‘We got creative about how to have fun’: What it’s like to be a university fresher in 2020

‘I think it’s a common experience that we all want to redo this year’ (Picture: Getty)

Being a first year university student in 2020 is like no other student experience.

It’s daunting to move away from home – for possibly the first time – to attend university.

Freshers are meeting new people and adapting to a new style of learning, all in the space of a few weeks.

But add a pandemic into the mix and it’s been even more stressful for this year’s cohort and university staff.

Since September, some students have been forced into university specific lockdowns, while others have questions how they’d get home for Christmas.

In light of the chaos that some universities have encountered due to the pandemic, we spoke to freshers from across the country to hear their stories.

Kerry*, a fresher at UCL, hasn’t met anyone on her course.

Three times over she says: ‘It’s not the same,’ while explaining how her first term as a student has been.

‘I think it’s a common experience that we all want to redo this year because it’s been quite disappointing – both socially and academically.’

She considered dropping out, but after a course change decided to stay on.

A study by Quizlet found that 66% of students either know someone or have themselves personally considered dropping out.

For a former student, Claire*, leaving was the only solution.

As someone with dyslexia, she says she needs face to face learning to actually absorb any information, which is something that universities have been forced to either reduce significantly or scrap altogether.

Socially Claire suffered too. When rules dictated that a meal needed to be purchased in order to drink in pubs, many of her peers couldn’t afford it so were limited as to how to socialise within their already limited options.

She called her experience ‘isolating’ and ‘lonely’, which are common feelings students have reported this term.

Kerry admits that in order to avoid these feelings herself, she has broken the rules by attending parties of up to 15 people. Over that number, she starts to feel ‘guilty’.

Since September, some party-going students across the UK have faced fines and even police intervention when caught. However, in most cases it’s been university security staff doing the swift shutting down.

Kerry says: ‘It’s quite fun trying to get around the rules of the halls and trying to sneak into a party or something like that and it’s made us really creative in the way we have fun.’

‘I think young people just want to free themselves a bit.

‘The advice we’re getting from the government and the university is so wishy-washy and up in the air… They don’t take it seriously so young people feel they shouldn’t take it seriously either.’

There’s a fear around reporting rulebreakers and being labelled a snitch (Picture: Getty Images)

Alex* started a degree in professional policing at Birmingham City University and says he was able to experience some sense of a freshers week as groups of six from the same halls were allowed to sit together in venues.

Though, that’s not what many freshers signed up for and there are group chats with parties regularly being announced.

Alex says: ‘I see it but I don’t interact with it.’

So far he is getting on with his flatmates.

With 91% of the students surveyed by Quizlet struggling to find coursemates, there is greater emphasis on the halls dynamic and building bonds there – otherwise, students don’t have anywhere else to go for friendship.

Those unhappy with their flatmates will likely look to other outlets in which to meet people, and illegal gatherings are an opportunity.

Gemma*, a 22-year-old student at the University of Southampton has actually been a fresher once before so she didn’t mind missing the usual social scene, but she had been in halls with people still keen to get their fix.

She says: ‘There was a girl in my halls that was mixing with loads of different people, going out to parties and stuff and I felt so uncomfortable.’

Gemma approached the fellow fresher but was worried about ‘coming across as a square’.

She adds: ‘She told me “no one will know unless you snitch”.’

After 15 days, Gemma decided to move out and study from home as the situation was triggering her existing issues with anxiety and depression. A week after she left her whole former flat caught the virus. Gemma is now focusing on a new group of friends who she sees virtually.

Even where socialising takes place within the rules, some students are still being penalised. Kevin*, a fresher from the University of Warwick, says he was told off after playing music with his flat while they ate dinner at 7pm.

He believes universities, who have missed out financially due to students being stuck indoors, are ‘trying to get more money from the students in every way they can’ through unfair fines.

Regardless, 86% of the students surveyed by Quizlet believe they are the ones due a reimbursement.

This is particularly the case when it comes to the issue of tuition. While universities are doing their best to adapt, most of the students agreed virtual lectures have their shortcomings.

Anita*, a student from Aston University, says things went ‘downhill’ when assignments began being set.

She says: ‘This was my first time writing a university level essay. I had no clue how to reference and no idea where I was looking for sources. I got very little support.’

At Cambridge, the small classes it is known for means in-person teaching can continue, as fresher Emma* explains.

She admits that compared with other Cambridge colleges, her experience has been – while keeping with the guidelines – more relaxed. Emily has been allowed visitors in the gardens at points in the term.

Yet even with these added bonuses, she’s struggling motivate herself.

Her pre-recorded lectures can be watched at any time, so there’s no set schedule to do things. Meanwhile her live lectures make her ‘feel sorry’ for her lecturers who ask for people to switch on their cameras, only be ignored.

This year’s fresher cohort, with all they’ve endured, might well emerge more resilient after digging deep to get motivated and creative – both about their classes and their social lives.

The class of 2023/4 will have a lot of making up to do in the coming years of their degrees.

*names have been changed to protect the identities of interviewees.

How the universities responded

A spokesperson from the University of Warwick said: ‘It is very clear that the student was not fined and were simply given a warning. This actually shows just how careful we are to only apply fines in situations where they are absolutely necessary.’

A Birmingham City University spokesperson said: ‘The University worked closely with our Students’ Union to adjust our Welcome Week offering to ensure it not only met Government guidelines, but also allowed our students to enjoy some of the activities which make the first weeks of university so special.

‘A range of socially distanced events, online activities and opportunities for students to socialise in their household bubbles were arranged, and the University has bolstered its support services for our entire student body.

‘All Welcome Week events organised by the University and our Students’ Union were compliant with Government and Public Health guidelines to keep all in our staff and student community safe.’

A spokesperson from Southampton said: ‘The University has made a concerted effort throughout 2020 to encourage all students and staff to follow government guidelines regarding COVID – wear face coverings when/where required, wash their hands, practise social distancing, and other measures to maintain a COVID-secure environment both on and off campus and diminish the spread of the coronavirus.

‘We do expect all students to follow the rules and measures in place and continue to stress that it is everyone’s responsibility to look after each other – their fellow students and our staff – and respect the rules.

‘We encourage any student who feels uncomfortable around those who don’t show respect for these measures to inform the University immediately so that appropriate actions can be taken. The University takes the pandemic very seriously and we do have policies in place governing Non-academic Misconduct as well as regulations governing Halls of Residence which can be enforced as a further step if needed.’

Aston University declined to comment. reached out to UCL and the University of Cambridge and will update this article if they respond.

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