For most university students, their experiences making friends and having fun on campus is as important a part of their college experience as getting their degrees.
Students at University College Dublin (UCD) will have a very different experience when they arrive on campus this year - but it is still expected that freshers will be able to enjoy some social interactions and get involved with societies as best as they can.
The current guidelines in place for UCD will see undergraduates on campus for 40-60 per cent of the usual time, with facemasks being a requirement on campus. Despite the lack of on-campus time expected for new students this September, societies and the UCD Students Union (UCDSU) entertainment officer are hopeful that they will be able to give freshers as close an experience to normal as possible.
“We have plans to facilitate a socially-distant freshers week in compliance with university and national guidelines,” says Cíara Dempsey, chair of the UCD Societies Council.
“While the university experience is likely to be different this year, we hope to foster engagement and support our societies in whatever way we can, whether that’s in online activities or socially distant activities.”
UCD SU Entertainment Officer, Sarah Michelak is confident that first year students will be able to make the most of the altered plans for the first semester. "It is highly likely that orientation week and freshers' week events are going to be split between online and in-person events and we are still hoping to make it as fun, informative, interactive and welcoming to students as possible," she says.
With so much uncertainty around pubs and nightclubs, the main focus for incoming students in September for social activities will be on societies and how they will operate.
"The first years aren't expecting it to be a 'normal' year," says Louise Kennedy, the Entertainment Officer for UCD Lawsoc. "They're pretty clued in to what's going on, but they can expect events both online and at a reduced scale in person."
The largest society on campus, UCD Foodsoc, has relied on a number of in-person events and tastings in the past. Now, however, they are adapting to online events and socially distanced smaller gatherings.
“Societies, and the student experience more generally, will never have been so important to the mental health and wellbeing of students as it will be this semester,” say Joseph O’Herne and Robyn O’Keefe, the co-chairs of UCD Foodsoc.
“Our ‘blended’ approach should offer incoming Freshers a taste (literally) of what Foodsoc does on a large scale, in a way that is Covid-compliant and accessible to high-risk individuals.”
Societies like the Literary and Historical (L&H) debating society and Lawsoc are also able to host a large number of their usual events online or socially distant. “We do have some ideas for what could be done during freshers week [and into semester one], such as streamed debates, online speed friending and live streaming with notable speakers,” says Roibeárd Fitzpatrick, L&H Treasurer.
However, the biggest events on most societies' social calendars - their society balls - are still at risk of not happening this year. The L&H has already said that they will likely not hold their Strauss Ball, while societies like Dramsoc, Lawsoc and Foodsoc are waiting for guidelines to be announced for semester two before they can make those decisions.
"Our society ball isn't until the end of February so we will be looking at possibly facilitating this closer to the time. We are hoping that this event will still be possible," says Niamh Scully, Auditor of UCD Dramsoc.
“At the moment we plan on going ahead as normal,” says Kennedy. “We host our ball in February, so it depends on what happens during the winter.”
“Societies are a crucial social aspect for first years and, indeed, all university students, and although this year may be different, I am certain that societies can find innovative ways to still create that fundamental university experience,” says Dempsey.