The Covid Diaries: starting university the year the world stopped

·15 min read
Photo credit: Alex Grace, Emli Bendixen, Jahnay Tennai, Ire Akinfisoye
Photo credit: Alex Grace, Emli Bendixen, Jahnay Tennai, Ire Akinfisoye
Photo credit: Alex Grace, Emli Bendixen, Jahnay Tennai, Ire Akinfisoye
Photo credit: Alex Grace, Emli Bendixen, Jahnay Tennai, Ire Akinfisoye

September 2020

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned


AJ: I’m the only person living in my flat at the moment, and even when people do arrive, I won’t be able to say hello as I’ll still be in quarantine. It was so hard to say goodbye to my family and friends in Calgary, but thank God for crafting, The Vampire Diaries and the godforsaken dating apps for keeping me occupied.

Photo credit: Alex Grace
Photo credit: Alex Grace

 

FH: I’ve told all my flatmates that because I have cerebral palsy, that means I am high-risk, so I am only comfortable meeting within the rule of six and at a distance. But I keep seeing on Instagram that I’ve been ignored, and some are meeting in large groups. I’ve been trying to fill my days during Freshers’ Week with online society taster events, but I still feel so lonely. Then, last night, one of my flatmates – who I know has been going to crowded parties – brought their friends back to our flat. As this keeps happening, I’ve had to arrange for my dad to pick me up as I can’t risk contaminating my carers and their other clients. I feel like a failure returning to my childhood bedroom, less than a week after I left it.

IS: It feels like we’ve been lied to in order to get us to move to campus and pay rent. On day two, they told us that all teaching has been moved online! I want to protest, so we’ve organised a rent strike – it feels so wrong that we’re paying these prices for fewer facilities and online teaching. There are some days I really regret coming here and spending so much money to be treated like a cash cow. My mental health is also not great. I really like my flatmates, but knowing that they’re the only human contact I can have is stressful.  

OO: We’re allowed to meet other students on Swansea beach, which is great, as flat parties aren’t allowed. It had been so much fun, but a few nights ago someone brought back some random boys, and when I went to get some water from the kitchen, one of them was so inappropriate. I had to lock myself in my room and called my friends to come stay with me. I felt unsafe being there by myself.

Photo credit: Emli Bendixen
Photo credit: Emli Bendixen

LF: I’ve convinced Mum to buy me a desk and an office chair. I’m living at home while studying in London, and working from my childhood bed was not very motivating. 

RB: My new housemates have introduced me to beans and jacket potatoes! When I arrived from Bologna they were all waiting for me at the train station in Nottingham, and I’m now so nervous and excited for university to begin. But I’m also conscious of how far away I am from the support network I worked hard to build. My mental health – though I’m more in control than ever – can be wobbly. 

PV: I’ve got COVID! So do my nine other flatmates... thankfully, my symptoms only lasted a few days. Our wifi has been down in the flat, meaning I was behind on lessons straight away.

October

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned


IS: There are now a few hundred students on rent strike. We hoped that the threat of withholding our rent would encourage the uni to have a conversation with its freshers, but instead, we have been threatened with menacing emails and fines. Most of my time is now spent worrying about whether coming to uni was the right thing to do. 

OO: It’s Nigerian Independence Day, so the Nigerians on campus arranged a celebration. Within the Afro-Caribbean Society we had food, music and dancing. I’ve been trying to remain sociable and making friends. Spending too much time alone in my room was starting to take a toll on my happiness.

Photo credit: Ire Akinfisoye
Photo credit: Ire Akinfisoye

CH: The longest I have been absent from my family is five days, so not knowing when I might see them next is daunting. I have quickly formed an alliance with the other girl in my flat, though – we had a group meal, which began at 2pm with all of us going shopping for the food, and ended at 4am the next morning. University is what you make it, and living on campus feels like a bubble, as we have everything we need there.

OP:
I couldn’t believe it when I got chatted up on the bus! I’ve actually been seeing the guy since then, but I think I’ve developed the ick, which is awkward because he keeps saying he loves me. My flatmates have also discovered intense spinny-chair races down the hall... very smart after a bottle of wine. 

RB: I’ve started chatting to a classmate who is non-binary. As a trans man, it’s a relief to have something in common with someone. I have also found other trans and queer people on dating apps. They are out there... I just miss having a physical community. 

November

AJ: Why did I come to university again? *eye roll* With another lockdown ahead, my flatmates and I decided to go out once before we were cooped up in our flat for a month. I had not been that drunk in a very long time. We were chatting to these guys, and all of a sudden this man kissed me and one of my other flatmates. In a global pandemic? Sir, please – the answer is no.

Photo credit: Ire Akinfisoye
Photo credit: Ire Akinfisoye

FH: We are now allowed three in-person seminars, and it's been so good to actually see people in real life. But it also means that sometimes I’m in a room with a bunch of people who I know have been going to loads of parties. It made me so stressed that I burst into tears when I got back to my bedroom. I know some people would argue that I should lock myself in there and completely self-isolate, but I can’t do that any longer. I need to maintain some small moments of normality. I told my friends that Instagram had been making me so jealous of all the fun they’re having, especially over Halloween. But then one of my closest friends showed me a photo she had taken when she had felt sad and lonely, only a few hours before she took the Halloween pics I’d seen on her feed. It reminded me that not everything is as it seems on social media.

IS: Anger on campus is rising. We’re going into another national lockdown and there’s now an 8ft fence around our entire campus. We organised a protest at 8pm one evening.
I spoke on the megaphone to a thousand young people who were angry and desperate. The following week, myself and some other students entered Tower, a former residential hall that had fallen into disuse, and started an occupation. 

CH: As I’m disabled, I didn’t want to be stranded in the second lockdown. My parents came to pick me up, and university was over before it even began. I have such fear of missing out now and wish I’d thought more before coming home. 

OP: I had a really severe anxiety attack a few weeks ago and had to go home for a few days. I worry about my friends judging me because of my anxiety. But then, when I got back, we had a fun night when we linked up with another flat and went to a bonfire party in the woods. I didn’t get home until 6am, which ruined my sleeping pattern – classic self-sabotage. I do sometimes think my life would be simpler if I didn’t love to go out so much. 

PV: I celebrated Diwali with a couple of friends from a different flat. We made DIY decorations and cooked Indian food, and it has been nice to spend time with people from a similar ethnic background to me. Sometimes I think I should have deferred my place, as next year would be more carefree, but then I remember all the amazing people I have met. 

December

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned



AJ: All of my flatmates have gone home for the holidays, so I am alone all month. Hello, Christmas on FaceTime! It’s so weird learning online and it can feel so fake. Also, as an international student, I’m forking out over £19,500 for this tuition. There are definitely moments when I wish I had someone to lean on and share this weird time with, because being on the other side of the globe from my family and friends, in a pandemic, can get really lonely. 

OO: We had a Christmas dinner where everyone brought food from across the world, including sushi, Moroccan rice and pulled pork. It was so fun, but then my flatmates complained about the noise and security came and ended our dinner. There was an argument that ended in a physical fight. Such a crap end to the evening.

Photo credit: Emli Bendixen
Photo credit: Emli Bendixen

OP: One night, we just party-hopped all night and it felt like the whole of the halls was out. It was sick. But there were at least 100 people in one flat party we went to – it was a bit much, and me and my mate just didn’t think it was worth it. Mostly, my time has been spent talking about Tinder boys and Father Christmas, that’s it. 

RB: As a transgender person, I worry a lot about my hormone replacement therapy.
I brought enough to last for a while, but I need more to keep it going. The Nottingham Centre for Transgender Health has an absurdly long waiting list (three years!) and they’re not replying to my emails. Should I fly back to Italy in the middle of a lockdown? Can they send me some to the UK? Was I reckless to not consider this before moving here?

PV: It feels as though the university has pretty much been a petri dish for COVID the last few months, so now I’m home, I’m worried about giving it to my family. Also, now that London is in Tier 4, I don’t know when I’ll be able to get back to Scotland and I can’t see my home friends, which I’d been really looking forward to. The airport was so quiet when I was making my way home.

January 2021

IS: The government is telling us not to return to campus, but the uni has promised no compensation for empty rooms. I don’t have a bedroom at home, and there’s no way I could have carried on learning online while sleeping on the sofa, so I’ve come back. Everyone here is so stressed by what’s going on. The rent strike is growing – there are now 55 rent-striking universities across the country.

Photo credit: Jahnay Tennai
Photo credit: Jahnay Tennai

OO: I’ve not been able to go back to my university accommodation or see any of my friends. But I am lucky as Swansea allowed us to apply for rent reduction. 

PV: We’d all booked travel to go back and now the government says we can’t. I got some money back from my cancelled flight and my university is providing students with a rent rebate, which lots of others aren’t. 

LF: There was a racist incident that happened on a Teams chat and was then transferred to WhatsApp. People are now being contacted on their mobiles and feeling very unsafe. I have also finished my exams now... just have to wait to see if I pass.

February

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned


AJ: I am struggling. Everything is closed, I can’t see my friends and family and I’ve got migraines from all the online learning. At this point I would lick the vaccine off the pavement to get things back to normal.

FH: Even though I’m clinically vulnerable because I am a young disabled person, I seem to have been forgotten about and so I’ve been on a wild chase for the vaccine. I need it for my health, but also for a flicker of hope. I am so bored at home, but at least I feel safe here. I watch my course mates building bonds and partying together, and feel so alone. 

IS: The police presence on campus has created an extremely hostile environment, with students – particularly non-white students – afraid to leave their flats out of fear of police harassment. Police have been entering flats randomly, one time threatening a flat playing Monopoly together!

Photo credit: Jahnay Tennai
Photo credit: Jahnay Tennai

OO: I’m back in Swansea and have some freedom again! But my new friends have all got a house for next year without me – they arranged it when I wasn’t here. I’m trying hard not to let it get me down, though. I will be able to find somewhere nice and meet even more people.

LF: I spend most of my seminars on my phone, messaging my friends in the same seminar, complaining about the experience of online uni. Sometimes I think: is all the stress worth it for this experience? It’s draining. 

PV: Travelling during a pandemic is weird. I made my way back to Glasgow on an almost empty train to find my flatmates waiting for me at the station. But there are still some days I think I should drop out, I’m so worried about everything. 

March

AJ: I have found my friend soulmate! I had been struggling to build genuine relationships, so I downloaded Bumble BFF. The first day of swiping, I matched with this girl and decided to meet up that weekend, and we had the best (seven-hour!) hangout. 

OO: The security at university are very strict and they’re now standing outside flat doors so nobody can get into the building unless they live there. I feel very isolated, as I’ve decided to distance myself from my first-term friends. There is the occasional beach party, but they’re quickly shut down.

Photo credit: Emli Bendixen
Photo credit: Emli Bendixen

PV: We marched through Kelvingrove Park late at night after the murder of Sarah Everard to show our solidarity with victims of sexual violence. It was good to see so many people who cared about the cause, but the fact it’s even necessary is heartbreaking. 

FH: I left the house to attend a very small funeral for a woman who was like a grandmother to me, and sobbed into a damp mask. 

April

AJ: The only thing on my mind right now is exams, exams, exams. I’m actually really proud looking back on what I’ve achieved in the past year. I hope I’ve done well in my exams, but I also know that with everything going on, even just finishing this year is something to be proud of. 

IS: We occupied the Samuel Alexander Building in protest of the university’s repeated prioritisation of profit over students and their mismanagement of the university during the COVID crisis. It’s ironic that it is only through occupying a building that I have finally stepped foot in a university premises and lecture theatre for the first time. 

RB: I have to go back to Italy to stock up on my medications. I’m worried because it is time I could have spent on my university course, and I am very anxious about money too, as this trip has been expensive. I feel isolated at times and insecure, being far away from all my loved ones, and I’m concerned about my relevance in other people’s lives. 

May

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned



FH: I have felt imprisoned in my own mind. I am lonely and have sought out professional support, as I didn’t want to flounder on the university’s long waiting list anymore and knew I needed to do something to help myself urgently. My GP prescribed me medication, but I then had to explain my situation to my lecturers in order for them to view me and my situation – including my deadlines and assignments – with compassion. It’s been hard being a pandemic fresher. I’m proud of myself for surviving it.

Photo credit: Ire Akinfisoye
Photo credit: Ire Akinfisoye

OO: I have received a £3,500 scholarship to attend Texas A&M University for my second year! I’m excited, but I’m also worried about my mental health. I have regular check-ins with a doctor just to ensure I’m okay and can keep my head above water. 

LF: There were many times when I didn’t think I’d make it to the end of this year, that I would drop out because pandemic university really isn’t a vibe. I think the fact that it has been online for so long, and that I haven’t had the typical fresher’s experience that I had been hearing about for years, has made me feel like I’ve failed. But in reality, that experience was out of my control. 

RB: The last lesson in person was lovely. I baked some vegan brownies for everyone.
I have nothing to complain about – I feel happy and blessed. Sometimes I still feel isolated, especially when trying to reconnect to a new queer community here, but I’m glad I pursued this path, even with the difficulties the pandemic presented. 

PV: Before we break up for summer, I want to make sure my last week is memorable. We’ve managed to go to a few pubs and walk around the city, and packing up my room was emotional. I felt like my personality was slowly being drained from the space. There are days I think things might have been better if it wasn’t for COVID – like actually having labs and lectures on campus, and being able to meet face-to-face without the two-metre distance. And yes, it probably would have been great, but the year I had was also amazing and I wouldn’t change it a bit. ◆ 

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