By Pearl Cheng
It all started nearly a year ago.
Having confirmed my place with the University mere days before the deadline, I spent the last week of summer anxiously waiting for my CAS Statement, the essential document that every international student needs to apply for a visa. Sitting in my Hong Kong bedroom that day, I still remember the moment when the document finally came through in the email. ‘Now all I have to do now is get my visa on time’, I thought. I was ablaze with excitement. I immediately made plans to regularly visit a school friend at her college and try out her steamed egg custard. I promised to send my relatives ‘pictures of where they shot bits of Harry Potter’. I couldn’t wait to meet new people during Freshers’ week and on my course. Little did I know how wrong I was.
Having begun the process so late, the visa never came out in time for fresher’s week. ‘I’ll be studying online for a while,’ I remember telling College when it finally did weeks later. ‘I’ll be here shortly.’ Yet with the sharp rise in Covid cases in late October and the subsequent lockdown in January, I watched as my emails went from ‘shortly’ to ‘a few months later’. And as April came, with exams looming on the horizon and the continuation of travel restrictions from Hong Kong to the UK, I soon came to the realisation that ‘a few months later’ was not right, and all I could say was ‘perhaps next year’. In this way, online learning went from being a temporary measure to a day-to-day reality.
A typical day only really starts in the late afternoon, as Hong Kong is eight hours ahead for most of the academic year. Tutorials and seminars that end past midnight usually find me yawning in pyjamas, although thankfully, that never gets caught on camera. Computers and smartphones have become essential peepholes into this new world 5904 miles away. The tiny black boxes with names underneath on Teams have allowed me to learn the names and faces of some of my fellow classmates. By scrolling through College Instagram posts and confession pages on my phone, I’ve had a glimpse into College life and University traditions.
It would be a lie to say that this year has not been challenging. An awareness of the vibrancy of university life has slowly created a yearning to move beyond being a mere spectator behind the screen, and experience it all for myself. With restrictions being lifted, some activities such as balls and formals have started to return. While this return to normalcy has given rise to relief that the pandemic is gradually behind us, I painfully admit that only being able to watch from afar and not participate has created a growing sense of FOMO. Despite recognizing names and faces, it has been difficult to strike up and maintain online conversations, let alone friendships. After all, how do you connect with a profile icon or a chunk of text on a screen?
At the end of the day, I often wonder: was staying at home to learn online the right choice, or could I have done anything differently? Does anyone feel the same? A university experience is more than your degree, and so much of it is the people that you meet, and the places that you’ve been. Therefore, at times, the revelation that a third of this is now gone creates a sense of loss.
If there is perhaps one positive thing from this experience, it is that the transition from school to university has been greatly smoothened. All freshers experience adjustment problems in the first few months, from living independently to new modes of learning. These inevitable difficulties, combined with the additional challenge of moving to a new country, would personally have been a daunting prospect. By staying at home, online learning has insulated me from part of this shock, allowing me to adapt to the other challenges of the transition one step at a time.
It is nearly June, and I’m still sitting in my Hong Kong bedroom, watching as Durham slowly returns to life. Despite being a quiet observer on the sidelines, I still cannot wait to try my friend’s steamed egg custard, proudly tell my relatives that Durham Cathedral’s cloisters were in the Harry Potter movies, and meet new people. Hopefully, when the time comes next year, I will be able to experience Durham in its usual glory.
Image: Nick Morrison via Unsplash