A fresher’s survival guide to a socially distanced Freshers’ Week

Covid called, he wants his online matriculation form back

It’s been a weird year for us all. Healthcare professionals and countless other key workers have had to step up to the plate even more than usual. Teachers have been made to work out how they can possibly hold netball trials over Zoom (I’m yet to see it but I’ll be impressed when I do). Politicians have floundered, but then again, what’s so different about that? It’s now not uncommon to see a blue surgical face mask abandoned in the gutter, orphaned from its owner, who must now survive without this ear-pulling, face-scratching, glasses-steaming sartorial nightmare. No one has gone unaffected by the Covid-19 pandemic. And a group that’s been affected in a very particular kind of way has been 2020 university freshers.

So that brings us to October, where across a few weeks of brisk autumn mornings, around 3,900 freshers, including myself, arrived in Cambridge, all beset by the moral dilemma of how to greet someone with minimal physical contact (elbow bump? Incantatory chant? Pre-choreographed dance routine? Scientists are still investigating).

Armed with enough hand sanitiser to generously bathe the entire length of Trumpington Street, we all steeled ourselves for Freshers’ Week, not really knowing what to expect other than the fact that we’d probably all smell like Dettol for weeks after. But of course, we were all eager to make the most of a less than ideal situation. And that’s certainly what we did. Here are just a few tips and tricks I learnt along the way, in case (knock all the wood) some future incoming freshers need advice in the future.

Tip one: Restrain yourself from buying all the bottles of hand sanitiser in your local Co-op

I did fall prey to this one, but admittedly, it was with the best of intentions. I mean, we are literally in a pandemic. Anyway, I had my hand sanitiser (vanilla scented, honestly wonderful), my back-up hand sanitiser (Carex, efficient but bland) and my back-up back-up hand sanitiser (literally just pure ethanol, it smelt deathly). My arsenal was full, to say the least.

I definitely didn’t need to take up valuable suitcase room with all of these because there was hand sanitiser everywhere I went. And I mean everywhere. I’m actually not sure my hands were ever completely dry throughout the entire week. And if there wasn’t a dispenser nearby, someone always had some with them. In fact, it’s a conversation starter if you ask to use someone’s hand sanitiser. It may go something like this:

A: Hi, I’m really sorry, can I use your hand sanitiser?

B: Of course, here you go!

A: Thank you so much! Wow, this smells amazing, is it vanilla?

B: Yeah it is! How did you know?

A: Well, actually it reminds me of this time on my gap year (or gap yah) when I worked on a vanilla farm…

And there you go. Conversation started = friend made.

The marquee is the place to be

Tip two: Don’t restrain yourself from buying all the teabags in your local Co-op

The difficulty of socialising during Covid-era Cambridge is in a league of its own. And a huge cornerstone of it is tea. People in Cambridge seem to love tea (me included, mind you). Everyone seems to have family-sized boxes of it. They literally inhale it. They build elaborate shrines to it (well not quite, but I’d love to see it).

When I met new people, I found myself asking more frequently than advisable if they’d like to pop over for a cup of tea, because there’s really not much else to do in a socially distanced manner. But anyway, much popping over was done, much tea was had, and many lovely conversations unfolded. Stock up now or forever hold your peace.

Hoping for a jailbreak from self-isolation

Tip three: Relax – everyone is feeling just as nervous as you are

I was literally weeing myself out of nervousness before coming to Cambridge. But possible incontinence-related disasters aside, there was no need for me to be so cripplingly worried. Everyone knew that it was going to be difficult to meet people this year, so they really stepped up and made an effort to interact – asking people to lunch, organising socially distanced gatherings, exploring Cambridge together etc.

So my main advice would be to just do all the practical stuff – get a good laptop for your online learning, buy some funky face masks, and make sure you have a basic level of technological literacy on Facebook. Obviously, be cautious and sensible – use that lovely brain of yours that got you here in the first place. But other than that, don’t even worry about it. Everyone’s in the same boat. The same, sterilised, socially distanced boat.

Freshers’ film night fun

I’m really hoping that no other cohort of freshers will ever need to use this survival guide – we could all definitely do with this pandemic being over. But of course, it’s worth noting that things may not be changing for a while and these tips are very much relevant to life beyond Fresher’s Week.

So, go for it. Grab your two-metre tape measure and invite someone over for a cup of tea. You never know what could happen.

Related stories recommended by this writer:

A Fresher’s guide to every single thing you’ll make in your gyp this year 

Matriculation mayhem: How Cambridge Colleges handled matriculation during COVID

‘Where do I begin?’ A fresher’s guide to Cambridge student theatre’

All image credits to Yuval Amichay