Third level and the Pandemic
The Covid19 pandemic beginning in March 2020 in Ireland has brought many challenges to every aspect of our “normal life”. One of the challenging areas to get right has been education, home schooling for younger students and then the challenges faced by third level students.
We have seen some early research completed in Ireland around the impact of the pandemic on the younger cohort or students and indeed the general population in terms of anxiety and depression.
One project by Yang (2021) in UCD focussed on the aspects of learning that had changed and the respondents also noted the social impact of learning from home full time. This latter piece is concerning.
If students are cut off from friends and social experiences this can be detrimental in the long term. There have been other research projects reported in The Irish Times (July 21st, 2021) from learners within the Traveller/Roma Community and those in Direct Provision Centres who cite the unique challenges they faced during this period of time – limited space, poor internet access, and isolation being the main findings reported. Members of the LGBTQIA+ community also faced difficulties with being at home full time, and in cases without being able to express themselves fully. 54% of respondents stated their mental health was impacted because of trying to manage within these very difficult challenges.
We recently interviewed the DCU Students’ Union Vice President of wellbeing, Dean O’Reilly (VP Wellbeing), to explore some of the general experiences they encountered in the course of their work.
Q. How have third level students found studying remotely during the pandemic?
One of the greatest challenges for students during remote learning has been the detachment from social life. Think of it – if you’ve been to higher or further education before, how much of your learning took place in transient moments? That time you bumped into someone in a corridor, or that time you were late for a lecture. Even the small bits of learning you pick up about your routine. What do you need to do in the morning to set yourself up for a successful day? That’s really been the killer for students. So, to see a return to campus on the horizon is a major plus.
Of course, there are many advantages to remote learning, too. I had finished my final year during the first lockdown. The flexibility with recorded lectures, the accessibility of digital content, all of these things, really make a difference. For students with disabilities, for commuter students, and for students in general. These are some of the things we hope to see retained – in some form – as we come back to campus.
Q. What were the biggest challenges / anxieties at the time?
I touched on this briefly above, but I really can’t emphasise the impact of isolation on students enough. On the one hand, you want to follow health advice and “do the right thing”. On the other, you’re going crazy sitting in your room – especially if you’re living in student accommodation. So not only are you dealing with everything being different to what you wanted, but then there’s this internal struggle as well. On top of that, perhaps you’re living with people who have varying opinions on what is and isn’t safe / appropriate. That’s a degree of “nosey-ness” that you had to have in your housemates’ lives that is bound to cause conflict.
Q. How was it for secondary school students transitioning into their first year?
Well, I can only speak to this to a certain degree as this wasn’t an experience I had myself. What I can tell you is what I had heard from the students. As before, isolation was really a bother. In addition to that, though, was the lack of…newness? Sure, there was a lot academically to get used to. But let’s not forget that many of these students had just come from learning online themselves in secondary school. All the things you look forward to just…weren’t there. At least in the form you expected. I think Universities and Students’ Unions across the
country did the best that they could, but there’s only so much you can do online versus in person. First nights out, first time walking into a lecture hall, first time getting lost on campus, all those things.
One thing that I think about a lot are LGBTQ+ students coming into university. My own experience was University was an escape from my ‘normal’ life. The physical space allowed me to explore myself, to explore other people, and ultimately, figure out who I was and what I wanted. Without my experience in first year, kind of, falling out of the closet for lack of a better phrase, I don’t think I would be here now. And my trajectory in university would’ve been very, very different. You can’t really do that on a zoom call in your bedroom of your parents’ house.
That’s only one experience, too! Think of all other minority students; black students, students of colour, students with disabilities, traveller students, etc., who
had more than likely been the only student, or one of a few students, of their background in secondary school. University is a space where you get to go and find tonnes of other people like you, and then that opportunity was just…lost.
Q. How are students feeling coming back to campus?
Overall, I think very positively. I don’t think anyone wants to go back to 100% remote learning, with absolutely nothing on-campus / in person. There are some things that need to be worked on, of course. I think there’s a certain level of “well…how is X going to work?” And that’s a fair question to have. In fact, I even have many of those myself! But we’ll figure it out.
It’s not about how do we go back to what life was like in 2019, it’s about how do we take everything from the last…two thousand and twenty-one years, and how do we incorporate all of those learnings into the best experience. Academically and otherwise.
Q. What advice would you give for students coming back? How can they adjust?
Well, there’s no perfect way to do it. I’ve got my own adjustments to be doing as well and I certainly don’t have a perfect plan. However, if I were to give people advice, COVID or not, just remember there’s no one way to do it.
You don’t have to do anything (well, follow the health advice!). You don’t have to go on nights out. You don’t have to drink. You don’t have to spend 24/7 studying, either. Try things out! Don’t do things you know you’re uncomfortable with, but don’t get stuck in your comfort zone either. When it comes to getting to know people / socialising, go to the edge of your comfort zone occasionally. You’ll be surprised how much it expands as time goes on.
When it comes to academics, just have faith. I almost dropped out in Week 6 of my first Semester. What a tragedy that would have been had I gone through with it. At the time, I thought everyone knew what they were doing. That I was just dumb, and everyone was managing a lot better than me. Everyone hadn’t a clue. Just no one was saying it! Reach out when you need support.
Talk to your Students’ Union. Join a society. Take as much as you can from your next few years, honestly. The best decision I ever made in university was getting involved in student life.
Spectrum mental health are the leading provider of private mental health services, our nationwide network of psychologists and psychotherapists are experienced and skilled professionals in their fields. We work with DCU to provide counselling services for it’s students. If you would like to avail of counselling at DCU, service information is available here.
If you would like to contact your Students’ Union or join a Club or Society in DCU, you can do so by visiting www.dcusu.ie