‘Most of my life was spent on Zoom’: The uni experience of disappointed first years

In the midst of all the chaos, first year students have been somewhat overlooked

It’s hard to believe it’s already been a year since the first lockdown started, and even harder to believe people have actually ranked their favourite lockdowns. While second and third year students reminisce about nights in the club and drunken visits to kebab stalls, first years dream about a whole load of…blank. 

We haven’t experienced the famous London nightlife. We have yet to puke in a street at 3am after a night in Loop. We haven’t slept through any lectures because we staggered home when the sun was rising. Needless to say, it’s been a unique year for those who began university in 2020. Thanks to distance learning, this year’s first years can’t even tell you where the science library is, or what food stalls are near campus. Our entire university learning experience so far has been (probably) from the comfort of our beds, or our desks if we’re jazzing it up a little.

Since the 2020 first year experience has been vastly different, The London Tab spoke to some first year students about the highlights and lowlights of this incredibly gruelling academic year.

‘My biggest struggle was finding the motivation to do work and get engaged with my degree while being stuck in my home environment’

When asked what was the biggest challenge of this year, many first years brought up the lack of structure. Psychology student Isabelle said: “I had to create and manage my own academic expectations for myself. What are my goals? What am I supposed to do? They were hard questions to answer when it felt like all anyone was asking of themselves was to get through the other end of the year.”

Isabelle felt unprepared for the struggles of being a first year during the pandemic

It was also difficult for first years to recreate the hustle and bustle of campus life from the environment of their own homes. Anjali, a Psychology with Education student, stated her biggest struggle was “finding the motivation to do work and get engaged with my degree while being stuck in my home environment.” Undoubtedly, it is incredibly difficult to muster the willpower to watch a lecture when your bed is right behind you, almost beckoning for you.

This year has also been incredibly taxing for all students’ mental health. First years were particularly affected because of their new environment and their struggle to adjust to a university they barely interacted with physically. Although UCL continuously offered up support for those struggling with mental health, it was a challenging step for some first years to gather the courage and seek that support. Isabelle mentions her biggest struggle was “definitely anxiety and finding the courage to seek help for it.”

Anjali struggled with motivation during her first year at uni

‘It’s so hard to get my foot on the ladder for my career’

Another huge difference for first years was the impact on course content, particularly for those whose courses had copious amounts of lab time. Ainiah, a first year Neuroscience student, told The Tab that the lack of lab time adversely affected her career prospects. “I really wanted to engage in internships and visiting labs so I had more experience,” she said. “As someone from a disadvantaged background, it means I don’t have as much lab experience as my peers do. It’s so hard to get my foot on the ladder for my career as I intend to get into academic research.”

Although UCL tried to adapt their course content to cover labs, many students without prior lab experience were put at a disadvantage.

‘Most of my social life was spent on Zoom calls and over text’

Social interaction also became a significant challenge as the UK plunged in and out of lockdowns. The lack of club socials and other campus events made it difficult for students to mingle and get to know each other, even if they were on the same course.

“My social life has faced large fluctuations in activity as a result of the pandemic, going from multiple social interactions a week to none for months on end as lockdowns started and ended,” explained Saminya who studies English. “This has also had a corresponding effect on my mental health, being much better during periods of high social interaction than lower.”

Anjali agreed, adding that most of her social life was “also spent on Zoom calls and over text.”

Samiya dreams about the day when she can comfortably sit in a coffee shop and do her required reading

‘Having long periods of time where I can’t see my friends has made me value time spent with them more’

However, as they say, every cloud has a silver lining. Throughout the pandemic, first years still found ways to enjoy the academic year. After all, being in the same boat created a sense of solidarity, which sometimes even facilitated the process of making new friends despite the restrictions on social interaction.

“Having long periods of time where I can’t see my friends has made me value time spent with them more, made me more outgoing, and encouraged me to focus on the company I keep rather than the environments I socialise in,” Isabelle said. “One unexpected good thing was moving to a city and university I’d spent the year before fantasising about, and the subsequent feeling of community and belonging.”

Overall, though, it’s been a mixed bag for the first years of 2020. The academic year was plagued with a pandemic, a lack of social interaction, and an entirely new platform of learning, which took its toll on mental health and the general university experience. However, there was still a community to be found, albeit virtually, and as lockdowns lifted, first years flocked to meet their new friends for the first time. Even though London’s social scene was limited for months on end, first years still found a way to explore and immerse themselves into the lively city.

Despite all the turmoil, first years are submitting their final assessments and wrapping up a chaotic year, earning a much-needed break as they strap in to celebrate in good weather and no lockdown.

UCL has been contacted for comment.

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