First Year of University during COVID

By Stephanie, 20, London, UK 

Thinking about first year of university conjures images of meeting a host of new friends, partying and a very busy lifestyle. Especially for me, moving to a new city and country, I expected to experience completely new lifestyle and surroundings. Yet within days of arriving in my university residence, I realized this would not be the case.

My first two weeks of university began in quarantine, after arriving in Montreal, Canada from the UK. The apprehension was certainly present yet spending two weeks with your own thoughts made me excited to go back out into the world and start my experience at McGill university. However, upon arriving at my residence and realizing common areas would be closed as well as a one guest policy in each room, my excitement waned quite dramatically. An online freshers’ week, which included events such as an online treasure hunt and awkward ice breaker activities on Zoom didn’t help my enthusiasm. For a short time, I was able to explore the city with bars and restaurants open with COVID kept at bay, but along with much of the rest of the world, Montreal closed its doors for winter as the second wave began to hit. As COVID cases appeared in my residence, I suddenly found myself in two weeks isolation, which was a major challenge for me along with many others.

Travel restrictions meant that only Canadians and Americans could attend McGill in person for the first semester, as other international students were awaiting travel visas, put on hold by the Canadian government. For me, who holds a Canadian passport but has lived in England all my life, this was a bit of shock to the system. I knew the university was known for large percentage of international students from all over, yet COVID restrictions really changed the demographic. For a part of first semester, my residence was almost primarily North American which was certainly daunting. Yet in some ways, I was thrown in the deep end, having to quickly adapt and learn some new slang!

Second semester brought many new international students but also a wave of evictions for many students living in residence, as COVID policies became stricter and students were kicked out with a day’s notice for offences such as having an extra guest in their room. Another wave of students decided to move out of residences voluntarily, as the lack of socializing didn’t quite warrant the high rent prices. There were lots of changes and uncertainty. I accepted the situation was far from ideal and living in a city with an 8pm curfew was not normal university life. Yet COVID life became the new normal and I found ways to still enjoy myself, explore the city and even meet some new people. Although Zoom classes became a bit of a chore and I lost some genuine interest in my studies, it did allow me to plan my own schedule and take class from anywhere.

Perhaps there was some value in a first-year university experience not focused on usual habits of going out and interacting with large groups of people. Sharing hardships and disappointment with others created genuine bonds, that may not have been formed during nights out together that generally blur in memory. There were points of low mental health for many, which was not remedied by the university; instead students turned to each other.

My university experience so far has not been stereotypical but compared to my feelings in the initial first few days, my expectations were exceeded.

Generally, amongst my university peers, there is a feeling of hope for the future. With increasing vaccine rollout, we can accept that our expected university experience has not been denied, but instead delayed. Especially as a young person, time seems precious and missing out on a whole year of experiences seems devasting. Yet first-year university students can still hopefully look ahead to two or three COVID free years ahead. 

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