Students starting university each year are told the experience will be the “most memorable” of their lives – but those words have taken on a whole new meaning for the ‘Class of Covid’, the cohort set to graduate in Summer 2022.
For students like myself, who are entering our final years this autumn, the majority of our university experience has been impacted by coronavirus.
Although the Covid-19 pandemic has had a major effect on everyone’s lives, university students have faced stressful and overwhelming challenges of our own – from switching to remote learning to coping with the isolation and/or claustrophobia of our living situations – and we can’t help but feel a bit lost, nearing the end of the tunnel.
Nina White, a 21-year-old English literature student, felt the pandemic pressure bite as she struggled to complete her final year studies in 2020 – so much so she pressed pause and will be completing her degree this coming academic year instead.
The Cardiff University student was in her second year when Covid-19 hit in the spring term of 2020. As someone who already lived with a diagnosis of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, those were testing weeks and months.
However, White’s mental health took a turn for the worse in third year when she received a low grade after more than a year of remote learning.
“I did really well in majority of my modules, but I really messed up one of them, and that was when I had a wake up call that this isn’t me. There is something wrong here,” she tells HuffPost UK.
White interrupted her studies in March 2021, “ironic, because that was [already] a year since the pandemic,” she says. “I feel as though I crumbled, and the grade made me feel so low because I put so much of my self-worth on it.”
Earlier on in the pandemic, she had moved out of her cluster flat in Cardiff and back to her home town of Cheltenham where she has been living ever since.
“My mental health deteriorated even more because I was just starring at a screen,” she says. “Ultimately the best choice was to just leave, and mentally prepare myself to finish next year in the hopes that things will be different.”
When Covid-19 forced the first national lockdown, universities had to make the difficult decision to move learning online to abide by the government’s stay-at-home and social distancing guidelines.
Unsurprisingly, many students found the 100% transition to remote learning a difficult one, and universities focused on moving teaching and tutorials on to Zoom, soon realised they had to make student support a priority, too.
By autumn 2020, many students were back on campus, only to face further winter lockdowns, with some prevented from leaving their accommodation, and rising frustrations at the costs of learning (and living) almost entirely online.
“We had a lot of social activities, and different types of outreach activities to try and make sure that students still felt connected with us,” says Polly Smith, head of student support at the University of Salford.
The big challenge was engaging students, not just in their learning, but to maintain contact and minimise feelings of isolation – especially when many weren’t as forthcoming in requesting support as they might be on campus.
“Some students have been expressing their concerns throughout the year because we have been talking to them about their experience,” says Smith. “But obviously this has been a huge event that has hit everyone. We know students are having difficulties.”
International student Heloisa Toco, who is about to start her fourth year of a journalism degree at Birmingham City University (BCU), says that before Covid, she never really struggled with her wellbeing.
The 22-year-old, who came to study in the UK in 2018 from Portugal, got to experience relative normality during her foundation year. She enjoyed exploring the university campus and, as an aspiring news presenter, made the most of media production studios that are a key component of the course.
“I’ve always wanted to study abroad, and I was really fascinated by the different resources available to me here,” she tells HuffPost UK. “English is not my first language so I really rely on practical experiences to help me learn.”
When learning moved online, the studios had to be closed too. BCU moved quickly to devise a programme and approach to remote learning, which received plenty of positive feedback from students, but Toco, stuck inside student accommodation, experienced a crisis in confidence.
She was not the only international student to feel disorientated. As early as April 2020, the British Council surveyed more than 10,000 Chinese International students on their study goals, and how they had changed since the pandemic.
It revealed that 39% of students were unsure if they would continue their plans to pursue their studies that autumn, and an overwhelming 79% stressed concerns for their health and wellbeing.
For her part, Toco ended up moving back to her native Lisbon. While he is excited to return to Birmingham before the next academic year starts, she worries about having a knowledge gap after missing out on the practical experience that would normally be a feature of her second year.
“It’s been very hard trying to keep up with everything that is going on,” she admits. “I would usually feel confident going back, but this time I’m not sure.”
For international students, university can be isolating enough in regular times, without the added social and travel restrictions of the pandemic. The student support team at University of Salford had to find new ways to engage and support their international cohort, Smith says. “We worked in partnership with the Students Union to deliver a piece with our arriving international students who have to quarantine,” says Smith. The aim: to make students feel “connected and supported, even when they were very alone in a very practical sense”.
Besides learning, of course, an enormous part of any university experience is the social element: the people you meet, the events you attend, the memories you make.
Of course, this also ground to a halt over the past 18 months, which 21-year-old Reisse Jawahall says was “frustrating and lonely at times”.
The Manchester Metropolitan student, originally from London, will be entering his final year of an accounting and finance degree this autumn.
Social life has never been top priority at university, says Jawahall, who is pretty content with a casual phone call and PlayStation link-up. However, the Groundhog Day nature of lockdown learning, with no chance for spontaneous socialising, has been tough, even for a self-confessed introvert.
“The repetitive routine became annoying. It got long some days, there was nothing to really look forward to,” he says. “After revising and doing work, you were just left to re-start the process all over again by yourself. That would be hard for anyone.”
Not all students feel the same, however. Some even believe that adapting to different ways of learning and socialising has equipped them with new skills.
Lewis Baxter, 22, a final year law student at the University of Durham, says the pandemic has given him a more realistic view of the curveballs life can throw at you – and the ways to cope with them.
Resilience, he suggests, is essential to any student’s development. “I got used to the online stuff, I got use to catching up with people through Zoom like most students. I’m resilient and I have been through a lot in the past 18 months, so I wasn’t going to allow online teaching to hinder my growth,” he says.
The 22-year-old from Lancashire had already experienced his own hardship in late 2019 when he left university six weeks into his second year to care for his mother who had cancer. At the time, the idea of returning to university wasn’t at the forefront of his mind, however Baxter knew he would eventually return.
By the time Baxter did resume his studies in October 2020, the effects of the pandemic were in full swing, and after not touching a law book in a year, the changes to university life were a big shock to his system.
However, a determination to finish his degree is carrying him through. “I feel students have embraced the challenge,” he says. “Speaking from my perspective and my peers that I know, it’s been a tough year. Law is a degree that requires a lot of face to face interaction. Not from a practical perspective but just for learning and debating, but it can still be done.
“Of course we have to adapt, and us students see online teaching as this unknown, because we’re so use to a certain learning style, but when I came back, Durham had done their best to try and support people. I just hope all students get the same support from where they study.”
Baxter plans to stay on in Durham to complete his final year, and Jawahall, who has a flat in Manchester, will also remain on his university campus, where he anticipates a mixture of face-to-face and online learning. Heloisa expects a hybrid model on her return from Portugal, and is itching to get into the BCU studio with her fellow journalism students.
Meanwhile, Nina White is finally heading back to Cardiff from Cheltenham to resume her final year. She has yet to receive her timetable for the semester ahead, but is hopeful that some face-to-face teaching will be re-introduced.
Last year knocked her. “When I received that low grade, it affected me so much, I just thought: how am I going to do my dissertation now? How am I suppose to complete my other two modules? It made me revaluate how to even do basic things,” she says.
White plans to prioritise her mental health this time and urges anyone who wants to flourish in their final year to do the same. The student journey can be mentally and emotionally draining and it’s important to act on how you are feeling – contact the support team at your university in the first instance.
Ultimately, universities need to practise compassion in their everyday actions when it comes to pandemic stress and anxiety, concludes White. Not all students will have a formal mental health diagnosis, but many are still suffering. Universities should meet their students where they are when their problems are genuine – and if that also means the odd essay extension, so be it.
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393.
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill).
- CALM (the Campaign Against Living Miserably) offer a helpline open 5pm-midnight, 365 days a year, on 0800 58 58 58, and a webchat service.
- The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email email@example.com
- Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0808 801 0525 (Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on rethink.org.