By Surnaí Molloy
At the end of September 2020, I naively believed that online learning would make my Final Year easier than any other. This, needless to say, did not prove to be true. Now, in March 2021, after three months of headaches and eye pain, an optometrist has recommended I get glasses. Despite perfect vision, my eyes were strained too much by my study routine; this is only one of many strains that study during lockdown caused.
The college experience has been stripped of all that made it enjoyable. It has been reduced to a bare and daunting workload, with nothing at all – no friends, no study in cafes, no weekends at home – to soften it. As a student in Arts, I have often felt afflicted by anonymity. At most, my lecturers may have vaguely recognized my face. But now, I am not even a face to them – I am no more than my student number. An entire semester went by without me physically speaking to anyone within NUIG. I have no reason to assume this semester will be different.
Every single email from NUIG acknowledges how difficult the situation is. Yet NUIG stoically evades making it any easier. The emails urge students to rest, exercise, remain healthy. These emails are difficult and frustrating to read; the workload and schedule given makes a healthy lifestyle nearly impossible.
Last semester was hard. It was lockdown in the heart of winter, and winter is difficult in normal circumstances. Confined within a lonely room, work was squashed between sunrise and sunset; a very narrow margin. Mental health, physical health and academic success had to be – still has to be – juggled, at least one always sacrificed. Despite this impossible situation, there was no help. One of my modules generously included a “pandemic point” to help achieve a good grade in trying times: one single percent.
When the pandemic first began, I was on an exchange in Canada. When all courses were moved online and there was huge disruption in students’ lives – for example, having to move country with three days’ notice -, the Canadian University responded by making exams optional. Continuous assessment could count for 100%. The University had been criticized in the past for its attitude towards mental health, but after a number of suicides on campus, it made mental health its top priority and this was the result.
Not only did NUIG not cancel exams, it placed them after Christmas. After a year of fractured plans, strained optimism, isolation, uncertainty, insecurity and fear – how could NUIG take away our Christmas?
A few days of catching up on sleep and blearily celebrating the end of the darkest time of year was all I had before re-entering the stifling and suffocating routine needed to submit three essays and sit four exams.
The exams themselves were lonely and without relief. No celebration afterwards, no camaraderie. No ability to simply raise one’s hand if something goes wrong. My first exam stalled. Another was delayed five minutes by a malfunction in the exam’s availability. It was fixed, five minutes were not given back to us, and there was no recompense for the cold sweat and panic it caused.
I can speak only from my own experience. Other students in different courses may have felt more support. Having said that, I am also conscious of how lucky I have been. I have had many supports independent of the University that have made this year manageable. In particular, I have already established Galway as my home and I am living with friends. For anyone in harder circumstances, I have very deep compassion.
It should be said that none of the lecturers were explicitly unkind. Many were warm and thoughtful. But none reached out to me personally. How could they? I am one student in a class of over a hundred. The system itself does not provide an opportunity to give support. I know from speaking to friends that there has been a sense of “drowning”. Of being locked within one’s own head; one’s own room. There is no distinction between work-life and home-life, and nothing to alleviate the stress and claustrophobia. It takes a huge effort to plough through this sediment of University experience.
It seems incredible to me that NUIG has not put more effort into supporting its students. All I ask for is time. Time to do the things needed to maintain mental and physical health. Less work, less stress, less pressure. A “pandemic point” counting for more than one percent: try twenty. Reassurance that this pandemic won’t undermine four years of work. Compassion that rings true. But at this point in the year, I do not expect anything more than hollow sympathy from the University. All I can trust is that spring will make it easier