Students in Northern Ireland are experiencing a crisis under current COVID conditions as they struggle to deal with the pandemic whilst also managing their university work. One of the key problems is the factor of isolation as the current crop of university students are finding themselves almost imprisoned against their will as they try to work from home and struggle through these testing times. One only has to glance at social media in order to see the struggles that students are facing as pages are dedicated to suffering student teachers who are trying to operate classrooms via Zoom, as well as other visual pieces of evidence such us as the video on Facebook which shows a young girl weeping and who is thoroughly distraught and is struggling badly with the pressures of university work and the COVID-19 restrictions as she feels the support is lacking and the workload is overwhelming. Issues like this, coupled with mandatory physical distancing measures and reductions on social gatherings have left many students feeling disconnected from their home campuses where support and services are regularly available. Interviews with a number of current undergraduates was conducted to see their viewpoints on these testing times and how they are coping with the challenges COVID has thrust in their path. The first student was a 22-year-old marketing and communications student called Maria. She explained the pitfalls of having to work on her own, on a laptop from home as thousands of students were doing in an attempt to gain a reputable degree classification. She notified me of the issues that this pandemic has brought up as she stated that “being trapped in your home or maybe even your room (if you are isolating) can play with your mind. It is also difficult to maintain motivation and sufficient concentration when there is no guidance or a presence of lecturers or students to keep you on track.” She went on to say that “group projects were the worst. Having to communicate via skype calls where there was often connection issues or absences made the whole process unenjoyable and stressful. There was also the fact that sessions were most of the time recorded and threw up temptations to be lazy or skip class and watch it later.” An approach that no doubt would cause a laissez-faire attitude to manifest itself within student communities, which makes the workload all the more difficult for lecturers and learners alike.
The ‘Disability and Well-being Drop in’ of Queens University revealed the sorts of issues students were ringing this support service about. Many were trying to come to terms with the fact that there is no peer on peer support, as well as contend with the motivational impact of remote learning and the financial strain of not being able to work part-time and support themselves through this crisis. Complaints about feeling anxious crop up time and again ‘with almost every call’, according to the Queen’s employee as students are not sure when this testing period will subside and so live in constant fear and doubt. Another question to answer would be what were the coping mechanisms that someone could employ to help overcome the barriers of isolation and high stress. Maria said that “it is important to take breaks, and occupy yourself with something you are passionate about, for me it was playing the keyboard and painting. Try to communicate with family and friends whenever you can either by telephone or video chat, in order to break the cycle of working, eating and sleeping alone. The next interviewee was a 19-year-old Adult Nursing student. She said to me that “I thrive on organisation, but with everything that is going on at the moment, there is no timetabled hours and so my schedule becomes chaotic and it feels like there is no structured environment to use as a platform for my education. This is what I have been used to all through my learning years, and to then have to rely on bursts of information here and there isn’t helping with the process of absorbing key details and becoming more aware of what needs to be done and how.” Leah attends a number of placements throughout the year, and claims that whilst the first placement that took place in October was relatively calm as COVID fears were diminishing, she now feels that with this next placement it will be like entering “a war zone.” This hectic university situation would seem to impact students like Leah most of all, as the nurses that are supposed to be teaching them are caught up in the whirlwind of record COVID cases, and are therefore struggling to balance their primary focus with being educators. Indeed, there seems to be almost endless problems that students have to face, as well as lecturers, when it comes to
providing a solid degree education that will set students up for the future.
COVID-19 has without doubt touched every single avenue of learning, from marketing and nursing to more technological pursuits like computing, which was the subject that Ross was studying. He stated that “this was supposed to be my placement year but was postponed because of COVID. My degree is very technical, and I have to work on a number of advanced software programmes that I haven’t heard of before and this adds to the strain and pressure of this course as it is difficult to reach out for help when you are restricted to zoom calls and a lack of face to face communication.” Indeed, a recent article by the Guardian claimed that UK students are ‘broken and defeated’ by the predicament they find themselves in, and the emblazoned slogan of ‘9k for what?’ is making its way around the buildings of various universities across Britain.
It is difficult to play the blame game when it comes to university students struggling as COVID caught everyone off guard. However, what we do know is that students are suffering, and suffering badly. It can then, only be hoped that they can equip themselves with the necessary coping skills to combat this challenging period, and come out with degrees during a time in which teaching is very much stretched to its limits.