The social side of third level: what will become of it?

College is about more than academia. How will new students connect now?

Before the pandemic, a survey by USI indicated that college students were already struggling with extreme anxiety and stress. Photograph: iStock

Before the pandemic, a survey by USI indicated that college students were already struggling with extreme anxiety and stress. Photograph: iStock

 

Every year, as a new batch of first years hit third level, college and national newspapers publish freshers’ guides

The advice is usually timeless. College is about so much more than academia. Get involved in student clubs and societies, or throw yourself into the students’ union, college newspaper or student radio station. Find what interests you, whether that’s chess, camogie, debating, drama or food. Third level is a time to truly discover yourself as a person and make new friends based on common interests and values rather than who sits beside you in class. If you’re LGBT+ and haven’t come out, you’ll find support in dedicated societies as well as a generally safe and supportive environment.

This year, incoming students who have already been supremely unlucky to have their Leaving Cert cancelled because of a global pandemic, will face a very different kind of experience. So how can you prepare for life in a pandemic?

At the time of writing, only some institutions had released full details of their plans for the coming semester, but it seems that students can expect to be on campus for no more than half the semester, and many of the bustling social events that mark first year of college life have been cancelled or scaled back.

Katie Halpin-Hill, Irish-language officer for the Irish Second Level Students Union, is hoping to get a place at UCC. “I am nervous about entering a drastically different college experience. I’m from the Gaeltacht in Waterford and was really looking forward to city life, college events, joining societies and meeting new people. Now it is all on hold.”

Lorna Fitzpatrick is president of the Union of Students in Ireland, which represents students in third-levels across the country and, in Northern Ireland, jointly with the UK’s National Union of Students. “This is a tricky situation and we acknowledge that,” she says. “But throughout July and much of August, communication with students was poor and all students knew was that they would be on campus ‘as much as possible’. This led to problems in securing accommodation and caused more stress for students.”

Before the coronavirus crisis, a survey by USI indicated that college students were already struggling with extreme anxiety and stress. “We are worried that the fourth wave of Covid will be a mental health crisis. It’s the people you meet and the clubs and societies that make college what it is, so the overall student experience has to be a priority for third levels – otherwise there may be a knock-on effect on student mental health, which in turn will impact on student learning. Where possible, and in line with public health advice, we need third levels to facilitate students in holding events with social distancing, masks and hand sanitisers. There need to be new strategies for building online communities; Zoom is fine when it’s free for 40 minutes, but what happens beyond this?”

Joint approach

Fitzpatrick is calling for a “partnership approach” between students and higher-education institutions on every decision that is made. “People in suits and offices may have the best intentions in the world but make out-of-touch decisions, and that’s why it is vital that they engage with students, student unions and student leaders on campus.”

Dublin City University has long since had particular strengths in distance and hybrid learning. But the college also places a particularly heavy emphasis on the extracurricular side of college life, with its unique Uaneen module – named after the late broadcaster and DCU graduate Uaneen Fitzsimons – giving credit to students who get meaningfully involved in the extracurricular side of college life. Together, this could give DCU a distinct advantage in the Covid era.

Annabella Stover, DCU’s deputy director of student support and development, says they have been working on the return to campus for many months. “We have been working closely with the students union, clubs and societies to adapt the student experience.

“It will be a hybrid experience of learning online and in person, but we are keen to maximise the use of space on campus. There will still be a two-week orientation period for new students, with at least some on-campus engagement. Students will work together in smaller groups and we will be looking at ways of connecting them. We will be trying, as far as possible, to start micro-communities with opportunities for freshers to connect with other students in their area. And our online transition programme, Discover DCU, will be available to students as soon as they accept their place.”

The college has also created MyDCU, which will be an online interactive environment for students. “They can engage in interactive activities, videos and student-led content connected to the various different clubs and societies. It’s all aimed at engagement and getting a sense of connection. Students will be able to link in with their own communities in various forums, but we will also help facilitate regular one-off events and weekly social activities.”

It all feels like a grand experiment. Perhaps it will lead to deeper and better connections, or perhaps students will miss out on something irretrievable.

Halpin-Hill says there is no perfect solution. “It’s nobody’s fault, and there’s no perfect solution, but you can’t truly replace face-to-face contact. I reckon going to college can be intimidating in normal circumstances, but this year we will all have to put in a bit of extra effort and do the best we can.”