“Even this week, I have no idea what we’re doing for online lectures.”
Maria’s words reflect the huge sense of uncertainty for those starting university this year: fresh faced, but disappointed in the online format. Online uni and the unpredictable nature of COVID makes many uni students nervous. But for first-years starting a brand new chapter of their lives this week, this is especially true.
That’s not to say that the students interviewed didn’t agree with the lockdown. They felt that it was important to keep us safe. However, it’s easy for second-year and above students to forget how disorientating the first year is, even without the pandemic.
The shift from secondary to tertiary education can be a big one. Even without online formats, there’s a big change in the way content is taught. For those starting this year, amidst the uncertainty of COVID, the beginning of uni is an increasingly disorientating time.
With the mini lockdown last week, faculty orientations were shifted online. Full days of exploring the campus, meeting new people and getting familiar with uni life was condensed into two hour Zoom meetings. There were mixed reviews on this format.
Maria, who moved into halls, was glad to have been able to have the social aspect of O-Week during Levels One and Two, but found “more of the actual, learning about your degree was a bit harder because it was on Zoom calls.”
Even though orientation usually marks an initiation, this year, students didn’t feel this way. “We didn’t get the sense that we were actually starting uni,” Joe said. “Just another call on Zoom. [It] didn’t really get to us.”
For international students and students from out of Auckland, the online orientations were a missed opportunity to see the sights. Sophie, who recently came out of managed isolation after flying in from Australia, voiced her disappointments. “I really would have loved to go and see the campus, because I hadn’t been to Auckland before. So I’d never seen the University,” she said, “so obviously, it being online was a bit upsetting.”
Students had to use their own initiative to find resources. For those in halls, it was only a short trek onto campus. But for students not living in central, there was only a sliver of opportunity before Level Three struck again. Mason, who lives on the North Shore, was supposed to visit campus and buy textbooks the day before University started. The change in alert levels means that he hasn’t been able to do this.
Being surrounded by people in the same boat at halls kept the students updated. Maria admitted that “it helped having other people in halls who were more onto it than me” when completing the DELNA and Academic Integrity Test. All the interviewed students living in University accommodation said they visited campus to get their bearings.
For those looking for more support, AUSA mentioned a range that the University is offering, from financial grants to providing loan devices and study spaces for students who cannot study at home. Additionally, orientation events are being delayed until Alert Level One, which means that these students might have another chance at a first week on campus.
For the students interviewed, however, the more subtle issues were plaguing them. In terms of textbooks and course material, first-years were either unsure of what they needed, or didn’t get access to them in time for the second lockdown of the year.
Maria said, “We’ve been put in a situation where I already know that on Zoom calls, they’re going to say ‘oh bring out your books’ and we’re going to have nothing. Because people don’t even know where the bookstore is.”
However, Sophie mentioned that some professors are understanding of the fact that some students won’t be as prepared as others. She said, “For one of my classes, the lecturers put the first chapter on Canvas so that we can read it on there.”
The sudden switch to online learning has brought mixed responses from lecturers, though students understood that moving online posed its own challenges for staff. For some classes, lecturers and course coordinators have been quick to email information about how online learning was to ensue. For other classes, not so much. For one of her classes, Sophie “still hasn’t [heard] from [lecturers] about tutorials, lectures, anything. They haven’t sent any messages.” (Editor’s Note: Please note, this doesn’t reflect Sophie’s current situation as she was contacted much earlier.)
Even within faculties, students had different understandings of their course. Two engineering students, Luke and Joe, had conflicting responses the night before class was to start.
When I asked if he knew what was going to happen the next day, Luke casually said, “Yeah, yeah, I know what I’m doing.” On the other hand, Joe said, “We haven’t even been getting that many emails from professors. So we know the lectures are supposed to be tomorrow, but how are we like, what are we meant to do in them?”
This emotional strain extended beyond admin and academics. The altered online experience of first year was disappointing to many. Mason said, “I was getting all excited for next week because that’s when everything happens, you’ll meet people and go to different events. But now we can’t.” For those living away from other students, the lockdown can therefore feel isolating.
For students living at the halls, this lockdown has seen many Aucklanders going back home to their families. Sophie said, “I think for me the hardest part has been that a lot of my peers… have gone home to their families during this period,” however, “I don’t have that option. I have to stay here because I can’t get back to Australia.”
The general feeling of the first-year students was a yearn to be on campus to begin their university routine. Even the easy-going Luke said, “I’d rather it be in person, but I guess it’s out of our control.”
Despite the uneasiness, the students also had an understanding of the importance of keeping safe in the COVID climate.
Sophie wished the orientations were in person, but was empathetic: “I can’t critique the University for that because they took it as a precaution. It would have been too chaotic to change last minute.”
In regards to online learning, Maria said, “obviously we are doing it for COVID and I completely understand it, but in terms of settling for students, it’s really hard.”
Joe sums up the situation for many doing online learning, not only for first-years: “From my past experience, like last year, online learning does get the content across. It just doesn’t have the human qualities, like asking your teacher and hanging out with your mates. It’s almost dystopian in a way.”
For those looking for extra support and resources, Student Support can be found at https://www.auckland.ac.nz/en/on-campus/student-support.html.