'A sense of urgency sustained me during those first weeks'

There was the assumption that, like all crises, the Covid-19 pandemic would pass, writes Róisín Ní Riain

“College life is all about expanding your horizons; infection prevention is all about limiting them. It was an intensely isolating experience.” Photograph: iStock

“College life is all about expanding your horizons; infection prevention is all about limiting them. It was an intensely isolating experience.” Photograph: iStock

 

By March 2020, everyone knew the situation regarding Covid-19 was serious and only getting worse.

Nevertheless, the announcement on Tuesday March 10th that all lectures were suspended for the rest of the semester in Trinity came as a bit of a shock. I didn’t realise it yet, but the history lecture I had just walked out of had been the last undergraduate lecture I would ever attend on campus.

On Thursday, Leo Varadkar announced that all colleges were to close from Friday. That weekend, I packed a bag and took the train home to Limerick.

When I returned to Dublin two weeks later, it was in a car driven up the deserted motorway to clear out my accommodation before the impending lockdown shut down travel. It was clear at that stage that I would be at home for longer than I had expected, though I couldn’t have guessed how long.

A sense of urgency sustained me during those first weeks. It was very stressful, as students and lecturers alike scrambled to adapt to remote learning amid the other attendant disruptions of a global pandemic.

But it had the adrenaline of a crisis, and there was the assumption that, like all crises, it would pass. However, as the end of the summer approached and it became clear there would be no return to campus just yet, that adrenaline, and that faith in an end just out of sight, dwindled.

A year of college online has been a slog. The hours spent in front of a laptop and the general lack of stimulation brought on periods of brain fog and low spirits. My motivation occasionally lagged, especially in the second semester, as it became difficult to keep believing that college actually existed in the outside world, and that the outside world actually existed.

Thoughts of all the nights out and time with friends missed had to be put aside; they would have only made it harder to keep going. Unsurprisingly, I missed my friends deeply. More surprising was how much I missed talking to classmates and casual acquaintances, people I would ordinarily have encountered during the day but with whom I now had little to no contact.

College life is all about expanding your horizons; infection prevention is all about limiting them. It was an intensely isolating experience.

There were some benefits to being in final year rather than elsewhere in my college career. The balance was always likely to tilt towards work rather than fun this year, and my college work provided a focus at a time when there wasn’t much else going on.

At least I had already made my college friends, unlike this year’s unfortunate first years who endured the storm of uncertainty around last year’s Leaving Cert only to find themselves stranded between teenage life and college life. It also goes without saying that people have had to struggle with a lot worse than studying online over the last fifteen months.

While finishing college during the pandemic hasn’t been disastrous, it has been disappointing. The end of an important stage of life has been roughly torn off. Milestones have been missed, some goodbyes never said.

When the pandemic kicked off, I sympathised with friends in final year that had missed their last lecture, their chance to get a proud photo with their dissertation, the desperate camaraderie of their last set of exams, their graduation. I was sorry for them, and secretly a little glad I was still in third year and things would hopefully have improved when my time came.

Little did I know. I arrived in my last seminar late after the internet threw a tantrum and left it with a click of Zoom’s red ‘Leave’ button. I submitted my final assignment and finished my undergrad sitting at my makeshift garden table desk in my tracksuit bottoms: not exactly a champagne moment.

A night out to celebrate wasn’t even dreamed of. In-person graduations remain a distant prospect. Not the end of the world, but one hell of an anti-climax.