With most undergraduate courses and taught postgraduate programmes to return to the University College Cork (UCC) campus on September 13, students are hoping for as much in-person learning as possible and the opportunity to connect with peers and have a ‘traditional’ college experience after a challenging year.
UCC students’ union president, Asha Woodhouse, said there is a “huge push” to return to campus this year, which is “great”.
“I think everyone is feeling quite positive about it and there’s a lot of scenario planning going on for if we have full capacity or partial capacity and how we will facilitate that, which is great to have,” Ms Woodhouse said.
Everyone is feeling “quite hopeful” that the rollout of the vaccine among the younger cohort of the population will ease the return to campus.
UCC recently outlined their measures for the new academic year, stating that face-to-face teaching will be permitted, with teaching spaces operating at 80% of capacity.
There will be a cap of 200 attendees, including the lecturer, in large theatres.
Students will wear face coverings during lectures and durations will be reduced to ensure sufficient time for a changeover between classes.
Club activities will be permitted within the framework of national public-health guidelines, as will in-person events for societies.
The university will also be taking part in the UniCoV project, which aims to explore the feasibility and acceptability of self-reporting, self-testing, and biosamples-surveillance systems to assist with the safe and sustainable re-opening of campuses.
Ms Woodhouse said the return to campus will be welcomed.
“This year was extremely challenging and isolating and tiring for students and for everyone, really,” she said. “But from the student perspective, definitely not having that social element, or in-person element, was quite detrimental to the traditional student experience most of us are fortunate to get that a lot of students have missed out on in the last year and a half now.”
The past year was “isolating” for many students, Ms Woodhouse said, as well as being academically challenging, with remote classes preventing peer-to-peer learning.
“There’s a lot of peer-to-peer learning that goes on in the classroom that we maybe don’t realise,” she said.
“Just being able to ask your classmates, ‘Oh, what’s going on here?’ or, ‘I didn’t understand that, did you get it?’ And even having that conversation with the lecturer in class, or when someone else in the class is asking questions, I think was hugely missing this year.
“That was both detrimental to people in an academic context and also in a social context.
“Such interactions — conversations with classmates or quick questions to the person next to you — are often how students meet and make friends,” Ms Woodhouse said.
“Some people meet their best friends for life just sat next to them in class one day. I think losing that was definitely a big loss this year for a lot of students and really made a lot of people feel isolated.”
However, as the new academic year looms and students prepare to get back to their studies, not all will be looking forward to returning to campus.
“The return will also present challenges,” Ms Woodhouse said. “I think a lot of people will have issues with social anxiety and will have had challenges, in terms of their mental health and wellbeing, over the last year.”
The year group who may find things particularly challenging are those who were only beginning their third-level journey when the pandemic hit.
“Some of them will be going into final year this year and they won’t have been on campus since March of their first year, which is really unfortunate for them to have missed so much,” Ms Woodhouse said.
“We really want them to get that student experience, but also being mindful that there are some students, or staff even, who might not be able to return for health reasons and ensuring that they’re supported and still getting their academic experience, which is what you are ultimately here for at the end of the day.”
One student who commenced his university experience in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic is 19-year-old AJ Whelan.
AJ was in sixth year when schools closed as a result of the virus.
Fast forward to the summer of 2021 and AJ is progressing into his second year of engineering at UCC, having only been on campus on a handful of occasions and following an abrupt ending to his six years in secondary school.
Opting for predicated grades for his Leaving Cert, he has not sat any ‘traditional’ exams since the pandemic began, not during sixth year nor in his first year in UCC.
“It ended with a text message and that was it,” AJ said of his time in secondary school.
“Then, when college started, it was the exact same thing, so there was kind of really no transition.
“You could argue that that actually made the transition a little bit easier, but it really felt like no difference.
“It felt like the same thing and just different people; a bigger year group.”
For AJ, the first semester at university was particularly difficult, with little to no opportunities to socialise or meet classmates.
“I woke up, moved out of bed into the chair,” AJ said.
“In the chair, I would have online classes…and then, that was it. If there was a bit of work to do, I would do that and then I would call it a day.”
“I felt like I couldn’t go out anywhere, because there was nothing to do. At that stage, I hadn’t made any friends, so I literally spent the entire first semester at home.”
As a Cork native, living nearby proved to be a bonus for AJ when it came to the few in-person classes, which provided brief opportunities to socialise with classmates.
“The first in-person thing I had on campus was a physics experiment in October and there I met a lot of people, obviously,” AJ said.
“There was about 20 in the class, and we were in this massive laboratory all spread out, but after, I was talking to a few people and two of the people I actually became really good friends with.
“I was very lucky for that. A lot of people, they don’t live in Cork, so they couldn’t come down, so they struggled a lot. So, it was good, I suppose. As the year went on, I made more friends.”
The saving grace, however, was virtual pub quizzes organised for students, and through which AJ met many of his now very close friends.
The chance to socialise — even if it was through Zoom — was a benefit for those who were feeling the effects of long periods at home studying.
“When the call started, we would break up into the groups and we’d be able to have fun and a lot of people actually said, after, that without that they would have actually fallen off, because there was no social aspect,” AJ said.
He described semester two as “a better semester as a whole”.
“Semester two was much better, because the friend group we made, we could go to the library once a week and do work and then our breaks, we would just go outside, and we were just having chats and laugh and go into town and get food and come back,” AJ said.
However, he said second year will be a bit of a shock, after “open book” and online exams throughout his first year.
“We skipped all first-year exams, we skipped the end of sixth year, the big old Leaving Cert,” AJ said. “A lot of people actually missed their pres, so there’s a massive gap then between exams, so that’s going to be a huge shock.”
Ahead of his return to university, or rather the beginning of the university experience he had been expecting before the pandemic, AJ Is hoping for more time on campus and in-person classes.
The aspect he is most looking forward to?
“A social life.”