College students tell us how they are feeling about the return to third level education

Ahead of Cork colleges re-opening, we talk to third level students about the return
College students tell us how they are feeling about the return to third level education
Aoife James, CIT Creative Digital Media student with fellow students. 

Aoife James, who is studying for a BA in Creative Digital Media at CIT

Working and learning from home sounds ideal at first, doesn’t it? Cosy environment, all the tea you can drink, and of course sneaking in a little extra sleep in place of the usual 7.30am sprint for the 219...

While that all sounds well and good, though, for certain fields of study and work it has been a nightmare.

I myself am about to enter my final year of a BA in Creative Digital Media from CIT. Music and photography were my life from a young age, and it was always obvious I’d seek a career in one or both. I started planning small gigs and photographing them when I was 14, and through these, eventually learned more about music technology and live sound.

Going into this degree was a perfect opportunity to continue my professional growth in these fields. Among other tasks, I spend a large amount of time out gathering photos, footage and audio for projects.

As you can imagine, these last few months have presented a multitude of dilemmas here. Being confined to my home with no opportunity to gather actors, models or musicians left me with very little I could work with.

To complicate things even further, I was still on work placement as a media creator with The Academy of Popular Music. No weekly classes in School of Music and no showcase gigs made for a severe lack of content and, while my tutor co-workers began hosting online lessons via Zoom, I tried rummaging through old clips to see what I could scrape together.

Graphic design was a handy back-up here, but for a music academy this format is not ideal in comparison to the usual performance videos and action shots. It’s been six months since our last Academy gig. No chance for live photography and, more importantly, no opportunities for these young students to perform on a stage for half a year just feels insane.

Aoife James, Digital Media Student CIT.
Aoife James, Digital Media Student CIT.

Admittedly, I do have quite a few concerns in my head getting closer to the new academic year in college. The final stage of my undergrad brings with it a whole selection of more hands-on modules and, of course, the Final Year Project.

The plan for blended learning presents two particular dilemmas. For one, is the quality of learning at risk of being affected by online lectures where students may easily slip into distraction or find themselves without a steady internet connection? Then, for the limited time per week we can be on campus for the more practical sides, what about the students who just cannot risk it? Those of us with pre-existing conditions that make us vulnerable and those who live with vulnerable relatives will of course have to exercise more caution. With the college projected to open towards the end of September, hopefully these answers come soon.

Another factor with online classes is the toll on mental health. One student explained that spending hours every day in Zoom classes and then sleeping in the same room had taken a massive hit on his mental wellbeing, and that the thought of continuing that terrified him.

Aside from the academics, a big question on the minds of many CIT students is how societies are set to operate this year. All our committees saw event cancellations and had to think up alternatives quickly. For a lot of us, that meant setting up new communication platforms for our members, holding small-scale online events, and reassigning funds to hold social media competitions. That was fine to cover us for the remainder of semester two, but looking at the incoming year with a limited understanding of what lies ahead is proving rather stressful. It’s pretty clear we won’t be able to host our annual Societies Sign-Up Day or Committee Training Night, both of which serve a particular importance in the integration of first years into college life at CIT.

The final event that managed to run before CIT shut was my own Music Society’s Battle of the Bands final in Cyprus Avenue on March 11 — the day before college closures were announced. This proved rather significant, as it was evidently one of the very last gigs to take place in Cork before venues began to cease business. These bands haven’t performed to a live crowd in months, nor have local music lovers been able to enjoy concert experiences.

The future of the local music scene has been a hot topic of late, and those of us working and studying in that scene have been left trying to figure out where we stand.

I discussed matters with my friends, and fellow BOTB judges, Joe Clarke, Peter Burke, Podge Lane and Richard Brett. All are Popular Music students at CIT Cork School of Music and, like me, have seen serious disruptions to their livelihood. Live music takes more than just the artist after all, one must consider the planners, promoters, sound engineers, lighting technicians, photographers, and so many more individuals forming one big team. In Cork, these positions are largely dominated by students who use each and every event to develop their skills further and bring this experience back into their course work. These creative departments are arguably some of the worst affected by recent times, what with the lack of experience opportunities, facilities, and resources.

Luckily, creative people also show great initiative, and we’ve all been figuring out our own ways of remaining productive.

What is there to say in the end? Yes, I certainly have my fears for the coming months. My mind has a tendency to be rather pessimistic admittedly. Although, I will say, the students of Ireland know how to face a challenge. We dealt with this the first time around and, while it was unbelievably tough, we can muster up the energy to again take it in our stride and manage it to the best extent possible.

While we await the return of life as we knew it, we’ll continue to show that we are not ones to be underestimated.

Matthew Moynihan interviewing Ryan Tubridy.Pic Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision
Matthew Moynihan interviewing Ryan Tubridy.Pic Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

Matthew Moynihan is studying for a BA Arts in UCC, Politics & English and is in his final year.

The global pandemic engulfing the fabric of our society presents a major challenge, but it also presents a major opportunity, not least in third level education. This has been the hopeful philosophy I’ve applied to my personal experience of the pandemic to date.

I have had a diagnosis of Generalised Anxiety Disorder for many years now, and the irony is that all of the irrational fears I felt throughout the years prepared me to deal with this major crisis, where my fears had a realistic foundational basis.

Having the UCC campus closed from mid-March allowed me to engage in my learning online, freeing up time and bettering my grades due to increased productivity. Therefore, I feel the new blended education model presented by the Department of Further and Higher Education will be a massive opportunity for my fellow students and I to discard the aspects of our schooling that weren’t prepared for the modern age and embrace new technology more fully in the education setting.

Like every citizen across this country, I have made personal sacrifices to suppress the virus, not seeing my family for almost three months as the virus wreaked silent havoc across the globe. I adapted, however. Zoom calls, online gaming, running and meditating became new methods to feel connected and at ease in the midst of a dystopian and altogether odd time.

I feel a sense of contrasting emotions about the return to college — excitement and caution. Excitement for the opportunity to engage in learning in a new way, and caution about a resurgence of the virus if students do not practice personal responsibility upon returning to campus. Knowing many of my fellow students through my role in student media, I have no doubt an attitude of social responsibility will pervade every aspect of the return to campus life. We have to proceed with a positive frame of mind.

This virus has taken so much from us, our loved ones, our way of life, our sense of security — what I refuse to let it take from me is my hope for the future and my ability to work towards that future.

In the darkest days of April as the virus peaked, the former Taoiseach Leo Varadkar remarked: “Fear is a virus in itself”. I refuse to let myself be infected with it. Hope itself, after all, is contagious.

Natasha Mulroy, Early Years studies, Cork College of Commerce.
Natasha Mulroy, Early Years studies, Cork College of Commerce.

Natasha Mulroy, Early Years studies, Cork College of Commerce.

While we all went into lockdown, I was able to keep up with my course work by having online classes and we used both the apps google classrooms and zoom. At first I was unsure of how these online classes would be and didn’t think they would work well, but when I had my first online class I found that they weren’t as bad as I thought. Everyone in my class was able to interact with one another and we were able to finish up what we had been working on when we were in college before the lockdown.

Teachers have been very good when it comes to emails — they respond very fast to queries. When it came to you being confused with what work you had to do for an assignment, they were very good at explaining what you had to do and would always offer a video chat on one of the apps and explain it to you better.

I found the online teaching good — it was like being back in college in the classroom. I had no problems with the online teaching.

My teachers would find ways to make the online classes fun, saying jokes, getting people to read the class notes while on the call and asking everyone questions about what we had just learned. The teachers were very organised with arranging what we would be learning during the online class and what dates and times we would have the call.

If you didn’t have the notes, they would put them on the call too and we were able to follow along. Before the call would end, the teachers asked if there were any problems with the assignments and if the class was OK with the notes.

I am also coming back to do level six in Early Childhood Care and Education and am excited to go back to college and see what the year holds.

Alana Daly Mulligan, UCC Arts student
Alana Daly Mulligan, UCC Arts student

Alana Daly Mulligan, UCC Arts student

The uncertainty of the next academic year is upsetting and frustrating. I think now is the time to ask is our quality of education worth the money we’re paying for it, as we make the move to online learning, and further question is it worth it for limited contact hours that will put students and their guardians in precarious financial situations to fund potential one-day-a-week stays in extortionate Cork student accommodation in order to go to labs, etc?

I’m also wondering what support are UCC giving academics in order to facilitate the move online, given that they may not be familiar with the technology, or might just generally be reluctant to use it.

As a student in the College of Arts, I think it’s disappointing that we’re last getting timetables (September 14).

The humanities are a long-term investment in society’s happiness yet the future caregivers of such are being neglected and shut out of the conversation.

Personally, I want to move back to Cork (I’m currently in my native Waterford) and overwrite the past year of my life. I want to go to lectures, be in the library, meet friends, live independently, finish my degree, but right now, I am just waiting to be disappointed with every aspect of the experience potentially being moved online. Of course, the aim is for blended learning, but personally I think this claim is a dubious plea to coerce students into signing up for a less-than-satisfactory year online.

It’s the people that make the place and experience, and college is not the same buzz when you’re staring at a screen.

Jude Hogan O'Sullivan, Interior Architecture Student.
Jude Hogan O'Sullivan, Interior Architecture Student.

Jude Hogan O’Sullivan an Interior Architecture student St John’s College

As a mature student, I have many hats, ie; wife, mother, young, very young grandmother and last but not least — dog owner. I returned to full-time education when my youngest was independent and mature enough to deal with my endless hours of college work (meaning me — with my head stuck in a laptop 24 /7!).

Initially, my family and I were caught up with the excitement, also some trepidation of how we would manage studying and working from home, when schools and colleges closed in March, due to the pandemic. We all had our own laptops, spaces to study, and software set up for Zoom calls or whatever platforms were used by the educational bodies, eg, Google Classroom and BigBlueButton.

Our home WiFi, being a bit patchy in places, needed constant monitoring, and as it didn’t stretch as far as my study area, I perched myself at the island in my kitchen, where the WiFi coverage was faultless. It was a great spot, as I got lots of interaction with my family, when I was lucid enough to know they were in the same room as me.

Each day began between 8.30 and 9am. No rush to get showered, feed or walk the dog, make lunches, do time checks, or mad dashes out the door for school drop-off and getting to college on time.

Breakfast was usually in my pjs at the island with my laptop open and ready to go, files and paperwork scattered all around and my Nespresso machine at hand. My family wandered in for breakfast on their own schedules. It all seemed very leisurely and civilised.

But as the weeks went by and the toll of the coronavirus increased, the effect it had on me was quite bizarre. I wanted to hide-out, and the idea of going grocery shopping was a challenge as though I had to ‘run the gauntlet’.

We settled into our new home study schedules quickly and I worked long hours for my college deadlines. Being at home gave me time to really challenge myself with quality and quantity for my final project of the year. The times I would have spent travelling to and from college and free hours between classes didn’t exist anymore.

I felt thankful that most of the course was covered for the year and I was moving into project time, as I feel it would have being too big a challenge to learn this way long-term.

While at home, bad connections, poor WiFi, and background noise didn’t work well in a learning environment. Other students, also parents, found it very stressful studying with younger children, as there were no options for childcare, and ‘home-school parent’ became their new job description, which left little room for their own studies, or even energy for college work.

The social aspect of college is vital for younger students and the worry it would never go back to how it was consumed their thoughts.

There was massive stress towards the end, worrying about assignments being submitted on time and worrying about how on-line exams would pan out. While it’s always stressful finishing up assignments and projects at year end, it was even more stressful this year.

As we near the end the of the summer break, there are many questions still to be answered. A definitive date for return to college is on all our minds, and then the big question is — what will college life be like this year?

We do know that every college will have certain rules regarding the control of the coronavirus, 1-2 metre distancing and mandatory face masks, as well as increased space both in class rooms and hallways.

How will we manage blended learning? We have yet to test all this, but if it means returning to college and staying safe, I’m happy to deal with the inconvenience, hopefully just this next year.

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