Tara Hanlon investigates students’ concerns starting a new semester in this climate.
Usually, UCD students going back to college means Black Monday, a packed Clubhouse, and taxis into town. This year, the return to a usually bustling campus will instead see sobering social distancing, students attending lectures from their bedrooms, and the Zoom logo haunting many nightmares. It’s not the college experience we know, and for many the uncertainty and upheaval has caused huge anxieties around returning to life in UCD. But how do students really feel about returning to college amid an unprecedented pandemic?
Conor: It’s so important that students stay connected, particularly first years. It’ll be hard for them to make friends, and it might feel like UCD is just for going to lectures and tutorials when it should be about so much more than that.
Conor Cassidy, a fourth year Business and Law student, says he is really looking forward to the social aspect of college, getting back on campus and having some in-person teaching and interactions again.“Something that I have missed is having a routine. Having a reason to get up and out of the house every day and being able to see friends from college who I’ve barely seen over the summer will be great.” However, he also fears a lot of these valued on-campus interactions could be lost, and he expects difficulty in running any sort of society event or sports training as he is involved with UCD Badminton. “We are expecting a big drop in membership numbers. Because things are changing so quickly, it is almost impossible to plan. It’s hard to generate any sort of enthusiasm for organising and participating in events which have to be so strictly controlled and the reduced number of people on campus will affect this as well.”
As a sufferer of asthma, Conor is conscious of communal spaces and limiting contact with other students, however states “It’s so important that students stay connected, particularly first years. It’ll be hard for them to make friends, and it might feel like UCD is just for going to lectures and tutorials when it should be about so much more than that.” As a final year student, he identified uncertainty around registration and assessment as adding to his stress. “I think lots of students would appreciate very clear and specific communications from their school(s) about how their course will work, rather than very generic and broad emails. Uncertainty around this was one of the hardest parts of the move to online teaching in March.” Conor hopes that having had the summer to prepare, lecturers would be more engaging in online classes. However he did identify the dreaded ‘Group Project’ as something that is difficult to organise in the best of times, let alone online, with students possibly in different time zones and unable to meet in person at all.
John: It’s far more difficult for students and lecturers to interact online, it’s much more difficult to ask questions. Given the unreliability and inconsistency of Irish broadband, I think pre-recorded lectures would work far better than live streamed classes
John Higgins, a third-year Mechanical Engineering student from Meath, echoes Conor’s sentiments. “I’m really excited to be back. I think having the routine of college, even in a different format, is something that I missed a lot during the lockdown. My worry is how little information we still seem to have, it seems to be quite short notice given everything we have to organise.” Heavily involved in the Musical Society, John shares Conor’s worries, saying “Socialising on campus is another big concern especially for any of the college societies. I feel we are really going to struggle to get people involved because so many of our usual activities won’t be possible.” Although John is guaranteed some practical classes due to the nature of his degree, he identified the quality of online lectures as an ongoing concern for many. “It’s far more difficult for students and lecturers to interact online, it’s much more difficult to ask questions. Given the unreliability and inconsistency of Irish broadband, I think pre-recorded lectures would work far better than live streamed classes.”
Ruth: I also can’t wait to get back into the lab, doing physics, which isn’t just computer programming and simulation of events! I do enjoy these components, but nothing beats face to face.”
Ruth Moore, a final year Physics with Astronomy student, also has concerns about the practical elements of her degree. “Our course usually has a mandatory research trip which is necessary to complete our thesis. We haven’t been told yet if it’s still going ahead or not, or which measures have been put in place should it be cancelled last minute. So I’m nervous about that since final year theses are important. I also can’t wait to get back into the lab, doing physics, which isn’t just computer programming and simulation of events! I do enjoy these components, but nothing beats face to face.” The lack of facilities however is also of concern to Ruth, saying she hopes that the library has a good system in place so that students can study when on campus. “Maybe a booking system could work well. I was lucky in the sense that I didn’t mind online lecturers, so I hope that the online recorded ones are of a similar standard this year. I imagine that things could get difficult if they are being live recorded with a small class in attendance.”
Having been involved in setting up one of UCD’s newest societies, Women+ in Stem, Ruth also says that she feels “very sorry for those going into first year who won’t get the chance to experience the Sports Expo & Freshers Tent as we did. No matter what societies and sports manage to do this year, it’ll be nothing compared to balls with 400 attendees, trips away and events on campus.” Although Ruth is dreading the potential of another lockdown, she is trying to look on the bright side of things. “Even though I’m sad that my final year in college will be disrupted by Covid-19, I’m so thankful that we at least have a warning heading in, and know to make the most of whatever interaction we get, in contrast to those who graduated this year. I’m going to keep my expectations small, enjoy every quick chat and study session I get with my friends, call into lecturers as opposed to emailing them, and hopefully get to see the campus come alive again. It’s the little things like that which help get you through more stressful times during college.”
Jack: I’m worried more about the wider social scene at UCD, and I really don’t think the University is doing enough to support that side of things.
A return to UCD involved a two-week quarantine for Jack McGee, third year Law with Politics student who has returned to Dublin from his home in America. Extremely optimistic, Jack is “ridiculously excited to get back into the swing of things. Being back here means I’m back with my friends, family, and wider school community, all of whom I had to leave behind for five months. It’s also nice to be in a country that, (while not out of the woods yet), has been dealing with the outbreak far more effectively than my own.” As the incoming secretary for the Law Society, Jack also echoed earlier concerns around recreation on campus. “I know how critical societies are to student life, and how difficult it is to run them at their normal scale, forget during all this. While I’m happy to say that LawSoc are still running many of our key events, I’m worried more about the wider social scene at UCD, and I really don’t think the University is doing enough to support that side of things.” On the academic side of things, Jack is taking each day as it comes. He says calmly, “There’s nothing I can do about registration issues and distance learning and all that jazz. As students, we should focus instead on what we do have control over. We can all do our bit to make sure UCD continues to be the most active, exciting, and accepting campus in this country, no matter the restrictions.”
An online survey was also conducted to see how students from a wide range of counties and courses felt about the return to campus. While 27% said they were “pretty optimistic,” nearly a fifth of students felt that another lockdown and return to online lectures was inevitable. Students cited a range of concerns about returning to campus, with worries around health, restrictions on social events and lack of access to facilities being the most prominent. Students from rural counties tended to rate accommodation as a higher issue than those from Dublin. One remarked, “it’s difficult to justify paying rent if I’m only going to be on campus for two or three hours a week.” Mirroring the concerns in the interviews above, a general lack of communication from UCD was a key frustration for many. One student said “The lack of clarity around the extent of campus opening, in person hours, society life and accommodation has exacerbated an already stressful situation. UCD need to do better with effectively and promptly informing students - and not via tweets.” This followed UCD announcing that registration would be pushed back to the 7th of September from the 1st via twitter on the 27th of August, while only informing students of the change via email on the 1st of September.
Registration and the random allocation of start times were of huge concern to many, with social media erupting over the past week with complaints. Many final year students were left unable to take a lot of the modules they had wanted to study, or in some cases, require for professional exams as they had filled up before the students allocated registration time. One student compared this process to The Hunger Games. The SU President Conor Anderson has called on students to get in touch with their “registration horror stories.” Post-registration, some students were finding out they had as little as two hours of on-campus classes a week. One final year student said, “The fact that we are only finding out now, when some students have been paying rent for the month of September, is very disappointing.”
Timetabling itself was also the subject of criticism. Some students have discovered they are scheduled to be in an online lecture right after an in-person lecture. It is unclear whether seating or study areas will be available for students to attend online lectures while on-campus, since students are left with insufficient time to get home. One student remarked, “this will lead to multiple people all on-campus, all watching the same online lecture, which defeats the purpose.”
Overall, the mood among UCD students is quite a mixed bag, but a cautious optimism seems to come out on top. Although there is plenty of frustration about UCD’s administrative errors and lack of clear, timely communication, this is overshadowed by the desire of many to return to normality, routine and socialising as we know it: or at least as much as is possible. The recent spike in Dublin’s case numbers and delay on the reopening of pubs is of pressing concern to NPHET and all eyes will be on the situation as thousands of students return to the city. Whether we return to a full online learning experience in the coming months will be up to UCD, but many students are keen to avoid this at all costs, and recognise the onus is on us to act responsibly.