The Half Life of a Student
As students in the age of Covid, for myself and my two housemates at least, resilience is a matter of staying strong for each other and finding the motivation to work when we have no idea what the future holds. Ours is not a sob story about how rough life has been during these unprecedented times, but rather an admission that the simpler things have brought us unexpected joy even as we long for the larger than life adventures we had once taken for granted and indeed expected as part of our university experience.
We are three young women attending Sussex University. We live at the top of a small hill among the painted walls and extravagantly-dressed skater boys of Brighton, a liberal seaside paradise for some 50,000 students from three separate institutions. In the days before Covid, our lives would be punctured by one protest march or another along the seafront, and a thriving student scene in the bars and cafes of the Lanes. Study, in my case psychology with neuroscience, was of course a priority but the lure of the occasional nightclub was always a possibility too.
The reality is that the poor reputation of the student body is based on an ugly truth
Now we experience the joys of silent zoom seminars and exasperatingly regular technical issues during lectures. The daylight hours have been stolen by winter and our diurnal study times replaced with the nocturnal cries of foxes, encouraged by the pandemic’s empty streets, serenading us with inspiring screeches as we finally get around to the essay we spent all week searching for the motivation to finish. The promises we made to each other about daily walks to keep our mental health in check have been replaced with thrilling night-time trips to our local supermarket so that at least we can enjoy shopping together, rather than being torn apart or forced to pretend we belong to separate households.
We make the most of our ten-minute runway to Sainsbury; you have never seen three better-dressed grocery shoppers. Where else can people appreciate that new blouse bought while trying to ignore an internal voice that reminds us that short of a successful vaccine no inperson interaction is in sight? We are luckier than many though, finding solace in each other’s company.
Nevertheless, the horror stories that circulate through friends over weekly FaceTime calls provoke a certain fear and also resentment: entire halls of residence contracting the virus and having to quarantine, or students clashing with police as their need for partying becomes too much and they break the lockdown rules.
I may be personally frustrated by news reports explaining that the rise in cases is the fault of our behaviour but I cannot argue with the reality that the poor reputation of the student body – and I include students that I know at many other universities throughout the UK – is based on an ugly truth.
For the three of us, one of whom must shield for medical reasons, the hardest thing is expressing your desire to follow the government guidelines strictly and responsibly. The replies we receive from friends, when they hear our refusal to see them, vary from ‘how boring of you’ to ‘sure, tell me when you’ll be at my house for the party on Friday’. Time is wasted arguing with those you consider close, but who see things from such a different perspective, and I start to wonder whether I’m a little strange for caring about others and following the regulations. There’s always that nagging sense that we’re somehow missing out while others that flaunt the rules are enjoying a more typical student experience.
No societies run, and all sports clubs remain cancelled, not that my flatmates and I are particularly sporty but we rather liked to have the option in case one of us suddenly decided to join the rugby team or equestrian society. Our daily walks through campus have been replaced with hilarious at-home workouts which often end in fits of giggles.
In person lectures are run by ‘invitation only’ and, although an invitation feels exciting, I am not one who will step into the hotbed of coronavirus that is my university campus. The half-in-person/half-online lectures and classes provide further comedic yet often disheartening interactions. I’ve never been an early bird, and so the appeal of the 9am lecture at home might have been a bonus, except when I discover that only 13 of my 200 cohort can be bothered to attend.
Despite these challenges I have seen more strength in those around me over the past year than I have in my admittedly short lifetime. One flatmate, Iris, is separated from her family in Hong Kong this Christmas due to quarantine rules, in fact large numbers of university students will be spending the festive break alone this year. And yet the positivity that she shows, and I’m sure others are doing also, is extraordinary. It has been remarkable to to see how people have managed to thrive despite their limiting circumstances.
Dining together and spending time with those that you can, reaching out to friends you are unable to see just to make sure they are coping, has become extremely important. Despite the criticism that we receive as students, the networks of online events and online conversations that we manage to employ should certainly be recognised and applauded. Our experience is no worse than anyone else’s during these dark times – and of course in many ways it has been so much better. I dare not think about the thousands of deaths among the elderly in care homes and hospitals, or the solitude so many have faced. But I do want to raise a small shout for the resilience we have shown in staying the course despite the student fees, glitchy online lectures, and silent zoom breakout rooms.
Alice Rhodes is studying for a BSc in Psychology with Neuroscience at the University of Sussex