have questioned why they were encouraged to make the move in the first place. Accomodation costs have been particularly hard to justify when distance learning from home would have given much the same experience. It’s difficult to understand the logic behind bringing so many thousands of people together for what’s ended up being a digital experience. The hassle of moving to a different city could have been avoided for many if there’d been a wider range of options. Particularly while being on campus in person is far from necessary. A couple of individuals who responded to our question gave the impression they wished they’d given uni a miss this year. 

GOING ONLINE

It’s just not been the same. The need to maintain social distancing is an important one, particularly when dealing with classes full of people. While online learning has provided a safe alternative, it’s not without its downsides. Students have reported struggling to stay engaged with Zoom classes, and an overall feeling of disconnect from their lessons and classmates. Even with the best will in the world, it’s still not easy to stay focused on a screen for long stretches of time. It’s clear that this isn’t the same quality of education that would be on offer in normal years. Paying full fees for a lesser version of the tuition that was promised doesn’t seem fair. 

Man studying alone
Photo by Jeswin Thomas on Pexels

STUDENTS vs MENTAL HEALTH

University is tough, particularly for freshers. Being thrown into a new world with a bunch of strangers is exhausting at the best of times. High stress levels have been ramped up this year and many people are struggling to cope. Between homesickness, anxiety and feeling overwhelmed, first year students haven’t had many opportunities to get to grips with things. Socializing has been off the cards in just about every form, leading to loneliness during already scary times.  

For those who’ve had to self-isolate, it’s been even harder. Being in quarantine without friends and family has proved a major challenge, particularly with brand new or absent housemates. Coursework may have been given plenty of undivided attention, but lack of distractions and entertainment have been difficult to deal with. Support for those stuck on their own has been varied. So far into the pandemic, it’s surprising that more resources weren’t already in place for this eventuality.

NEW SURROUNDINGS

Uni doesn’t feel like home yet either. Lots of people have been disappointed that they’ve been unable to explore the cities they were excited about moving to. The narrow window between lockdowns was still heavily restricted in most places and there hasn’t been much chance for new arrivals to become familiar with their surroundings. For local students, even nipping back home for a bit hasn’t been easy. Social bubbles and bans on non-essential travel meant that a lot of people were going long stretches without seeing family. Uncertainty has been far worse for international students. Tough decisions have had to be made and often altered as new restrictions are brought in on short notice. 

And there are serious health risks. After spending so much time exposed to other people, is it safe to go back home to potentially vulnerable relatives? It’s already proving to be a complex procedure getting everyone back for the holidays. The necessary 2 week quarantine period just adds to the stress of travelling right now. It’s all pointing towards the fact that it might have been better for many if they hadn’t had to move in the first place.

Woman looking at books
Photo by Abby Chung on Pexels

NEGATIVE PERCEPTION OF STUDENTS

Like all demographics, there have been a minority of people who just can’t follow the rules. Some students have ignored the regulations about social gatherings and unfortunately that’s landed blame on others. One individual said they felt they’ve been unfairly judged for the actions of a problematic few, adding that there’s an idea students are to blame for spreading the virus. An accusation many would find hard to understand. Particularly given that they’ve been stuck in their accomodation for the majority of the time.  

ADAPTING TO UNI LIFE IN LOCKDOWN

It’s still looking uncertain how universities will handle upcoming changes. Hopefully the new year will arrive with enough clarity that things can settle into a steady rhythm. Until then, it’s looking like a lot more resilience will be needed. Despite hardships, students across the country have shown how adaptable they can be. Everyone is making the best of the situations they find themselves in. This year has also highlighted how vital it is that universities listen to their students and respect the input being offered from those most affected by regulations. There’s seemed a serious lack of common sense in decisions made on behalf of those with the most invested. These can be lonely times but it’s important to remember that thousands of other people are in the same situation; nobody should feel that they’re struggling with this on their own. 

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