10 Student Stories: Living with Coronavirus

Continuing our series focusing on student experiences during Lockdown, Cyann Fielding interviews ten students from different universities about their time living with Coronavirus.

2020 has so far been a year that has left many feeling baffled, unnerved and curious about the future. With concerts, festivals and shows being cancelled, social lives have quieted down to the realm of FaceTime’s and Zoom calls with glasses of wine at hand. The Coronavirus pandemic has left millions confused about when we will have our ‘normal’ livelihoods back. With the education system seemingly suffering as a consequence, universities not only within the UK, but across the globe have been forced to shut their gates to students for a length of time that currently does not have an expiration date.

 My university, Royal Holloway, University of London, closed for face to face teaching in late March, resulting in thousands of students accessing online learning for their studies. Exams were rearranged to different assessment methods, leaving some relieved and others angered. As a first year English undergraduate, this meant essays after essays without physical lectures and seminars. Whilst my university, along with many others, worked to the best of the abilities to ensure students were cared for and taught appropriately – no amount of online teaching can make up for what you thought your degree would be. With this mass move from face-to-face teaching, to communicating through pixels on a screen, I decided to ask ten students from different universities, how they felt about the changes to their student lives. 

Firstly, I wanted to know what students had been up to Lockdown so far. With university work being the only obligation at the moment for most students, it was interesting to see what else students had been doing in replacement of nights out. With only two out of the ten students admitting what they had been doing was carrying on with work, the other eight student responses were mixed. Ellie (BA Geography, Royal Holloway, University of London) commented how she had been doing ‘anything that isn’t productive’, adding that she was ‘not motivated to complete university work’. Another student shared the same feelings; ‘[I have been doing] very little actual university work’ commented Philosophy and IR student, Kaviyan, from the University of St Andrews. Alternatively, some students had been filling their time in alternative ways, like watching programmes on various platforms; ‘[I have been] watching so much TV; and quite frankly, it’s impossible not to’ stated Master of Architecture Student at Harvard University, Aggie. 

Leading from this I felt it was important to gauge what the students felt was the most positive element of quarantine. Whilst half of the students mentioned being around family, some also had other comments to add. Elliot, Master of Architecture Student at UCL, mentioned ‘I no longer have to commute to university giving me an extra 1.5-2 hours each day’. He went on to explain how this extra time enabled him to follow his own schedule and also do extra activities during the day, like watching a film. Raynor, History of Art and Visual Culture and Comparative literature and Cultural student at Royal Holloway, University of London also noted the expansion of ‘opportunities’ allowing her to put into ‘perspective who I miss and what I care about’. Two of the students also mentioned the extra free time they had, whilst Aggie confessed, she is ‘taken pleasure in being able to limit (my) spending’, allowing ‘for more financial stability’. A definite relief for, I imagine, many students. 

Of course, if I asked this, I also needed to ask what the most negative aspect of quarantine was. Whilst six of the ten students mentioned the obvious pain of missing family and friends it was interesting to see that some students saw further implications as a result of quarantine. Will, Commercial Management and Quantity Surveying student at Loughborough University, remarked that ‘it takes more effort to do exercise’ from the evident problem of being restrained to the realm of our own house’s. Additionally, Ellie observed how ‘the dynamics of our lives have changed’ for the foreseeable future. This idea was also explored by student Aggie, who explored that ‘pixels [through things like Facetime] are not quite a substitute for the present sensation of human beings’ and that this problem ‘is only exacerbated by how desperately strangers do not want to be near you’. An idea that crossed nearly no minds in the closing of 2019. 

Obviously, I felt like I needed to investigate the damage the virus has done to studies. The responses were mixed, some felt that it wasn’t that affected, but others like Will mentioned how he felt as if he had not ‘had quality teaching’. For Oli, Music and Sound Recording student at York University, he has been unable to access ‘music studios or equipment’, in comparison George, History student at Royal Holloway, University of London, has struggled without the use of the university library. Aggie added the interesting concept of ‘Democratic Spread’ through ‘platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft teams’ where the ‘sea of equally distributed heads offer no predetermination of hierarchy or inversely inferiority’ enabling your voice to be ‘no less value to theirs’. 

Mental health is also crucial to students and throughout this period, and whilst half the students admitted that their mental health was either just okay, or had even improved, the other half explained the detrimental effects of the pandemic on their mental health. George simply admitted to ‘dwelling on the past’ with all the free time. Raynor mentioned how the ‘uncertainty and miss direction in the media certainly doesn’t help’, something that has been featured in many people’s comments across the globe in response the pandemic. Aggie explained how the pandemic had resulted ‘in an almost knee jerk reaction response form [her] my mental health’. This has led her to feeling a general low that ‘pervades through how I [she] works and how ‘[she] address people I ‘meet’ on the street’. Interestingly, something that not that long ago did not concern us as much as today.

With this added time, I also explored if the students had been developing new skills. With most expanding skills, for example instrumental (Oli and Tom) or running (Elliot and Ellie), it is evident that these students have established other forms of filling their time. Alternatively, Raynor and Kaviyan explored the expansion of practical habits like ‘home renovations’ (Kaviyan), which ‘would otherwise be largely ignored’ and ‘improving skin care and well-being’ (Raynor). 

With all this in mind, I asked the students whether they thought the Coronavirus pandemic would be incorporated in some form, into their degrees in the future. Tom, Biochemistry student from …, already can see the implementation of case studies from the pandemic as is ‘taking units related to viruses and diseases next year’. Ella, Politics and IR student at Bristol University, expressed how it will be interesting to ‘look at the poor decisions made by current politicians’ as this ‘government [will be] looked at for years from now’. Also, in relation to politics, Kaviyan mentioned how it will be interesting to explore ‘Trump’s relationship with China [and how it] has evolved throughout the crisis’. Aggie and Oli both looked at possible practical developments for their degrees. Aggie noted how it could be possible to reduce ‘studio work hours’ potentially making student life more adaptable. Whereas Oli outlined how a software could be ‘developed to help musicians jam/play together live over a video stream’, which would ultimately help musicians wherever they are and whenever to stream together.

Some of the students felt passionate about their responses and added extra comments. Elliot’s final comment was particularly interesting; he discussed how it has been ‘interesting to observe the different houses/households that people have fled to’. From the different ideas of where everyone is the world is isolating he concluded that ‘although everyone is in isolation, each person’s isolation seems slightly different’. On a final note, Kaviyan expressed how there is an ‘uncertainty of when this will all end’ and how it ‘has created a shadowy undertone to almost all activity’. And with what all these students have expressed, the ups and downs, the extra time but less motivation, the sadness of missing close ones but the happiness of personal development, Kaviyan asked a poignant question to conclude; are we ‘getting a little too comfortable and use to our new routines, leaving us worried about when and how easily we’re going to be actually capable of returning back to normal life’?