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My 2020: 'My college life is now a strange virtual reality'

As part of our ‘My 2020′ series, this Christmas, Ava Keady shares her thoughts on an unprecedented year for college students.

Ava Keady

IF SOMEONE HAD told me what was to come after I grabbed my raincoat and said goodbye to my friends on that wet Thursday back in March, I would not have believed them.

I am now a second-year Journalism student at NUI Galway. It is safe to say my first year of college was vastly different from college life now.

Last year I was in college every day of the week, walking through the campus alongside thousands of others, queuing for far too long in the Bialann and Smokeys. I saw my friends all the time, went out with them the odd night, had many lunches and brunches and gave out about all the college struggles – if only we knew what was to come. 

Life before Covid seems like a fever dream – I cannot even remember how it feels to leave the house without a mask and sanitiser or to meet up with my friends without having to spend days coming up with the safest way to do so; it’s as though life was always like this.

It is crazy how everyone can remember where they were and what they were doing when Leo Varadkar stepped out and addressed the country that day. Although no one knew what it would bring – it is safe to say that nobody expected this.

When I hopped in the car after my media class that day, I was looking forward to a lot – my 18th birthday, a trip to Paris, concerts with my friends, and call me oblivious but even after the announcement of lockdown, I thought that would all still go ahead, that we would only be in this mess for a couple of weeks.

Yet, here we are in December, worried about this virus that we had not even heard of a year ago. I still don’t get to see my friends and family in the same way I used to, and I still have not been able to step foot onto the NUI Galway campus since March, so many months ago.

The new college life

As the summer months flew by and the Covid numbers grew so high, I knew that college would not be opening up. If I am being completely honest, at first, I was delighted about the shift to online (which I nicknamed ‘pyjama’ learning). I had always found this way of learning easier; but again, being oblivious, I expected that maybe I would get to see my friends on and off.

At first, I thought the lack of socialising would be a great way to save some money; that was before the constant pop-up ads for online shopping and telling myself that ‘it’s just a treat for today’… every day. 

Luckily, I did not have to worry about accommodation either way, but I know that some students have saved thousands of euro because of the online college changes. Students and their families spend up to €10,000 a year on accommodation, so not having to be on campus this semester inevitably had some upsides like this.

As the second wave hit and cases surged, it was quickly clear that I would not be seeing anyone outside of the Zoom calls; where you actually only see your lecturer anyway because everyone keeps their cameras off. 

Home learning is not the breeze you would expect. In your head, you imagine yourself up at 9 am, doing a couple of hours of college work and then having the day to yourself.

However, Netflix late at night and being in your cosy bed in the morning seem to make this simply impossible. When you don’t have to be up and ready to physically go to college, it is hard to stay motivated. 

Additionally, it makes comprehending information a lot more challenging. I cannot quite put my finger on why, but the remote workload just seems to be ridiculously more than in-person learning. Maybe this is because morale is down and distractions are up, but every fellow student I talk to, from the first year to final year feels the same. 

It’s far too easy to become a ball of stress and anxiety when you feel the work piling up, and when you have this along with the lack of social interaction in our lives today, it’s common to end up feeling isolated.

‘My generation’

Covid has affected every person, of every age group all around the globe, but I think it’s fair to say it’s particularly tough on the 18-25-year-old bracket. These are the years of our lives where we’re supposed to meet new people, travel, go out, have fun, and now all of it seems to be is watching television and doing the odd Chloe Ting workout.

Of course, I’m not including here the people my age who still appear to be living in their own self-created Covid-free world. They’re out there, but they don’t represent the bulk of us.

Clubs and societies in college can’t go ahead because of guidelines. Last year I took part in the student radio station Flirt FM and it was one of my favourite parts of college. The lack of on-campus time this semester has made it nearly impossible to meet new people – this is especially hard on first years.

Your first year of college is daunting enough due to all the changes going on around you, never mind not being able to make new friend groups, and discover new things, that’s what college is all about.

Colleges have been trying their best to help us through. Each week we are sent student mailers, filled with college and Covid updates. Every week the newsletter features support for mental wellbeing and what you can do if you need to seek help during this time. I’m not sure if there have been extra supports this year when it comes to helping first years settle in.

Lost relationships

Additionally, it’s safe to say that finding love has been put on the back burner. Fortunately, I don’t have to worry about it, but from what I hear – Tinder is the word.

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Without clubs and nightlife, I am sure trying to meet someone feels impossible and therefore technological methods such as Tinder or ‘sliding into Instagram DM’s’ are the only way; perhaps dating apps will soon have a section of your bio designated to whether you have Covid symptoms or not!

Although I am certain that as dates go, meeting up for a walk on the Salthill prom, or coffee in Eyre Square is better than nothing at all. If Covid has shown us anything, it’s that there are ways around everything if you think hard enough. 

Although I can’t relate to the dating aspect, I can relate to missing out on the chance of growing your friendships. Luckily, I had my first year to meet a new group of friends but seeing as we can’t meet up it’s pretty hard to continue to grow the friendship and make memories together.

In a pre-Covid college, you would see some of these friends every single day, you would get coffee together during your breaks and complain about all the assignments you have due – those bonding experiences have been whipped away from us this year. 

Overall, college life has done a full 360 due to Covid. However, I don’t think all the effects are negative. For me, personally, I feel like there’s so much pressure put on the stereotypical college life of moving away from home, partying 24/7, dating tons of people and so on. I can guarantee you, in reality, there is a smaller percentage of people doing that than you think. I never had any interest in that, and I probably never will.

The switch to college life was tough and continues to throw obstacles in our way, but when I look back on this unbelievable, Covid-filled period in my life, I will remember that it has shown me what is truly important in my life.

Family, true friends, health, and doing what suits you and makes you happy, not what will make the people around you happy are what matter. I hope everyone else can take that positive from this big mess too.

Ava Keady is a 2nd-year journalism student at NUIG.

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