• Isabelle Osborne

‘It’ll be an experience to look back on’: being a Fresher in the Covid-19 pandemic

First-year UCL English student Sungleen Moon speaks about the experience of Freshers during the global pandemic. As the year draws into the autumn and the pandemic continues to present major disruption and concern across the world, the start of the new academic year has been like no other. The measures brought about as a reaction to the pandemic mean every student at UCL is having to adapt to virtual lectures, seminars and tutorials; an undoubtedly daunting prospect for both new and returning students.

  As students begin to question why tuition fees have remained the same as previous years when teaching has moved online, there has been a strong sense of disillusionment with the university experience. Sungleen Moon, a first year English undergraduate student, spoke of what she imagined her university experience to be like prior to the pandemic. “From the mainstream media's portrayal of going to university to the coming of age movies and stories about being students and experiencing some of the ‘best moments of your life’, I definitely had a stereotypical expectation and portrayal of what my university experience would be like,” she said. 

Because of the pandemic, Sungleen admitted that she “definitely had doubts and extreme worries about attending university this year”, which arose before the term even began. She tells us that “Many of [her worries] came from not knowing if [she] was going to attend [university] or not due to the A-Level fiasco. After that, the restrictions got tighter and [she] was wondering if [she] should attend university this year or defer.”

Despite her concern, Sungleen decided to move to London, motivated by “the prospect of there being some in-person seminars, lectures and tutorials, wanting to live independently, and being close to the university's resources such as the library.” She also mentions that, despite the pandemic, “many students wanted to come and live in London, because it's London! So many places to visit, people to meet, and things to do!”

“I think if I had to self-isolate, I wouldn’t be able to cope very well.” Freshers’ Week took a completely different form this year, with virtual welcome events replacing the annual Freshers’ pub crawls and clubbing nights. Sungleen admitted she found “Zoom calls, the virtual Freshers sessions and online meetings challenging and awkward to attend.” However, she added that throughout Freshers Week “[she] did get used to the online events and really enjoyed some of what the Students’ Union provided. They were super innovative with how students could connect with others, such as with online games and online quizzes, which [she] found very entertaining! [She] got to meet various people through those sessions, and did feel connected to other students to a certain extent.”

However, Sungleen’s experience of moving to London was not completely plain sailing, especially when someone on her floor at accommodation presented Covid-19 symptoms. “I had to self-isolate until they got their results back”, she said. Although it was only a day, she claimed that “it did feel very daunting for the first few hours and ... the prospect of having to be stuck in your small accommodation room was very demoralising.” Sungleen added that students travelling from abroad who have had to self-isolate for two weeks are incredibly “resilient and strong”;  “I think if I had to self-isolate, I wouldn't be able to cope very well,” she said.

Student mental health has featured in countless headlines in recent weeks, as the prospect of self-isolating and living away from home during a pandemic is understandably daunting for many students and their parents. Sungleen is staying in University of London Intercollegiate Halls, where she believes the team “is doing their best to support [the residents] and [their] health as well as the staff's health and making the environment safer.” She is confident in their approach to reinforcing  the government guidelines through placing limits on how many people can gather together in communal rooms, for example.

Sungleen added that UCL “have provided many documents, online sessions, and a Moodle course on students' wellbeing and support.” However, the extensive written information “can take a lot of time to go through and find the specifics.” Her experience on campus has been positive, drawing attention to the “multiple safety precautions”, “one-way system” and “lots of hand-sanitising points”. She added that although the library booking system “can be bothersome, [she does] think it is to make the campus feel safer and more secure”, before contemplating how effective these procedures will be as the year continues. “I think students will have to get used to this for a while!” she admitted.

“Virtual lessons do lack that flair and experience of in-person lessons” On the question of online learning, Sungleen is confident that “there are lots of positives and negatives.” She tells us she can “watch live lectures with [her] camera turned off”, and also mentioned that “pre-recorded lectures are great because you can watch whenever you have free time but also be able to pause and take notes.” 

Although, Sungleen does admit that “most of the negatives of online learning comes from I.T. issues. For example, pre-recorded lectures can buffer a lot, making the process of watching them extensive.” She added that “sometimes, during Zoom calls, the WiFi can be bad so [she] may miss what the lecturer had said, and virtual lessons do lack that flair and experience of in-person lessons.” Sungleen also reflected on how fortunate she is to have the space to do online learning, whilst “some people...may not have an environment or timezone suited to online learning with ease”. This, she feels, could provide a case for the reduction of tuition fees.

“Talking to other people online or in real life who are going through the exact same emotions, feelings, and worries made me feel like I wasn’t so alone!” Having less in-person events means there are less opportunities to make connections, and Sungleen touches on how “virtual events can sometimes be awkward and challenging”, making it “a difficult process”. But, even though Sungleen would have preferred to have more in-person events, she feels it is “important to continue to be as careful as possible so that students and staff can be safe, and for the prevention of further cases and further tragedies in this dystopian world!”

When talking about how she coped with limited contact with those around her, she advises people to “talk to as many other students as possible, whether it is people in accommodation, joining online society events or just talking to people on Facebook group chats.” “Talking to other people online or in real life who are going through the exact same emotions, feelings, and worries made me feel like I wasn't so alone!” she added. “Make sure to call your friends and family from back home as well!”

For all the experiences she has been robbed of, Sungleen retains an admirable sense of optimism. “Before Covid, I was super excited about meeting new people from all over the world, hanging out with other students, and exploring the city together,” she said. “Obviously, this can't happen as much but I'm still excited to be able to experience these things in the future when I can. I think I will still enjoy university even considering these new circumstances, and it'll be an experience to look back on!” 

Whilst the university experience may be rather different from what it usually is, Sungleen is hopeful that the situation will return to “normal, where students can meet and the vibes are nice.” But, as Sungleen reminds us, this is dependent on the ever-changing statistics and government guidelines which will be determined by how the student community, in addition to the rest of the country, perform in the coming weeks.

This article was originally published on UCL Pi Media: https://uclpimedia.com/online/itll-be-an-experience-to-look-back-on-being-a-fresher-in-the-covid-19-pandemic

Featured image courtesy of MD Duran on Unsplash. Image license can be found here. No changes were made to this image.