Education, students and the new normal

As we kick off 2021, we are still facing the uncertainty of when we can get away from the “new normal” to just, well, normal. Whether you entered university at the end of last year or have been studying for a while, there is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has made an indelible mark on student life.

In this article, we discuss some of the problems faced by students, the impact this has had and look at some of the positive steps you can take to cultivate wellbeing during difficult times.

Shifting expectations

Imagine this; you have been at university for six months. You’ve settled in, become used to morning lectures, lunchtime tutorials and the odd pub trip with your newfound friends. Then COVID-19 hits. All of a sudden you are thrust into isolation. Or perhaps this is your scenario; you have earned a place at university in the course of your dreams, but things are not what you expected in the least. You have left home, are isolated inside student halls, attend all your classes online, and generally feel pretty stranded.

There is no denying that this pandemic has affected all walks of life, but the higher education sector has experienced significant and impactful changes that have made this highly formative experience not quite what was expected.

The first thing we expect to receive is education, of course. But being at university has always promised to offer so much more than this alone. Though the way in which courses are being delivered has changed, the education part is still up for grabs. What has been lost is the extracurricular side of things. The opportunity to join societies and sports clubs, enjoy a broad range of hobbies, explore whichever city or town you find yourself in, pub nights, club nights, movie nights and ceilidhs – even the occasional formal ball.

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Whether you consider yourself to be a social butterfly or a more introverted type, these activities, alongside physical attendance at lectures and tutorials, make it easier to find a group of like-minded people to call your tribe. The act of making and maintaining friendships has become a far greater challenge than ever before.

The mainstays of university teaching are lectures and tutorials. This has not changed but the method of delivery undoubtedly has. In our current situation, we cannot expect to join all of our peers in lecture theatres or work intimately in small groups. You may be fully online or working under a hybrid model. You may be in halls of residence, a student flat, or at home. These factors will vary, depending on your situation and are likely to shift and change as we see our way through this pandemic.

Acknowledging the struggle

The word “isolation” has become inextricably linked to COVID-19. Indeed, many students have come to university only to have contracted the virus itself. These individuals, and those that have come into contact with them, have had to face the real and unpleasant fact of “self-isolation”, with or without the symptoms of the virus. Yet, all students have been facing isolation this year in one way or another. This pandemic has limited the opportunities to form and maintain the types of peer support that help see us through the challenge of earning a university degree.

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And earning a degree is hard work! There have always been difficulties to contend with – 9 a.m. lectures, essay deadlines, exams – to name but a few. Aside from the real and obvious difficulties that come with viral infection, this pandemic has highlighted additional struggles that make studying even more challenging. It is important to acknowledge the difficulties that are being faced at present, to help see our way out of them.

There are practical issues to contend with – the main offender being Internet connectivity! When your course is online, a patchy Wi-Fi signal makes following synchronous lectures tricky, to say the least. It is hard to get much out of small-group learning if you cannot see or hear the others in your team. None of this will matter if you do not have a device that allows you to access online content. These disparities are real and make the learning environment all the more difficult.

Being stuck indoors makes life unpleasant too. Attending lectures in your pyjamas from the cosiness of your bed might seem like a nice idea – but too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. Our bodies crave routine, daylight, fresh air and movement – all of which could be gained through the simple act of getting out the door to class each day.

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“Acknowledgment of the struggle puts you on the path to effect positive change.”

It is no surprise, then, that you may be feeling lonely, anxious, overwhelmed or depressed. You may be confused about what is going on with your course, disappointed at how your student life is shaping up, stressed with all that is going on in the world today. How we are living right now is putting a strain on mental and emotional wellbeing.

All of this is completely understandable. It may be tempting to pretend that everything’s fine, put on a brave face and battle on regardless. This approach may be okay in the short term but true recognition of difficult feelings during this time is a far healthier way of looking after yourself. Acknowledgement of the struggle puts you on the path to effect positive change.  

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