Freshers’ week upended by strict rules and awkward Zoom socials
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Freshers’ week upended by strict rules and awkward Zoom socials

Freyde Sayers speaks to students about their experiences of university under the impact of Covid-19

A socially distanced university lecture – but UK universities are now holding them online
A socially distanced university lecture – but UK universities are now holding them online

Settling into the first year of university always has its challenges but this autumn’s intake of freshers have had the whole experience upended thanks to the coronavirus.

One of the institutions with scores of cases and hundreds of students self-isolating is Abertay University, in Dundee. Jakob Dalland, a first-year Jewish student at Abertay, feels lucky not to be locked down and has made a friend in his accommodation block but knows the experience is not what it would have been. Jakob, who comes from Edinburgh, said: “I’ve got less chance to meet other people because you can’t socialise.”

As for joining societies, he said Zoom meetings feel awkward and found them a turn-off. “It’s a lot different to seeing someone in person. You can’t read someone’s body language.”

Emily Cohen, a first-year psychology student at Leeds University, had to start isolating 10 days after arriving. “It’s not ideal because you want to meet as many people as possible at the beginning,” she said.

Emily Cohen

Her first few days at the university felt quite normal. “Although we couldn’t go to clubs, people were still socialising and it was fun,” she said. But now Covid is going around her accommodation.

“I was kind of expecting it. My friends and I have already interacted with hundreds of people, so it wasn’t surprising the virus was spreading. It’s so hard, but so many of my friends at different unis are in the same position. It’s just what we’ve got to deal with. I’m happy that I like my flatmates. If you don’t it’s even harder.”

It’s so hard, but so many of my friends at different unis are in the same position. It’s just what we’ve got to deal with. I’m happy that I like my flatmates. If you don’t it’s even harder.”

Tobias Cohen, 21, president of Cambridge University Israel Society and in his final year of a degree in human, social and political sciences, would normally be organising in-person events to recruit freshers but is having to rely on virtual gatherings. “A large part of the way we work is that people meet each other and make new friends and hang out and you build relationships with people. That element won’t be there.’

Tobias Cohen

Likewise at Durham University JSoC, in-person events have been turned into virtual ones. Miriam Makin, the society president and a final-year psychology student, said uni life this term was “very different from normal”. Every week JSoc would hold a buffet-style dinner, which they hoped to keep going in some form. “Alternatives are being worked on,” she said.

Mia Shindler, a final year history student and the JSoC’s head of outreach, is hoping they can come up with “creative ways of running online events”. There is the question of how comfortable some students are with using technology on Shabbat and the High Holy Days. “For Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we had Zoom events and the people who didn’t want to join during the day caught up afterwards.”

William Craig, an economics student at Durham, is not enjoying being a Covid fresher. “It’s very strict, with wardens coming around to make sure you don’t mix households or anything.” He said the university was running in-person events for freshers – such as silent discos – to keep boredom at bay, but it didn’t feel like normal university experience. “Online lectures are horrible,” he added.

It’s very strict, with wardens coming around to make sure you don’t mix households or anything.

Of course some students decided – or were forced – to defer their places and are on gap years. Angelica Levy, 18, from north-west London, is in Jerusalem on the Aardvark Israel programme. “We’re in a lockdown but it’s not that bad,” she said. “Yom Kippur in Israel is so cool. My friend went for a run on the motorway.”

What is clear is that although there is a degree of normality at many universities, Zoom is looming larger in freshers’ lives than they would wish.

 

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