By Pearl Cheng
The heavy doors creak open. I gingerly slip my way through, taking a quick look as the lecture hall expands in front of me. Rows and aisles stare back, now rapidly being filled up by groups of chattering students. From the corner of my eye, I spot an empty seat in the far end. Here we go, I think nervously to myself as I take a deep breath and walk over. I sit myself down next to three girls in the middle of a lively conversation. “Hello,” I say. “Nice to meet you. What are your names?”
In any other year, this could easily be a description of a fresher’s first week. But no, this is 2021, where the pandemic continues to leave dark traces on our lives, despite a gradual return to normality. I’m a student in second year, and the scene described above is a snapshot from my first lecture. A week characterised by a bubbling eagerness to return to in-person teaching, yet also one that was at times mired with a vague sense of isolation and loss.
Yet this is only part of the unusual second year experience. These scenes and the feelings that come with it occasionally rear their head in other areas of university life too. A few of my conversations with people in the first week began with, “You look familiar!”, to which I heartily responded was probably due to a shared tutorial last year. I remember when our cohort found out that the freshers in my department would be having a dinner event. Jokes about pretending to be freshers started to pop up in the group chat. The light-hearted jokes and exclamations of recognition perhaps signify something deeper: a sense of loss over university experiences and isolation from others who shared the same highs and lows over the past year.
This has been a product of the pandemic and the havoc of the last eighteen months. For current second years, this meant that opportunities to meet others from college and on the same course during first year were very limited, and that large parts of the university experience, such as in person lectures, were unavailable. Coupled with the fact that most second years have chosen to live out this year, away from the community structure that college provides, it has been harder to pick up a sense of connection with people and university life.
Efforts have been made to improve the situation. To my knowledge, some departments have held receptions for returners, where students mingle with each other over glasses of wine. A few colleges have held events aimed at returners, such as formals. These have been amazing opportunities to bond with people, and friendships have been built from exchanging contact details, to competing to see who could drink more glasses of prosecco.
Yet for many others, these events have not happened. Rather, the process of shaking off the sense of isolation and loss has become a bottom-up, organic one, occurring slowly in the tiny moments of the week, such as during the few minutes of conversation before the lecturer begins, or a small wave of recognition when crossing the road.
And in a way, these small moments have accumulated. As a friend remarked to me over lunch, “it gets better each week.” Writing as I enter my third week, lectures are no longer a jumbled setting to meet new people, and interactions have gone from a “You look familiar!”, to a genuine conversation about each other’s day. The attention devoted to freshers’ dinner events has moved on, and there have been fewer jokes about pretending to be freshers as well. Bit by bit, everyone seems to be learning to find their place in their own way.
Yet for all that is taking place, this year’s second year experience remains unusual. After all, there is no erasing the fact that some university experiences, such as fresher dinner events, cannot be re-experienced, and social circles still need time and space to be built. Under this unique situation that many second years find themselves in, I am grateful for all the support that has been given, and for the courage to grow back under such trying conditions. Yet I also hope that more attention is given to these circumstances, and further efforts, such as returners’ receptions and formals, can be made to help everyone integrate and experience the full range of university life again.
Image: Anna Pycock