Can I have a social life at university during a pandemic?

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5 min read

Written by Meg Timbrell, a recent graduate from the University of Exeter and Editorial Assistant for Sortyourfuture.

“I’m very anxious about starting university, I don’t know what to expect.”

This statement could have been said by anyone starting university in previous years, but with Coronavirus restricting how freshers starting in 2020 can interact with each other, this rings even more true this year.

As a recent graduate from the University of Exeter, I am all too familiar with how Coronavirus may affect the student social experience, with the final chunk of my degree being stripped from me (sad reacts only please). I hope to shed some light on how to overcome the beginning of your university experience, in the face of virtual freshers weeks and socially distanced seminars.

You might have been deliberating over the past few months whether to even go to uni this year. Maybe you were set to take a gap year but travel plans have gone out the window. Or perhaps you just took a gap year, and don’t want to risk taking a second year out, starting university another year older. 

Universities UK’s #2020MADEUS campaign has tried to encourage students to still accept offers and make the most of this year at university, despite everything. They urge that those students starting university in 2020 will come out the other side stronger with a number of statements such as “2020 made us focus on our goals not our fears” and “2020 made us want to prove ourselves”. 

But how can the full student experience be reached amidst a pandemic? For many, clubbing, societies, and the hum of lecture theatres epitomises their uni memories. But with all of this now online (or drastically altered), many are feeling anxious about their forthcoming freshers week with Covid-19 lingering.

Tips for 2020 Freshers:

  • Attend online events as much as you can (even if you feel like it's pointless or silly, you never know who you might meet and form a bond with).
  • Sign up to as many societies that interest you - even if you can't participate fully for now. It will definitely help with expanding your social network outside of the bubble of your halls.
  • If you aren't happy with the people in your halls or flat, do make sure you communicate with your uni about it. They may be able to move you into another flat if this is what will make you feel happier and less isolated.
  • Try not to panic and feel pressurised into having a large social group immediately. Things are far from being normal, so it's unlikely your social life right now will look like university experiences you've seen on social media or heard about from siblings.

Abi, a third year at Oxford University, is nervous to return: “I don’t think it’s going to be the ‘full experience’ that universities want us to think it is… I believe it’ll tarnish my overall university experience.” She counts herself lucky that she already has friends, being a third year, but feels worried for freshers: “I can’t help but pity the freshers, who have to make friends in these conditions and adjust to a new social scene which is almost entirely virtual, if not non-existent.”

“I believe it’ll tarnish my overall university experience.”

For the most part, universities are doing their best to accommodate new students, and eventually, when everything opens back up again, there will be every opportunity to fully socialise. But could they be doing more?

Abi thinks it’s a great opportunity for students to “step up and become more vocal”, asking questions such as, “Why should we pay the same price for online lectures?” and “How can our feedback and experiences shape the course for years to come?” Opening up the lines of communication between universities and students could be crucial in enabling students to benefit as much as possible from their university experience amidst Covid-19, as Abi says: “I think it’s important that students recognise their power, and do what they can to help the universities adapt to this situation.”

“This is a great opportunity… for students to step up and become more vocal.”

As you’ll have been told a thousand times by your parents, older siblings, or friends: “Everyone’s in the same boat”. And this could not ring truer for this year. Except that on this particular boat, everyone has to stay 2 metres apart, wear masks and constantly use hand-sanitiser... but just sit tight for now, as not before long this boat will be a party boat, with everyone celebrating the end of Covid-19 and the return to normality. 

I for one feel even more excited about being able to eventually return to uni after all this time for graduation celebrations. I know that it will be even more fun than it would have been normally. Patience is everything at this point, and just making the most of opportunities your university provides to make friends, such as sports and societies, even if they are socially distanced or virtual.

After speaking to friends who have returned to university for a fourth year, I am hearing that large gatherings and house parties are returning all too soon. Many unis, such as Cardiff and Oxford, have asked students to sign pledges affirming their adherence to Covid guidelines, with the risk of expulsion, suspension or large fines if broken. A Nottingham student was recently fined £10,000 for holding a party of around 50 people. If these kinds of large non-socially-distanced gatherings are taking place, how soon can we really expect a return to normality?

Socially-Distanced Learning

With socially distanced learning and online lectures, many worry about where their tuition fees are actually going and if they’re getting the most out of their degrees. Universities have adapted by retraining lecturers and professors to teach in a digital environment. However, can students really stay focused and motivated if the majority of their learning experience is in their bedrooms?

Abi says that she’s lucky to be at a point in her degree which calls for more independent learning, meaning she will suffer less from reduced and diluted contact hours: “I feel as though STEM students will be at a further disadvantage as their degrees usually require more contact hours, so there’s more for them to miss.” 

Both students and staff are embarking into unknown territory and Abi feels as though it will require a “collaborative effort from both… to solve any hiccups that haven’t been foreseen.” Only time will tell what the 2020 freshers' experiences will be, and the new ways they find to overcome social barriers due to Coronavirus.

If you're a fresher this year or are about to start university, and are struggling with feelings of loneliness and anxiety, contact your university's mental health service for support or get in touch with organisations such as Nightline.

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