Ashley Makombe speaks to first and second year students on learning in lockdown, and how Covid quashed their college expectations.
When college originally shut down in March of last year, I naively believed it would only last two weeks, that I would be back by the end of the term to sit my exams, and life would carry on as usual. But two weeks became a month, then three, then six, and every time I thought we were nearing the end of it all, the goalposts got moved. I wasn’t prepared to not be back on campus during second year, and while I knew I was going to miss my friends and socialising, I didn’t anticipate how hard online learning would be.[restrict]
“Obviously it’s not an ideal learning situation,” said Fiona. She and her twin sister Andrea are both first-year law students in the same university. “Everyone’s screen is off and we were never put into break out rooms, it was just listening to the lecturer talking to us for an hour, and he’s not even looking at us, he’s just staring out the window. I feel like that sort of set-up is not really the college experience that I imagined when I was 12”.
Andrea started off the year worried about making friends and getting to know the people on her course. “We’ve been organising Zoom calls and competitions and other little things like that, which has obviously made it easier for us to make new friends. I was worried about how and when we’d ever get to speak to each other since it’s just an online lecture.”
For many incoming first-years, the college experience was far from the way movies, tv shows and people in their lives described it. What was meant to be their first night out, a trip to the pub, first time choosing what to do with your life, became sitting in the same room, staring into the screen of your laptop for hours each day, as your lecturers tried their best to engage with a class that had never signed up for online lectures.
Ciara is a first year Journalism and Digital Media student at DCU. “I put down DCU on my CAO because I knew I needed the independence, and that this place would give it to me. I had really hoped to get that personal growth while physically in college, but that hasn’t happened.
For Lynn, who is currently a mature student in UCD, starting in first year was a completely different experience to Ciara, Milissa and Jessica.
“The workload is so overwhelming. For me to be able to study I need to be in a quiet space. Living in Direct Provision, that’s very hard. The centre I’m in actually has study rooms but the material that they used is paper-thin, so you can hear the next person’s conversation. The other thing is that there are limited rooms but loads of students. So for you to actually get a room you need to book immediately, because once they are filled up they are filled up and there is nothing you can do”.
Ciara said she found working from home very unmotivating. “I was a class of 2020 Leaving Cert student, so I had a few classes at home and that was the worst experience of my life. The same has translated to college. It’s been a bit easier because I had a few more classes and was kind of forced into work, but I find focusing on things so hard. I’ll sit down and do some work for 20 minutes then I’ll give myself a two-hour break to say ‘well done’”.
For second years the experience was a lot different. We woke up one day and went from living one life, to living a completely different one. When I first thought it would only be for two weeks, this change was completely fine, but as time went on, being in the one-room every day began to take its toll.
Campbell, a film student at IADT, said that starting second year online felt like being a first-year again. “I had my hopes up about going back to college and being on set, and having that freedom which never really came. I just hoped it’d be a lot better than it was. People did the best they could but the learning experience is nothing like it once was.”
For Campbell, a course and career that before Covid was incredibly collaborative and interactive became an isolating experience. “The whole industry is changing the way they are making films, and we’re just kinda having to adapt to that with less experience. Because we’re students it’s less achievable”.
However he said that his course members stayed close after lockdown, and it was easy enough to maintain the connections they had been making over the previous year. “Any time we did get on campus, everyone was so excited to see each other”
I struggled to be creative while at home. For many people who want a career in media and the arts, so much of our inspiration comes from being outside, interacting with new people all the time. I found it hard to find stories to write about, and even harder to want to tell them in the first place.
However, there was a sense of empathy that my class had for each other as we were all thrown into this together. But for last year’s first years, making friends and building that bond was an incredibly difficult task.
“At the start of the year, I felt like ‘how and when will I ever talk to these people’, as it was just an online lecture,” said Andrea.
“We entered a competition as part of Seachtain na Gaeilge and we made a group chat for it. It was nice to actually talk to people about something that wasn’t studying. Things like that are nice”.
Ciara explained that if she didn’t have her college societies she doesn’t think she would have many friends.”Twice a week I have two society meetings and they are my lifeline. I would not be in a good place without them.”
“I haven’t seen my friends in real life in so long and this is the only way I get to meet people, get to interact with people my own age”.
Lynn also found making friends online difficult. “We have a WhatsApp group, but it’s not like we’re really friendly. It was so awkward; the first time that I met some of my classmates was when we were out on placement. We had to interact because we needed to get our lunches together, but I really haven’t made any friends so far”.
“I haven’t told anyone that I’m in Direct Provision. There is a lot of controversy surrounding it and I don’t want to be judged based on where I come from”.
Many students over the course of the past year haven’t felt supported by the government. “There have been no announcements on college at all, and it’s very hard to find any information about what’s going on,” reflects Ciara.
“It feels like Simon Harris has forgotten we exist, and a little bit of guidance would be nice.”
Andrea and Fiona also felt like students have been neglected. “ We’re constantly being blamed for parties, but the reality is that we have been following the rules and we haven’t really been thanked for that,” Fiona says.
Lynn has felt especially let down by the government. She received her papers in June of last year in the middle of lockdown, but in August of 2020 she was given notice that she had to leave Direct Provision. “So between struggling with college life, and trying to get a house and everything else, I need to try to make sure that I am somewhere as soon as possible. Right now they can’t kick us out, but the minute lockdown is over I need to know that I’m stable.”
“I’m worried that I’ll be in the middle of writing exams and I’ll get another letter telling me to get out,” she continues. “And that’s not considering the fact that I have to stay in Dublin for my placement – I’m not allowed to change for the next three years – but getting a place in Dublin is incredibly difficult”
“Secondary schools and primary schools have been getting more attention” said Campbell. “It’s this weird middle ground where they aren’t giving us enough attention, but I don’t know how they would give us more”
So it’s easy to see why, as soon as college ended and restrictions were lifted, young people were congregating in the numbers that they have been.
“We’ve all done stupid stuff, and throwing parties isnt a smart thing to do, but everyone is just burnt out at this point” said Campbell
With the vaccine rollout progressing, it is looking more and more likely that in September students will be able to return to campus and hopefully back to normal lives. But it’s hard to imagine what a normal student life even looks like post-pandemic. To lose your early 20s to a global pandemic is one thing, but to lose your faith in the institutions that were built to serve you is another. Students all over the country are feeling the frustrations of lockdown, and the months of being blamed for high Covid numbers. We’re already looking at a generation of young people who are the first in Ireland to be worse off than the generation before them. Now, with the treatment of young people over the course of lockdown, you’re looking at a generation of people who are thinking of leaving and never coming back.
Some names have been changed in this piece