Opinion: My University Experience During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Photo by NEC Corporation of America with Creative Commons license.

We are all too familiar with the impact of COVID-19 on our lives, and as we transition back to ‘normal’ life, it is my belief that students are making one of the biggest transitions – particularly if you are a second-year student like I am. The first few weeks of term have seen a return to what is normally considered university life, yet I find that my experience so far feels quite the opposite. I, like many students, welcome the return to in-person teaching, but this has led to one unintended consequence for me: the impact on my mental health. Furthermore, it has led to general discussion concerning the purpose of university life, and the skills it provides for young people. 

My own experience of being on campus so far has been met with a mixture of emotions, with happiness on the one hand, and a feeling of being overwhelmed on the other. For me, the primary cause of this sense of overwhelm is my realisation that the experience of being on a university campus is largely alien. The little experience I had of in-person seminars in the last academic year was fortunate given so many students had a wholly virtual timetable, yet I do not feel that I was well-equipped for the transition back to normal. For example, the experience of sitting in a lecture theatre is something that I should be familiar with, yet I find myself almost amazed that I am now experiencing in-person teaching at university. It feels strange to admit, but I remember thinking that it was a surreal experience, and something that was missing from my first year. Furthermore, I believe that students are expected to go back to normal with little acknowledgement that this can be an overwhelming first few weeks for some – including myself. Naturally, this has led to comparisons between my first year and the start to my second. As I am writing, however, I am gradually becoming acquainted with what in-person teaching has to offer to my academic experience, despite the drastic contrast with my experience thus far. 

Until recently, university had been synonymous with Zoom calls and recorded lectures, which are entirely different to in-person teaching. This year I also find myself navigating campus, something that should feel normal to me but doesn’t. I’m thoroughly enjoying the ability to study on campus, as I now feel a part of the university community here at Exeter – something that I was sorely lacking last year because of social distancing rules. As I am now a second-year student, I am beginning to fully understand the impact of the pandemic on university life, and I can now say with confidence the difference in-person teaching makes. Given the disparity in quality of online learning compared to in-person classes, some students were rightly protesting for some compensation which would have acknowledged the value lost through online classes. The return to in-person teaching has meant that I am able to connect with my peers more easily, and have face-to-face interactions which are valuable to both academic discussion and integral to making friends on my course. Although most of my lecturers last year made a conscious effort to provide quality online teaching, I believe that it is incredibly difficult to match the experience of in-person lectures and seminars. I felt that it was almost impossible to make friends over Zoom as it lacked the basic human interaction which is vital for well-being. Whilst I am pleased to see students using university facilities such as the Forum library, it feels strange, as the pandemic meant that on the rare occasion that I would go to campus it was largely empty. Two weeks ago, in one of my seminars, I freely admitted that even though I am a second-year student, I feel like a first year all over again, predominantly because of the lack of in-person teaching last year. Now, in hindsight, I am more aware of the importance of in-person teaching in providing a well-rounded university experience. 

Whilst it was only my first year that was disrupted, most students would have found themselves away from campus for the better part of eighteen months. The loss of in-person teaching led to debates about what university life should be like, and ultimately, the value that students get from it. The call for compensation for tuition fees by many students during the January 2021 lockdown was met with little understanding from the government. I believe this to be both senseless and ironic, as many of the Cabinet Ministers likely had the privilege of experiencing normal university life themselves – without, of course, paying £9,250 a year in tuition fees, before we even consider living costs. It is, however, important to emphasise that by no means am I suggesting that university life could have gone on as normal during the lockdown at the beginning of 2021. This opinion piece is solely focused on the value for money that students were getting from online university classes compared to in-person teaching. 

Whilst it is incredibly important that the government should protect the most vulnerable, this should not detract attention from other groups in society such as students. There seems to be a mentality in this current government that by protecting the most vulnerable, we can forget the needs of others. In January 2021, when another national lockdown was announced, I felt entirely ignored by the government, including the Education Secretary at the time, Gavin Williamson. The narrative in the mainstream media was largely concerned with the quality of education and the impact of coronavirus for pupils in primary and secondary school, as well as sixth form, but there was very little attention given to university students. In addition, the dark months of winter meant that the lockdown was made even more troublesome for my mental health, particularly as I, like everyone else, was isolated. As I have stated before, it is natural, of course, to expect disruption to university life in a pandemic, but the government failed to fully acknowledge the impact of coronavirus on students which has become, in my case, a key factor in my resentment for the government. 

However, given the return to normality on campus, my second-year experience will hopefully continue to include in-person teaching. 

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