When Covid-19 reached Ireland in March, I and thousands of other students found ourselves grappling with wholly unexpected ways of attending lectures, preparing for exams and researching essays. I was forced to move from Dublin back to Cork and relinquished much of the independence and identity that came with living away from home. I said abrupt goodbyes to my friends at Trinity College, not realising that my only interaction with them over the coming months would be online. My third-level experience went from one defined by face-to-face engagement to a far lonelier existence.
I study English literature, so much of my degree is spent reading alone in the library. I thought that because I was so accustomed to solitary, self-directed learning, the lockdown would have little impact on my studies. I assumed that because my generation is used to navigating the complexities of social media, I would adapt easily to online teaching. I look back now and want to laugh at my naivety. Where my days had been punctuated by trips to the library, lectures, coffee breaks, social events and part-time jobs, I now sat at home attempting to create routine and structure. The fact I didn't need to leave my bedroom to attend classes meant that the boundaries between academic work and relaxation crumbled.
Most of my time in lockdown was spent staring at a screen - attending seminars, reading e-books, video-calling friends - and it became difficult not to feel overwhelmed by the online world. Despite the power of the internet to foster community and connection, online learning sometimes triggered isolation and disengagement. Even in video seminars - where I saw the faces of my classmates and contributed to discussions and debates - I maintained a subconscious awareness that I was sitting alone in my bedroom, speaking aloud to myself.
When I ponder the return to Trinity in September, I try to feel optimistic. I know that some - potentially all - of my lectures will be online. I realise that I won't be able to casually go for a pint with friends in the way we used to, or dance at a crowded college ball. The tribulations of the past few months, however, mean that I now feel much more mentally prepared for this new 'normal'.
Although my initial experience of attending university online was at times difficult and draining, I watched staff members test innovative ways of teaching that enabled me to engage more robustly in certain subject areas. I saw how beneficial it was for students with disabilities, students who are parents and students who are carers to attend classes remotely. I realised that online learning is not an 'all or nothing' approach but a system that third-level institutions can adapt to suit students' needs.
As I head into the final year of my undergraduate degree, I am hopeful. The coronavirus crisis taught me the importance of routinely contacting friends and appreciating the lecturers who worked throughout lockdown. It would be futile to dwell on the social events and occasions I could have enjoyed in a world free of Covid-19. Instead, I am committed to carving out small spaces of community, online and in-person, while viewing this new way of life as one ripe with both challenges and opportunities.