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Being a Uni Student During a Pandemic

Writing by Juliette Salom // photograph by Christin Hume

My silhouette is grey. I’m kind of like a faceless ghost with super defined ears and without hair. I don’t move when I talk. I don’t blush with embarrassment when I stumble over my words, nor show a smile when I force a laugh. Everyone else here looks like me, probably for the same reasons I look like this. We’re kids in our twenties or our teens or our adulthood, and we’d all prefer to look ghostly than reveal we’re doing class in our pyjamas.

The start of 2020 felt like to me, as it did to many of us hopeless romantics of self-optimalisation, that it would be my year. Starting a new degree at a new university, the change of scenery and change of mind was a fresh start I thoroughly welcomed, if not craved. But, like many of us who started new jobs and new courses and new adventures, the newness of our fresh starts in 2020 was a novelty that died a quick and hard death.

The real novelty of 2020 became apparent pretty quickly. It was the one that made us stay home for these new projects, the one that sent international friends away and sent smiles hiding under masks. For those of us whom were adamant to stick with our education whilst the world as we knew it crumbled outside our homes, this new novelty of global catastrophe in the guise of a virus sent us to our screens.

Any intention I had of finding university best friends that would save me a spot in class and compliment me on the cute cardigan I planned to wear my first day on campus was upstaged by a little thing called coronavirus. Miss ‘Rona waltzed in and danced around and decided it was fine to cancel the archery club and the pub crawls and the movie nights, and all the other sorts of things first year students look forward to doing at uni, including actually sitting in the same classroom as their peers. Instead, we got Zoom-boxes and waning internet connections, family members yelling in the backgrounds of tutorials and pets farting in the backgrounds of lectures.

Given the choice I probably wouldn’t have signed up for the archery club, or voluntarily participated in a drunken Literature Students pub crawl, but that’s kind of the point: there is no choice. I’ve had the first-year-of-university experience before, having started another course at a different institution prior to Miss ‘Rona’s arrival, so I’m lucky enough to already understand how university and all its assignments and classes and submission tasks work. But having the naively excited title of First Year University Student, also known as being a JAFFY in Australia (stands for Just Another Fucking First Year – I know, classy), is a title helmed and heralded by all of those who came before us.

Being at university for the first year of every course isn’t just about figuring out the assignments and timetables and where the cleanest toilet in Building C is. The banalities of finding classrooms and forgetting your tutors’ names are banalities I’m not too mad about leaving at the wayside until we’re allowed back into the classroom. It’s all the other fodder in-between these banalities that university is an opportunity for, the social glue of the experience that is going to school that sticks all the boring lectures and terrible assignments together. I’m almost two years into my degree and have no university best friends to call my own, nor have I worn that cute cardigan once since I bought it in February of 2020. And it’s kind of hard to save a seat for a peer when the classroom exists exclusively online.

Having been thrust into (yet again) another Melbourne lockdown in Victoria, and one that feels like it has no end in sight, it’s starting to seem that my university experience will be one completed within the four walls of my bedroom. The thought of holding a certificate of education in front of my laptop webcam at a virtual graduation ceremony, having not ever stepped one foot inside the campus of the university I am graduating from, is a thought heavy with the weight of disappointment for unfulfilled adventure.

It saddens me that I can’t count on one hand the names of classmates I remember, and it saddens me that most of my lecturers, if not all, wouldn’t be able to pick me out of a line-up. I’ve never had a beer at the university bar, nor told the girl I sit next to that I like her jacket. It’s all the little moments, the small human interactions in-between lecture halls and cafeterias that remind me that I’m not the only one feeling a little lost at university, and it’s these moments that I’m grieving.

The tunnel that is my university education has little light left at the end of it. Although a year from now seems an awful while away to get this country vaccinated and get this city out of perpetual lockdowns, surviving through our sixth lockdown right now kind of dispels any hope I’ve salvaged from the last five. My brain and my body are both beginning to understand that this, curfews and masks and only seeing human people on a screen, is normal.

When, if ever, university does resume classes on campus, it’s going to require a lot more of me than I was ready to give in 2020. Whilst sporting a cute cardigan and saying hi to the first person I sit next to in class were simple baby steps to take on that daunting first day of my new degree, I know every moment this time around will be only amplified; baby steps at the start of last year now seem comparable to the leaps of giants.

The idea of university, of being in the classroom and actually being able to see the faces of the people who are talking, is nevertheless one that still appeals to me. But, like transitioning into a life of lockdown and virtual versions of everything was difficult and frustrating, I imagine transitioning back into a life of small freedoms and real-life versions of everything will be a little scary and overwhelming.

Being online for my university course over the past eighteen months has undeniably been a pain in the ass. I’m excited to get back into the classroom, even if hesitantly so, because I understand the transition period of learning how to ask questions in class and find my way around infinite concrete buildings that all look the same is going to be worth it for all those little human interactions I get to experience in-between. I’m excited for a peer to smile at me in the hallway, for a tutor to remember my name, to brush off the dust and wear that cute cardigan.

I’m excited, admittedly, to be a little scared for my first day, packing my bag and taking the train and knowing what it feels like again for it to be my first day of school. Knowing what it feels like again for it to be my first day of something. I’m excited for a fresh start, for a new beginning. Maybe it’s still a little while away, and maybe it’s wishful thinking to hope to be back in the classroom by 2022, but either way, I’ll try and be ready. Scared, nervous, but ready.

Juliette Salom

Juliette Salom is a 22-year-old writer from Naarm/Melbourne. She loves watching movies, reading books and going for long walks around the park so she can pat all the cute doggos. Juliette is currently studying Creative Writing and has dabbled in poetry, non-fiction, fiction and screenwriting.

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