College in the Covid age - putting your head down and working your way through a college course is challenging at the best of times. Factor in a global pandemic and it's even more so.
Impacting absolutely all aspects of university life, it's affected students in a myriad of different ways and while some have come to terms with virtual learning, there are others still mourning the loss of that 'typical' college experience they had so been looking forward to - one they may never get to have, at least not in the same way they might have before.
I spoke to three different undergrad students who shared their thoughts on college during the Covid age with me.
Meghan: First-year General Nursing, NUI Galway
A newbie to third-level education, Meghan is finding it hard to come to terms with the workload - especially given that most things are pre-recorded so timing isn't necessarily an issue.
"I'm finding it quite difficult at the minute because, on our schedule, they have our classes rostered in, but a lot of them are pre-recorded so you don't have to watch them at that exact time. When they're pre-recorded, many of my lecturers tend to go over their timeslots - so on the timetable, it's only meant to last for an hour but in reality, it's taking me double that amount of time to get through them as you have to factor in notetaking and things like that too.
"It's so hard to even fit in the number of classes that I'm meant to have in a day... Some days it's just so much work, it's soul-crushing."
Admitting that it can be hard to stay focused on virtual learning when little is done to make classes engaging, she's found that sitting in front of a screen all day is quite tough going.
"A few lecturers have said that they know it's very full-on but obviously we still have to cover the same content as every other year. I don't' think they really do understand how much harder it is to do it all online by yourself though. It's very different in a proper school setting... I think they should be doing more to break up the days somehow. Working 9-5 online, just sitting there... it's actually brutal."
Missing out on all the usual first-year milestones, freshers' week was confined to one day this year and was more focused on giving students information than helping them to mingle/make connections in their respective courses. Commenting that more should be done to try and pair students up, Meghan said that it's a lot of pressure to have to go through the motions alone with no one to turn to for help.
"Being a first-year, I barely know anyone on my course. I'm lucky that I know two people doing the same course but if I didn't, I think that it would be very difficult. When you're at home just doing everything by yourself, if you don't' know anybody and you're confused you just have no one to ask. You have to figure things out by yourself. We're kind of just left stranded on our own."
Only with 30 per cent of her course scheduled to take place on campus, Meghan is still living at home, deciding to commute up and down rather than look for accommodation in Galway."Once a week I go down to Galway for on-campus labs and that's fine, it's kind of nice to go down once a week but it's very badly organised. For example, I'm in Thursday afternoon but I'm also meant to have lectures all of Thursday morning. No one seems to understand that I'm commuting for over an hour on the train - I have to drive to the train station, then get the bus and walk to the college. So on Thursday morning, I can never do any of the lectures and by the time I get home in the evening, it's so late that I don't have time to do anything else from that day... there doesn't seem to be much consideration for those who have to commute this year."
Facing the added struggle of public transport, travelling from Longford to Galway means that train/bus times are few and far between and so the options are either to arrive early or be late.
"It's either go and be half an hour late or get the earlier train and be there two hours ahead of time. It's so complicated because when you do eventually get there, there is literally nowhere that you can go. I usually have to sit in Eyre Square for two hours because I can't go sit inside anywhere. There is nowhere in college for us to just sit and do work. You can't sit in the train station either."
Also commenting on the negative rep that first-year students seem to have been landed with, she doesn't think it's fair to paint everyone with the same brush. "In the news, first-year students seem to be getting the brunt of people's frustrations saying we're the problem, but that's also very unfair. People tend to lump us all in together when that's not the case - the large majority of us are still at home. We're missing out on a lot and still somehow, getting most of the blame."
Claire: Second-Year General Science, NUI Maynooth
While Meghan is completely new to the system, Claire is a second-year student and so has somewhat of a basis to go off of. Studying General Science at NUI Maynooth, she's definitely noted the difference between last year and this - especially in a town like Maynooth where the population is made up largely of students. Another course where on-campus labs play a big part, Claire is still living in Maynooth this semester so she doesn't have to travel up and down.
"I'm originally from Longford but have been living in Maynooth since my first year of college. I am lucky as I have on-campus practical labs that mean I could still live up in Maynooth this year.
"The college life is not the same though. What was once a vibrant student town is now far quieter. The on-campus labs are also very different, every student must wear a mask at all times and keep a two-metre distance, while before everyone was partnered with someone else to complete a lab. You definitely feel far more isolated in your workload as each student has to work individually and not being able to meet your lecturer in person is also a huge difficulty."
Derek: Final year Electronic Engineering, UCD
Almost half-way through final year, this year definitely isn't the end of college experience Derek thought he'd be having and though his timetable is largely the same, the workload feels heavier.
"Studying during Covid-19 brings a lot of new challenges. My timetable is very similar to how it would have been without restrictions however it is mostly online over video calls. The only in-person university work I have is laboratory work. I was lucky enough to pick labs on the same day meaning I only have to travel to college once a week."
Deciding to live at home in Longford during the semester, he agreed that there are many benefits - not having to pay rent or cook for example. "I enjoy living at home and there are obviously many benefits like not having to pay rent, I rarely need to cook thanks to my wonderful mother and due to all the lectures being online it is easy to catch up on material I’ve missed."
Saying that it's definitely easier to relax at home where it doesn't feel like a "studying environment", he's finding the social side of things particularly tough. "The fact you aren’t meeting with your friends means it's much harder to work through group projects and assignments. I didn’t realise how important talking to peers and having someone to bounce ideas off was until studying from home."
Top of his list of grievances though is the workload. "The number one disadvantage to studying during Covid is the workload. I understand the workload for my course would have been large under normal circumstances, but now there are no final exams which means that all of the module grades must be assessed during the 12-week term.
"The way most of my modules have dealt with this problem is by creating more assignments. On top of an already challenging workload, this makes studying a time management problem where you can only get a limited amount of work submitted no matter how clever you are. I have often submitted assignments knowing I left marks behind but there are quicker marks in other places."
Three different experiences, each proving that - as with most everything else this year - College in the Covid age is unchartered waters.