On Friday 25 September, I decided to leave my halls of residence at Edinburgh University. One minute my new friends and I were enjoying the freedom of freshers, the next I was told halls were going to be on lockdown and I would be unable to leave my room for two weeks.
The confusion that then overcame the halls was overwhelming. Students were running around with panic-packed bags, trying to find somewhere to escape their impending isolation. Hysterical students were booking Airbnbs and even more hysterical parents were coming to pick up their children. The police descended upon our halls to control the mass panic. They questioned the students about where they were staying and patiently dispersed large groups.
Perhaps I should have seen it coming. Upon arrival 11 days previously, as I was being led through my corridor, I noticed brown bags of food outside some people’s doors; the international students who had to isolate were confined to their room, without the freedom to exercise. I found it deeply distressing to hear rumours about the way some people had been living. For example, someone didn’t receive food for days, and some people with allergens were not catered for. All I could keep thinking was the toll on the mental state of these people. We were all afraid of having to go through the same ordeal.
My first few weeks at university have been overwhelming and confusing. I had no idea what to expect. I was handed cutlery poach – it looks like a pencil case – that I had to take to every meal, the benches around the halls were all gone, and the canteen resembled an exam hall. Police patrolling around halls was a regular sight.
Usually, Freshers Week revolves around what club event everyone will be going to that night or what societies we are all planning to enrol in. However, this year the main concern was whether something would be shut down or saying to someone on Zoom, “Sorry you’ve frozen, I can’t hear you” or trying to book a table at Pear Tree (the local student bar) for a maximum of six people. This made making friends stressful, as every night there was anxiety about whether you would be invited onto a table.
Although, many of us believe we have been able to create some stronger friendships. Without the drunken nights out, we had more of an opportunity to be able to properly speak to new people and make some quality friends. Climbing up Arthur’s Seat, going to the beach or having lunch in The Meadows have become regular activities for us all. However, I do admit that I miss having a boogie on the dance floor!
In the past, breakfast and dinner were social occasions where people would reminisce about the night before and have as many helpings as they want. Now, mealtimes have almost become a chore: remembering my mask and cutlery before entering the dining hall; queueing two metres apart and standing outside in the cold for almost half an hour. Staff serve our food, and then I have to follow the one-way system to my singular table, spaced apart like an exam hall, everyone facing the same direction. The atmosphere is almost oppressive and I want to be in and out of there as quickly as possible.
The work has been another difficult aspect. Some people have simply been unable to attend lectures and tutorials as their wifi doesn’t work. On the first morning, lectures were supposed to start, the online system crashed.
Everyone went into a panic, as we were all anxious about missing the first introductory lecture as well as other important information. The lack of face to face contact has made me feel isolated from the university, as I find it difficult to engage in discussions through a computer screen and I feel like I am getting a lot less out of my tutorials then I would have done.
The university is aware of the fact that it’s difficult to work during these times. Finding the motivation is hard as my headspace is so confused. Having to always be on edge and not knowing what is going on from day to day. The professors have been very understanding and have prioritised our mental and physical wellbeing over our academic studies. If I got Covid, for example, I am not forced to attend the online tutorials. Tutors are fully aware of the extremity of the situation and the university has provided support of people to speak to if you are feeling overwhelmed.
But two weeks into the semester, despite my worries about being separated from my friends, everything got too much. Lockdown was announced for various corridors, excluding mine. However, I decided to escape the halls in case it happened to mine too by staying at a friend’s house in Scotland. (I took a test straight away and was negative.) The countryside was a blessing after the chaotic few weeks. It was a time to rest and work out what we were going to do next.
However, I did not want to feel disconnected from the university and student life. Six days later, I came back to an Airbnb accommodation in Edinburgh, which has allowed me to still be in the city and live some sort of student life. Avoiding going home and living with my parents is my priority as I want to gain a greater sense of independence away from home.
It’s a very fast moving situation. After first minister Nicola Sturgeon announced the closure of pubs and restaurants, lots of people wanted to go home, which would make the atmosphere even more eerie around the city and especially in the halls of residence.
I’m considering my options now. This includes moving into a flat with some friends, or moving back into halls, as I hear more and more students are returning. I have heard that the university is allowing people to get a refund for the first semester which has massively increased my flexibility.
My story sounds unusual, but unfortunately, it’s not. We students have a very uncertain future.