There is something offbeat about virtual Durham. Navigating the treacherous nature of Zoom seminars – often fertile land for fresh social awkwardness – is hardly the problem, per se. The devilishly arduous DUO pages, with all their dead-ends and disjointed hyperlinks, transform pre-lecture reading into an endless intellectual pilgrimage. In truth, this too amounts to a mere inconvenience. Conscious of the precarious state of public health, contending with online learning is, for the time being, a frustratingly necessary sacrifice. After all, prudent behaviour will, with good time, curb the danger of coronavirus sooner.
These sentiments, despite conforming to the realities of a resurgent pandemic, highlight a uniquely disfigured actuality to which we are now accustomed to. Take this account, for example: a Durham University undergraduate (me), fresh from a nauseatingly protracted period of A Level studies, still finds himself trapped in a place he had grafted so hard to leave. Paradoxically, he is both present in Durham and remote from it, symptomatic of the virtual learning deployed by the University in seeking to stunt
the spread of Covid-19.
What I am trying to demonstrate through this characterisation is, lamentably so, my duel against social immobility, something that the nascent strain of the virus has compounded. As a working-class son to a single mother and a Mexican father, implicit reminders of social paralysis are coated across my home neighbourhood. A fleeting glance at a foodbank, customary whilst taking my younger sister to school, is an unmistakable indication of that.
Explaining it to my sister is even more discomforting. Privileged as I am, I had hoped attaining a place
at an elite institution like Durham University would symbolise merited upward progress. It undoubtedly still does. Yet, the sensory ramifications of learning remotely have had a pacifying effect on the unbridled optimism I had initially envisioned. This is the disfigured reality to which I refer.
The sobering intricacies of home-based study together with the febrility of a dangerous disease make for a powerful combination. Although jarringly constrained from freely immersing myself in student social life, being stranded at home has provided sharp perspective at a time when adopting shortsightedness is a tantalisingly easy path to take.
Whether it be creating an ad hoc desk or dancing around family members between seminars, there is a peculiar novelty in attending university from the ambience of the familial dining room table.
The distinction between study and relaxation is often blurred, heightened by the reality of being simultaneously present and absent from Durham – an oddity exemplified by the transitions between synchronous seminars on busy days. But it is through setting up shop in-house that a more profound reflection has been gauged. That is, of course, a financial one.
Explicitly speaking, paying for university is hardly a preoccupation. After all, the University has been exceptional in its bursary provisions; I have, as have those with similar dispositions, been gratefully
aided by the Covid-19 Fund. In truth, I try not to fall into the trap of pondering whether the costs of first year have been merited – I retain confidence that attending Durham University will be invaluable in kick-starting a strong career. Yet, with the state of the economy as it is, there is a renewed sense of self-sufficiency.
In many respects, it has been an inflection point. One would imagine that with stretched finances and unprecedented uncertainty, any current family savings should not be partitioned to me. It would be grossly unfair on my siblings’ futures to do so. The trade-off in paying for university was always clear, yet, following a tragic ten months, this is now of elevated importance. Studying from home has reinforced this stark financial truth and in a peculiar way, I am grateful for it.
Attending an elite university remotely is both an empowering and preoccupying experience. I am concurrently reminded of my academic achievements and, by bewildering contrast, the financial juggling of my parents and the relative depravity of my neighbourhood. However, this juxtaposition, I think, is powerful. As much as I’d like to return, in blending online Durham with my current surroundings, a renewed
ambition for self-improvement and success is vigorously conceived.